Foods for a Better Workout
What you should eat and when to get the most out of exercise
By Christie Aschwanden
You’d never head to the yoga studio without your mat or to your spinning class without a pair of bike-friendly shorts, yet many exercisers still approach their workout without the proper fuel. Whether you’re exercising for fitness, health, or weight loss, you’ll reap greater benefits if you feed your body the right foods before and after workouts. Click here for post-workout recipes that keep you fit and full.
Many people mistakenly believe that they shouldn’t eat in the time surrounding an exercise session if they’re trying to lose weight, says John Ivy, PhD, an exercise scientist at the University of Texas and author of Nutrient Timing (Basic Health Publications, 2004).“They think that by eating after a workout they’re replacing the calories they just expended.” But that’s not true, he says: Calories taken in right after a hard training session are preferentially used to replenish muscles’ fuel stores, repair damaged tissue, and are rarely stored as excess weight. If you don’t refuel right after a workout, you’re more likely to be hungry later when your body is more apt to turn those calories into fat than use them for fuel for the next workout, Ivy says.
But you shouldn’t eat only after exercise, says Jim White, RD, a personal trainer in Virginia Beach, Virginia, who also serves as a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. “If you don’t fuel yourself before a workout, you’re going in with half a tank.” You need carbohydrates before your session to ensure you make it through without crashing. “Carbs give you energy to fuel your exercise. If your blood sugar drops, you can hit a wall,” says White.
Go into your workout feeling energetic by eating a light snack (200 calories or fewer) an hour or two beforehand. “If you haven’t eaten since breakfast and your spin class is at noon, you’re going to need some fuel,” says Sunny Blende, a sports nutritionist and runner based in San Francisco. Prepare for your noon walk or cardio class by digging into some of your lunch mid-morning. “Eat half your sandwich at 10 a.m.,” Blende says. If you’re working out after work, eat part of your dinner in the mid-afternoon. This strategy keeps you fueled without adding unwanted extra calories. If you’re planning to exercise first thing in the morning and can’t stomach breakfast in the predawn hours, Blende suggests eating a fibrous snack, such as a small bowl of oatmeal or brown rice, an hour before bed—both will stay in your system long enough to fuel your morning workout. If you’d rather wait until you wake up, down something easily digestible, such as a banana, in the morning 60 minutes before you head out.
Breaking your day’s calories into multiple small portions, rather than a few big meals, will help you feel less hungry, keep your blood-sugar levels stable, and net you better results from your workouts, says Blende, noting that your body performs most optimally on a steady diet of five or six small meals distributed throughout the day.
Ideally, you should aim for 20 grams of carbohydrates and 15 to 20 grams of protein prior to a hard strength-training session or aerobic workout (think spin class, dance session, or hike) lasting an hour or more, says White. That translates into a bowl of yogurt with an apple or a half-cup of cottage cheese with a banana. For more moderate exercise lasting 45 minutes or less, or an hour of light exercise, such as a walk or yoga class, opt for something less substantial, such as a single piece of fruit.
The closer you get to the exercise, the smaller and less fibrous your pre-workout meal should be, says Blende. If you’re going for a run or doing a bouncy dance class, eschew heavy or high-fiber foods to avoid gastrointestinal distress. Select something that’s quick to digest, like a banana or some yogurt, rather than a big salad or cruciferous vegetables like broccoli. If you can’t eat until just prior to the start of your workout, opt for a glass of juice or a natural sports drink, which shouldn’t upset your stomach, says Blende.
“After a workout, your body is like a furnace—it takes nutrients and burns through them,” says White. “Your muscles are depleted, and you need energy to help them recover.” Many people assume that protein is the most important post-workout nutrient, but a combination of carbohydrates and protein is essential, says Ivy: Carbohydrates replenish your muscles’ sugar stores, and protein aids muscle synthesis so that you build strength and muscle tone. Post-workout carbs also stimulate the release of insulin, which triggers protein synthesis that can reduce muscle soreness, says Ivy.
Indeed, studies show that eating the right nutrients after a workout can help you recover faster. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that drinking a beverage containing a mixture of 6 percent carbohydrates and 1.5 percent protein before, during, and after weight training reduced muscle damage and soreness.
In the half hour immediately following exercise, your first priority is to replenish your muscles’ depleted sugar stores. When you refuel during this magical 30-minute window, your body sends up to twice the normal amount of sugar to your muscle cells for storage as glycogen, Blende says. “That sugar makes a one-way trip to your muscle cells and is stored there for your next bout of exercise rather than being converted into fat.”
Studies suggest that taking advantage of the 30-minute window may also boost the fitness results you get from exercise. Ivy points to a 2002 study he coauthored that divided participants into two groups: One group consumed a snack containing a 3-to-1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein immediately following their strength workouts; the other group did identical training but waited two hours after working out to eat the same snack. Only the group that ate during the 30-minute window posted increases in fitness measures like strength and muscle mass.
A good rule of thumb is to follow your workout with a snack consisting of 40 to 50 percent of the calories you just burned, Ivy says. For example, if you expend 400 calories during one workout session, aim to eat a 200-calorie snack afterward. In addition, make sure that snack includes protein. “For the average person, a glass of low-fat chocolate milk is a pretty good choice,” he says.
Foods that combine protein and carbohydrates—cereal and milk, a whole-grain turkey sandwich, a salad with chicken and bread—will also serve you well, White says. Some of Blende’s favorite post-workout snacks include a peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread, a small wedge of cheese with whole-grain crackers, fruit and nuts, or sautéed vegetables and rice. (For a delicious take on homemade post-workout meals, see our recipes for Crab Salad With Avocado, Apple, and Green Beans; Eggplant Sandwich; and Pink Grapefruit and Fig Tart on pages 40 and 41. All combine a healthy source of carbohydrates with protein and fiber and are part of a nutritious diet for any active person.) If you can, opt for whole foods rather than shakes or supplements, says Blende. “It takes more calories to break down a turkey sandwich than it does to break down a sports bar.” If you choose juice over the actual fruit, you lose fiber, “and fiber is what helps you feel full,” Blende says. The specific amount of fiber isn’t crucial—instead, opt for something solid that will help you feel satisfied.
Whichever pre- and post-workout foods you choose, be sure to plan ahead so you time your refueling. Start early and don’t get behind. As Blende puts it: You can go hard during your workout, but you should never go hungry.
Give Your Workout a Caffeine Lift
Athletes have long used caffeine to boost endurance and performance during aerobic exercise. But new research shows that caffeine isn’t just for serious jocks—it can also help push recreational exercisers to train harder with less pain and recover faster after a workout.
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that caffeine increases muscle recovery after intense exercise by speeding the body’s ability to replenish the glycogen stores that muscles use for fuel. Cyclists who downed a drink containing both carbohydrates and caffeine after a hard workout had 66 percent higher levels of glycogen in their muscles four hours later than those who refueled with carbohydrates alone. Another 2009 study showed that caffeine equivalent to two to three cups of coffee taken an hour before a hard bike ride significantly reduced muscle burn and pain during the workout. Even those exercising at lower intensities can get a boost in energy and potentially experience less fatigue by consuming a bit of caffeine.
Before you reach for an espresso, though, keep in mind that caffeine has its downsides, too. At high doses it may leave you feeling jittery and anxious, and if taken too close to bedtime, it can leave you counting sheep instead of sleeping. Also, those with preexisting medical conditions, such as diabetes, should consult a doctor or naturopath before incorporating caffeine into a daily exercise regimen.
For best results, John Ivy, PhD, an exercise scientist at the University of Texas, recommends around 200 to 400 mg of caffeine (one 8-ounce cup of coffee contains approximately 150 mg of caffeine) for a 150-pound man or woman, taken 30 to 60 minutes before a hard workout, and then again just shortly afterward. Aim for moderate doses—a cup or two of coffee or regularly brewed strong tea—and start with a smaller amount if you’re not already a caffeine regular in order to avoid jitters or gastrointestinal distress.
The following post-workout meals will keep you fit and full: