Have you ever wondered why you can easily crush your workout some days, but on others you have no energy to spare? It could be related to what and when you’re eating before you hit the gym. In fact, what and when to eat to support a workout plan are some of the most common questions we get from 8fit members, so we’re breaking down how food can impact your performance.
Pre-workout meals: Timing isn’t everything
Can you achieve better results if you eat at certain times? Generally speaking, nutrient timing (eating certain nutrients in certain amounts at a certain time) is not as important as your overall calorie intake and the quality of your food. That said, it all depends on your goals. If you’re trying to lose weight and you’re not spending hours in the gym every day (hopefully you’re not!), you don’t need to worry about pre- and post-workout fuel. Instead, focus on eating well throughout the day, and keep an eye on portion sizes. Simply have breakfast, lunch and dinner at regular times, and work out when it works best for you. Easy enough, right?
On the other hand, if you’re doing long or very intense workouts, or your goal is to gain muscle mass, eating before and after a workout becomes more important. The right nutrition and timing will help prevent muscle mass loss, shorten your recovery time, and give you extra energy.
To carb-load or not to carb-load?
If you’re working toward specific training goals, you should be fueling your workouts accordingly with the right balance of carbs, proteins and fats, both before and after training. The key to finding that balance is keeping in mind that these three macronutrients are metabolized differently – they’re all absorbed by the body at a different pace.
Carbs provide the quickest energy: simple and sugary carbs are absorbed the fastest, while healthy complex carbs, like those found in whole grains or legumes, take longer. Protein is absorbed the second-quickest, and fat takes the longest to digest. Most foods have a combination of different macronutrients, so the digestion time depends on the ratio. To get peak-performance levels of energy during your workout, concentrate on carbs and protein while limiting fat.
Going with the H2O flow
Good hydration is essential for anyone, but especially those who are working out: not drinking enough water has been shown to decrease performance. Men should aim for about three liters per day, and women for about 2.2 liters, but take into account your activity level and external factors like environment – if you’re hot and sweaty, up your intake. As for other drinks designed for “sport”? Most of us don’t need to waste money on expensive and sugary sports drinks.
If you do intense workout sessions that last more than 60 minutes, you could consider throwing back an isotonic drink, but you can easily make your own.
Hittin’ the (protein) bar
If you’re wondering if you need a protein bar or shake to complement your workout, the answer is simple: no. Marketing gurus do a great job making us believe we need protein or energy bars to reach our goals, but a balanced diet rooted in real, whole foods provides everything you need.
Protein bars tend to be heavily processed and high in sugar or artificial ingredients. Energy bars or trail mixes aren’t an ideal pre-workout snack either, even if they only contain natural ingredients like nuts. Remember, high-fat foods like nuts are slow to digest, so your body can’t use them as fuel immediately. An energy bar might even leave you feeling less energized during your workout: your energy is needed for digestion if you eat one too soon beforehand.
But first, coffee
Science says consuming moderate amounts of caffeine (up to about three cups of coffee per day) likely won’t have a negative impact on your health, and can decrease fatigue while increasing mental alertness. That said, everyone tolerates caffeine differently, so always listen to your body. If you don’t have any health issues, you can try consuming a cup of coffee or green tea 15 to 30 minutes prior to exercise; research has shown that the caffeine can enhance athletic performance.
Fuel your fitness: What and when to eat before exercise
To get the most of your workout, try to eat a meal with all macros (carbs, protein and fat) 2 to 4 hours before you exercise. In case you can’t make time for a full meal in advance of your sweat session (we’re looking at you, AM warriors), here’s the breakdown of what to eat, and when:
Two or more hours before: All macros
Choose healthy and complex carbs such as whole grains, legumes or quinoa.
Always include lean protein like chicken breast, fish or tofu.
Add some fat like avocado, almond butter, nuts or seeds.
Your favorite veggies!
Mango Guacamole Chicken Wrap
- ⅕ avocado (~1 ½ oz)
- ¼ cups mango (diced) (~1 ½ oz)
- ⅓ lime (~⅔ oz)
- 2 tsp fresh cilantro / fresh coriander leaf (chopped)
- 1 100 % whole grain tortilla (~1 ½ oz)
- 2 oz chicken breast strips (ready to eat)
- ⅓ tomatoes (~1 oz)
- ½ cups mixed leaf salad (~⅔ oz)
- a tiny bit of salt
- ¼ tsp black pepper
- Prepare guacamole: Peel avocado, remove pit, and chop. Peel and chop mango (if not already diced). Wash and chop cilantro. Cut and juice lime. Mix all of these ingredients together and add salt and pepper (optional).
- Evenly spread the guacamole on the tortilla(s).
- Wash and slice tomato and add to tortillas along with chicken and lettuce. Then roll the tortilla(s) tightly, tucking in both ends.
1 to 2 hours before: carbs and protein with a small amount of fat
Choose complex carbs like whole grain bread, oats, sweet/regular potatoes, or fresh fruit. Skip legumes – they take too long to digest.
Combine with protein like greek yogurt, cottage cheese, tuna or hard boiled egg.
Limit fat. If you choose an egg or cottage cheese for protein, you’re covered. Otherwise, have a few nuts or seeds.
Berry Bowl recipe
- ¼ cup berries, any kind (frozen or fresh) (~1 ¾ oz)
- ½ cup yogurt, unsweetened (or soy yogurt) (~4 ½ oz)
- 3 tbsp coconut (shredded) (~½ oz)
- 3 tbsp rolled oats (uncooked) (~¾ oz) (~1 oz)
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- If your berries are frozen, defrost them in the microwave in a bowl or on stove in a pot.
- Mix the berries in a bowl with yogurt, shredded coconut and rolled oats. Sprinkle with cinnamon and enjoy.
30-60 minutes before: Carbs and a little bit of protein
This should only be an option if you really don’t have time to eat before, if your goal is to gain muscle mass, or you’re planning a very intense workout.
Choose easily digestible carbs found in fruits like banana, grapes or mango.
Combine with some lean protein like non-fat Greek yogurt or milk.
Healthy Banana Milk Recipe
- ½ banana (~2 oz)
- 1 cups milk (whole 3.5%) (~8 oz)
- ½ tsp vanilla extract (~14 oz)
- ¼ tsp cinnamon
- Peel and chop banana (for best results use a ripe banana). Put in glass and mash with a fork.
- Add milk, cinnamon, and vanilla (optional) and stir., Enjoy!