Pre and Post Workout Meals – Foods Before and After Exercise


It’s that time of year. Everyone’s back at the gym with a ‘holiday hangover’ trying to regain their shapes after the inevitable holiday binge. And while it may be tempting to skip meals before or after your workout to cut calories, it may not be the wisest method of staying fit and getting the most from your workouts. But depending on how long or intensely you work out, curbing the carbs and fat may actually help. Keep reading.

What you eat before and after you work out does make a difference. If you plan on working out for an hour or more, you’ll work out harder and stronger if you eat something before your workout than if you skip it. Your body requires both carbohydrate and protein to support glycogen stores (muscle fuel) to prevent “hitting the wall”. Endurance type workouts such as running, swimming or cycling require more energy than shorter bouts of exercise.

Be sure that your meal is easily digested and not too high in fat. Bran cereal and milk is a bad choice since the fiber and lactose can cause abdominal cramping and gas. Skip the burger and fries too as high fat meals “stick to your ribs” and take longer to digest. Instead, try a smoothie with yogurt and fruit, or a turkey roll up and juice before going the distance.

If you’ve only got time for a 30-45 minute romp at the gym, it may be best to skip the snack and just hydrate before your workout. A study done by the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences in the UK found that fasting longer than 6 hours prior to exercise optimizes fat oxidation, while consuming carbohydrate or fat prior to exercise reduces it. And let’s face it, it’s fat that we want oxidized, not muscle. If you have to eat something before exercise to maintain energy, go for something light like low-fat yogurt or a few graham crackers.

pre-post-workout-mealsWhat you eat after exercise also affects weight and performance. To boost glycogen stores which supports a better workout the next time around, sports experts recommend a combination of both carbohydrate and protein. Simple carbs such as fruit juice or sports drinks are quickly absorbed and can replenish glycogen stores quickly. Adding protein to the mix such as a cheese stick, hard-boiled egg, nuts or lean meat will further support glycogen formation. In a hurry and need to pack something non-perishable? A peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat and an apple is a great, portable snack. It’s best to eat within one to two hours of your workout for optimal glycogen repletion.

A recent, controversial research study claims that exercise over-stimulates the appetite and sabotages weight loss. In this study, 3 groups of exercisers were compared. The group that exercised the most intensely lost the least amount of weight compared to the other two. And while many people were ready to toss their tennis shoes after hearing the study, the American College of Sports Medicine believes that some exercisers may simply be compensating with more calories than they need. There are plenty of studies to support regular exercise for both weight loss, as well as weight loss maintenance. Let’s face it, you can’t always have your cake and eat it, too.

Finally, don’t forget the most important nutrient in your diet for both pre and post workouts. WATER. Without water, your body can overheat and lead to fatigue faster. Excess heat reduces exercise capacity and affects oxygen exchange. In addition, dehydration affects blood pressure, muscle contraction and relaxation and can also hinder weight loss efforts. Don’t rely on thirst to guide your fluid consumption. Below are some guidelines for staying hydrated before, during and after exercise:

Before Exercise:

  • Consume 15-20 oz water 2-3 hours before exercise
  • Drink 8-10 oz. water 15 minutes before you work out

During Exercise:

  • Drink 8-10 oz. water for every 15-20 minutes of exercise
  • For exercise over 90 minutes, try a sports drink with less than 8% carbohydrate every 15-20 minutes

After Exercise:

  • Check your weight before and after exercise.
  • For every pound lost, consume 20-24 oz fluid
  • Include food with both carbohydrate and protein (4:1 ratio) to replace glycogen

One final word. Unless you’re exercising for 3 or more hours (think Florida Gators), skip the sports drinks unless you choose the lowest calorie types. Fluid, salt and potassium can all be replaced with food and water alone and are much lower in sugar and artificial colors. Not to mention, better tasting!

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About Author

Lisa Andrews

Lisa Andrews has been a dietitian in Cincinnati since 1990. In addition to her clinical experience counseling patients and teaching weight loss classes, she has also worked as a professional writer, speaker and nutrition consultant. See my profile page for more information!

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