If you’re putting in the time hitting the pavement or going to the gym, you likely want to get the best possible return on your exercise investment. Hydration and nutrition are both crucial factors for getting the best results from your workout.
First things first–water! Make sure you’re properly hydrated if you want to build muscle and crush your workout.
Before we get into what to eat before exercising, let’s talk about the benefits of not eating anything pre-workout or ‘fasted exercise.’ When you workout while fasting, like first thing in the morning before breakfast, it activates your sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Since your body’s fat burning processes are controlled by your SNS, fasted exercise forces the breakdown of fat and glycogen for energy. Studies have shown that fasting before aerobic training leads to reductions in both body weight and body fat.
Seems like we should all be exercising on an empty stomach, right? Not so fast.
There are a variety of factors that play a role in whether it’s suitable for an individual to exercise while fasting, such as age, pregnancy, medications, medical history, hormone imbalances, level of fitness, etc. I believe the best approach is to listen to your body! Give it a try and see how it goes. If you feel awful (weak, nauseous, lightheaded) during your workout, you may want to eat a small snack or meal before you exercise. See below for some ideas.
What to Eat Before a Workout
If you’re a morning exerciser…
Matcha is high in antioxidants and contains L-theanine, an amino acid that helps to improve focus and mental alertness. Matcha provides prolonged energy without the crash of coffee and has been shown to help the body burn fat. If you workout first thing in the morning, drink matcha about half an hour before exercising to increase endurance, boost metabolism, encourage fat burning and speed up post-workout recovery.
Cordyceps mushroom is an awesome pre-workout energizer. It’s not a stimulant, but instead an adaptogen which supports your adrenal glands and helps your body produce and maintain consistent energy levels. It helps fight fatigue, boosts strength and stamina, can improve exercise performance and expedite recovery from hard workouts. Add ½ teaspoon of cordyceps powder to your matcha, or mix up a Four Sigmatic Cordyceps Hot Cacao or Coffee.
Chia seeds increase energy and give you more endurance power. They’re easy to digest, especially when soaked in almond or coconut milk overnight to make chia pudding. They’re a great source of protein and healthy fat to fuel your workout.
Try this delicious berry smoothie pre-workout. It’s a great combination of protein, fat and low-sugar carbs. I used MCT oil as the healthy fat because medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a special type of fatty acids which are quickly absorbed by the body and efficiently converted to fuel for immediate use. MCTs have been shown to enhance thermogenesis (heat production) in the body, thereby promoting fat burning.
If you’re a lunchtime or evening exerciser…
Ideally, your breakfast (and lunch) contain a good balance of protein, healthy fats and complex carbs that work together to keep you full and energized for 4+ hours. In this case, you may be able to get to that noon (or 5:30pm) workout class without needing to eat anything before since you’ll be eating lunch (or dinner) right after. I recommend tuning into your hunger cues and skipping the pre-workout snack if your body is not truly hungry at that time. If your tummy is growling, you can have a light snack to prevent you from being ravenous and wanting to eat alllll the things when you finish!
Below are some snack options:
- Apple slices or celery sticks with a tablespoon or two of peanut or almond butter
- Carrot sticks with 3 tablespoons of hummus
- 1-2 hard boiled egg(s) with a sprinkle of salt and black pepper
- 1/4 – 1/2 of an avocado spread on a brown rice cake with a sprinkle of sunflower seeds and a pinch of salt
- Small handful of homemade trail mix – my favorite combo is almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, coconut flakes and cacao nibs
- 1 or 2 Chocolate Chia Protein Balls
- Primal Kitchen Collagen Protein Bars
- Grass-fed jerky
- Bulletproof Collagen Protein Bites
What to Eat After a Workout
You may have heard that you should eat some protein and carbs during the “critical window” post-workout. That’s true, but only in some cases.
Here’s the deal: if you’ve had a pre-workout snack/meal, or any other recent meal, there’s no crucial, do-or-die need to eat after your workout–especially if you’re not hungry.
This is particularly true if you have no other workouts planned for the day since your body is able to replenish energy levels within 8 hours of normal eating. But it does make sense to fuel within that 20-60 minute window if you a) haven’t had anything to eat before your workout (such as a fasted morning exercise session) and/or b) you’re going to be working out again within the next 8 hours (this applies to athletes who are training multiple times a day).
Studies show that muscles’ elevated sensitivity to protein lasts at least 24 hours after exercising so whether you have that protein shake straight after your HIIT class or at your next main meal, the muscle protein synthesis will still happen. Don’t worry too much about protein timing–just make sure you’re getting a good amount of protein over the course of the day from a variety of whole food sources.
The daily recommended intake is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight, although protein needs vary based on age, activity level, pregnancy, health conditions, etc. As with everything in life, moderation is key! The Goldilocks principle certainly applies to protein intake: not too much, not too little, just right.
Too little protein can cause wonky blood sugar and loss of lean body mass, while too much can cause your body to convert the protein you’re eating into excess blood sugar through a process called gluconeogenesis. I suggest shooting for between 40 and 70 grams of protein per day, depending on your lean body mass.
Here are some protein-rich meals and snacks to have post-workout:
- Smoothie – 1 scoop of collagen or whey protein powder, a handful of greens, 1/2 cup of berries, 1 tablespoon of almond butter or ½ avocado, almond or coconut milk, plus a dash of cinnamon. Or try this one.
- Veggie stir fry (cooked in coconut oil) with chicken or beef
- Big salad with lots of veggies, chicken or fish and a homemade oil- or nut butter-based salad dressing
- Golden milk latte made with full-fat coconut milk, turmeric, cinnamon and a scoop of collagen
- Bone broth – with abundance of amino acids, bone broth prevents muscle breakdown and increases your metabolism
- 1 or 2 Chocolate Chia Protein Balls
After finishing a cardio workout, your body is more insulin sensitive and carbs are less likely to be shuttled to the liver and converted to fat. Instead, they are likely to end up getting ushered by insulin into the muscles and stored as glycogen.
That said, there may be downsides to consuming insulin-stimulating carbs (like bread, pasta, white rice, sugary sports drinks, etc.) after exercise.
For some people, eating a high carb snack will result in an insulin surge followed by rebound low blood sugar and subsequent stress response (cortisol increase) that can manifest as carb cravings, fatigue, impaired mental performance and suboptimal recovery. Over-stimulation of insulin by high GI carbs also can also throw a wrench in your fat burning efforts by diverting glucose (from the high carb snack) directly to fat storage. This is obviously not conducive to most people’s exercise goals!
With this in mind, I recommend steering clear of refined carbs and sugar and instead getting your carbs from complex, high-fiber, nutrient-dense sources such as starchy veggies, fruit and gluten-free whole grains.
Here are a few post-workout meals and snacks that are a good source of healthy carbs:
- Smoothie – a piece of fruit (i.e. banana), 1 tablespoon almond butter, 1 scoop of protein powder, generous dash of cinnamon and unsweetened almond or coconut milk or try this one
- Half sweet potato drizzled with coconut oil and topped with baked chicken and some leafy greens
- Quinoa fried rice – 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, egg and lots of veggies
- An apple with a tablespoon or two of almond butter or a handful of macadamia nuts
- Raw coconut water (like Harmless Harvest) and a scoop of collagen powder mixed in