Exercise Nutrition: What to Eat Before + After a Workout

You’ve just finished a great workout. It could have been a long run, it could have been a good session on the Olympic weight rack.  Whatever it was, you’re feeling awesome and proud of yourself for pushing through.

Whatever your workout goals are, whatever your health dreams may be, in order to achieve the desired end results AND keep yourself energized throughout a workout, you need the right nutrition before and after.  And what you eat depends on the type of exercise you’re doing.

Let’s Talk Cardio

Cardio means a lot of things to different people.  So, for the purposes of this article, cardio is defined as steady state low to moderate intensity exercise.  This includes running or jogging, walking, upright bikes and ellipticals.

Cardio exercise uses your aerobic energy system.  Oxygen is taken in to help your body use circulating and stored glucose for energy during the workouts.  This energy will first come from the bloodstream, muscles and liver, and then may be drawn from fat cells.

However, the conversion of energy from fat cells isn’t easy and isn’t quick, so cardio isn’t the best form of exercise to lose fat.  You would need to run for hours a day in order to really see results.

And, because cardio doesn’t really help with fat loss, it’s best to stick to one to two 20- to 40-minute cardio sessions per week, maximum.

Fueling a Cardio Workout

The aerobic energy system likes quick energy so before a run or bicycle ride, foods higher in complex carbohydrates are a good choice.

Choose healthy complex carbs such as berries, oatmeal, whole grain bread or sweet potato prior to doing cardio exercises.

There is no one-size-fits-all rule to eating before a workout, either.  My biggest piece of advice is to listen to your body to see how it feels about eating before a workout.

You have a few options:  Eat a decent meal 1-2 hours before your cardio session.  Eat a smaller snack 30 – 60 minutes before the workout.  OR, don’t eat at all, which is typical for a lot of early morning exercisers.    Do what works best for your body.

Fueling Up After a Workout

Post-workout meals are super important.  Always drink 1-2 glasses of water immediately after a cardio session because you usually lose a lot of water through sweat and breathing.  Skip electrolyte drinks and Gatorade because they won’t give you any benefit.  Instead, drink plain filtered water.

If you feel you need more electrolytes, choose coconut water or add a bit of Himalayan pink salt and fresh lemon juice to your water.

Good post-workout snacks after cardio sessions are ones rich in potassium and fibre.  Potassium replenishes lost electrolytes and fibre ensures that the carbs are broken down slowly to prevent insulin spikes that lead to weight gain.

Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and even plain Greek yogurt are good choices.

Strength and Resistance Training Nutrition

Lean muscle is metabolically active.  The more lean muscle you have, the more calories and energy will be burned between workouts.  For women looking to lose fat, these are the best types of workouts.

Because you can quickly ‘hit the wall’ during strength sessions, especially lifting heavy weights, it’s important to understand how to best fuel your body before and after a workout.

Fueling a Strength Session

Because your body is going to quickly use up stored energy during the anaerobic energy cycle, make sure you consume some complex carbs before you hit the weights too.  This helps prevent muscle wasting.

A good pre-workout meal or snack should include lean protein from a healthy source.  Plant-based protein powders along with fresh berries and low-carb vegetables like spinach are a good option.  Use non-dairy milks or coconut water in pre-workouts smoothies, or enjoy a couple of hard-boiled eggs with a piece of whole grain toast and nut butter.

It’s best to choose low-carb options with lots of fibre prior to a strength workout because they digest slowly, providing your body with energy throughout the entire workout.  This helps you stay strong, push through and avoid that dreaded wall that can happen when you run out of energy.

Post-Workout Fuel for Strength and HIIT

Lifting heavy weights or doing HIIT workouts generally puts more strain on your muscles.  Muscle fibres are stretched and torn to build strength and power, so your post-workout snacks should include a good amount of protein.

A protein shake helps to quickly get amino acids into your body for muscle building rather than for fat storage.  Always eat within 2 hours of a strength training session too.

If you hit that wall during the workout, this means you used up all your glycogen stores.  Some complex carbs can also be eating after a strength session to rebuild those, but remember, it doesn’t take a lot of carbs to refill your tank.  Stick to a meal or snack that’s no more than 50 grams of carbs and focus more on healthy fats and protein at this time.

A word of caution

Don’t get sucked into the promises of sports drinks or power bars.  These are usually way too high in sugar and other sabotaging ingredients for the average person.  Be wary of fitness program-inspired protein shakes and other supplements and always read the ingredients vary carefully.

If you’re looking to slim down and your protein powder contains whey or casein AND you’re not seeing the results, it could be time to switch up the type of protein.  Whey and casein are known to be quickly absorbed, but they’re not always the best type of protein for a lot of women.  Being dairy-based, they could promote inflammation.  This is where plant-based proteins come in, preferably fermented ones.  They absorb quickly and rarely caused bloating or inflammation.

What about chocolate milk?

You’ve probably seen fitness magazines and instructors say that chocolate milk is the best post-workout snack.  This is not true for many reasons.

Chocolate milk is obviously made from dairy, a pro-inflammatory food for most people.  This means that it will trigger an immune response and increase inflammation, leading to spiked cortisol (your stress hormone) and that overall feeling of puffiness.  Cortisol is proven to lead to fat storage, especially around the belly.

Chocolate milk is also pretty high in sugars.  Increased sugar consumption can cause blood sugar spikes that lead to insulin resistance.  Ultimately, this causes sugar cravings later on AND can cause fat storage.  Insulin’s job is to remove sugar from the blood to be used as energy, and the muscles and liver can only handle so much at a time…the rest gets stored as fat.

So, skip the chocolate milk post-workout and choose dairy-free, plant-based protein shakes mixed with fresh fruit, spinach and a bit of healthy fat (like avocado or ground flaxseed).

The key to fat loss is balanced blood sugar, so stick to this type of snack after a workout for best results and long-term success.

What About Post-Workout Supplements

Besides a good quality plant-based protein powder, there are a few other post-workout supplements you may want to look into.  I find that some of these really help boost my recovery faster and help keep me energized all day long, so test them out for yourself.

Collagen Peptides

Collagen is generally taken to prevent aging.  It helps keep your skin, nails and hair healthy, plus it replenishes nutrients your joints need to stay strong.  Adding a scoop of collagen to your post-workout smoothie can give your muscles, tendons and cartilage a bit of a health boost to keep them strong.  I find this helps prevent knee aches and pains after running and it helps boost recovery and repair of muscles so I get less soreness a day or two later.

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

These are a few of the most important amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that your body needs, and adding BCAAs to your protein shake can help you recover quicker.  Personally, I’ve found that they improve my energy post-workout, especially when I’ve hit that wall during a strength and circuit session.

Tart Cherry Juice

Aside from helping relieve symptoms of gout, tart cherry juice has been used to speed up recovery for decades.  While I’ve never used this myself, a lot of athletes use this to help repair muscles and reduce fatigue after intense workouts.

Juice from tart cherries still contains a lot of carbohydrates so keep this in mind if you choose to use it.  It can also lead to blood sugar spikes and insulin insensitivity, preventing weight loss.

Maca Powder

Exercise spikes cortisol, our main stress hormone.  Many women struggle to control cortisol because we lead hectic, stressful lives.  So, I like to add maca powder to my post-workout smoothie to help rebalance my hormones and reduce the negative effects of cortisol (i.e. belly fat).

Maca powder is an adrenal adaptogen, which means it helps normalize your adrenals and stress response in the right direction.  When your adrenals are overactive (like after exercise), maca helps bring them back down.  When you are exhausted and dealing with adrenal fatigue, maca improves your energy. 

Conclusion

It can be confusing to know what to eat before or after a workout.  Generally speaking, if you’re doing cardio, choose complex carbs both before and after, and add a bit of protein to your post-workout meal or snack.

For strength training or HIIT workouts, focus more on protein and include some complex carbs.  Healthy fats are good too, especially avocados for their fibre content.

Exercise supplements are all the rage but many, including sports drinks, protein powders and chocolate milk, are really high in sugars.  Sugars, as we know, spike fat storage over time and counteract the hard work you’ve put into your workouts.  Avoid pro-inflammatory dairy-based smoothies, snacks and protein powders and opt for anti-inflammatory plant-based ones instead.


Recipe: Very Cherry Recovery Smoothie

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup of non-dairy milk of choice
  • 1 scoop vanilla protein powder of choice (unsweetened, less processed)
  • 1 handful of fresh or frozen tart cherries (frozen will have a thicker consistency)
  • 1-2 tbsp of chia seeds or hemp hearts
  • 1 handful of greens (spinach or baby kale work well here)
  • 2-3 ice cubes (more if you’ve used fresh cherries)

Blend, enjoy and watch those muscles grow!


REFERENCES

LiveStrong: Post Workout Carb-Protein Ratio

The Washington Post: The Best Way To Eat Before & After Exercise

CBC.ca: Sports Drinks Unnecessary, Counterproductive For Most People

https://www.shape.com/healthy-eating/diet-tips/guide-to-pre-post-workout-supplements

 

 

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Daina Gardiner
Daina Gardiner

Health & Wellness Contributor (C.H.N.), Owner at Mind Body Healthy Calgary