(Disclaimer: Before creating a meal plan, talk to your doctor or nutritionist to make sure it’s right for you, especially if you have underlying health conditions.)
Before leaving for the gym, you collect your phone, gym bag and water bottle. But if you forget to grab a bite to eat, you won’t get the most from your workout. “I always tell my clients that it’s important to give your body the tools it needs to perform efficiently,” says Ashley Comparin, a licensed dietician specializing in sports nutrition at Nutrition Hive in Wilmington. “You need to give your body sufficient calories to perform the task.”
What you eat—and when—makes a difference. Pre- and post-workout foods are essential meals, says Marisol Mertz, personal trainer and fitness nutritionist at RISE Fitness in Rehoboth Beach. Here, our experts break it down simply, so you know what to nosh on to nourish your body before and after your fitness routine.
Why does it matter?
Timing a meal with a workout is a new concept for most of Comparin’s clients. Once they start integrating nutrition, however, they no longer get fatigued partway through the exercises. Afterward, they feel energized instead of depleted, she says.
What you eat can also accelerate the results, says Chris Antonio of Antonio’s Personal Training Systems in Rehoboth Beach. “You can make your metabolism fire on all cylinders, thereby getting more bang for the buck.”
Without proper nutrition, the body will look to its tissue for fuel. “That defeats the purpose of working out,” Mertz says. “You’re trying to build muscle to burn more fat to become leaner, right?”
Does one approach fit all?
In short, no. Everyone is different, and so are the exerciser’s goals. Some are training for a competition, while others want to lose weight, which is why it’s good to talk to a nutritionist or educated trainer on the gym’s staff. However, the underlying principles can serve as a guide.
What should I eat?
Shortly before exercising, eat protein and good carbohydrates, such as fruit. “You want something that is going to be rapidly available for the body to use” as fuel, says Mertz.
She prefers a half to a whole ratio of proteins and carbs. So, for instance, she might have half a scoop of protein powder and a banana. Depending on the exercise and the person’s weight, they may need more food; however, they should maintain the same ratio.
Antonio is a fan of convenient protein shakes, which the body doesn’t readily turn to fat. “Protein is also the building block of muscle,” he notes. “The more muscle you have on your frame, the faster your metabolic energy.”
What shouldn’t I eat before or after a workout?
Avoid fat and fiber, which delay digestion. Since blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract slows during a workout, you could experience GI issues. Also, steer clear of seeds and other fiber-rich foods, Comparin adds.
When should I have my pre-workout food?
Consume it an hour to 45 minutes before the workout, Mertz says. However, you might need a longer gap if you regularly get nauseated while exercising. “Listen to your body,” she advises. Others can tolerate a shorter interval. For example, Mertz has clients who consume their protein drinks and bananas when they arrive at the gym.
What do I eat after working out?
For refueling, Mertz recommends an equal ratio of protein and carbs. Protein drinks, again, are quick and convenient. As for the carbs, go ahead and have some gummy candy. Or stick with fruit or instant oatmeal.
When should I eat it?
Follow similar timing, but work backward: Eat right after exercise or up to an hour later.
Are these meals a substitute for a regular breakfast, lunch or dinner?
Mertz views pre- and post-workout fare differently from traditional three meals a day. Early morning clients may eat a piece of candy and oatmeal after exercising and then have regular breakfast an hour later.
For steady energy, Antonio recommends breakfast, lunch and dinner—separated by three-hour intervals. Protein shakes are handy midmorning and midafternoon snacks. Skipping meals can lead to bingeing, and your metabolism will slow to accommodate the lack of regular fuel.
To be sure, don’t focus on one aspect of your diet, such as your workout snack, Comparin says. Instead, address the whole day’s needs to ensure sufficient stamina for all your tasks.
And never perform a strenuous workout if you haven’t eaten in six hours, Antonio says. “You should fuel your body in preparation or you won’t perform as well, and it could be dangerous,” he says.
If you ate breakfast or lunch three or four hours before the workout, still consider a light bite before hitting the gym. “It’s like going on a trip,” Antonio says. “You have to fill your gas tank up—or top it off.”
Timing your meals and workouts is easier with a schedule. Mertz asks clients to keep a log for three to five days so she can review their routine activities and plan a diet around them.
They might be convenient, but are they healthy?
Many people turn to energy or protein bars for fuel on the go, and those numbers are increasing. The market for these products reaching record highs.
What’s the appeal? For one, prepackaged bars are convenient. For another, many are marketed as healthy options that will help athletes reach their goals, whatever they might be. For example, there are high-carbohydrate bars, protein bars, energy bars and breakfast bars.
But are these products goods for you? Marisol Mertz, a personal trainer and fitness nutritionist at RISE Fitness in Rehoboth Beach, calls them “a candy bar with protein powder in it.” It doesn’t matter if the bar has honey instead of sugar or organic ingredients; calories can add up.
Some bars also pack a substantial amount of saturated fat. And while there are bars that increase blood sugar levels to a steady rate, others cause it to spike and fall. “Some are terrible, some are OK,” says Ashley Comparin, a licensed dietician specializing in sports nutrition at Nutrition Hive in Wilmington.
What’s more, the wrapper might not provide an accurate picture. Nutrients differ between brands and flavors, and studies have found that some bars have more carbohydrates than listed.
Nutrition bars can work in a pinch, but they shouldn’t replace a healthy diet. “The most benefits come from feeding your body with real food rather than supplements or protein bars,” Comparin concludes.