We all know that staying active has massive health benefits. But what’s the best way to nourish your body while you exercise? Our Head of Nutrition, Mallory Gonzales RD, has some advice for you.
Whether you’re a yoga lover, a gym bunny, or training for a marathon, it’s important to consider nutrition alongside exercise. Eating the right foods at the right times will help you to maximize the benefits of your chosen activity. So let’s dive into the fundamentals of how to eat for exercise, before and after, for optimal fuel and recovery.
Pre-workout: Fuel in the tank
Prior to exercise, it's important to focus on carbohydrates. While carbs sometimes get a bad rep, they are not your enemy - far from it. Your body utilizes carbs for fuel, and you definitely need fuel for your workout (carbs are also essential for your brain and central nervous system)! Carbohydrates break down into glucose, which is then stored as glycogen in the muscles. Whether you are doing strength/resistance, running, or bodyweight workouts, glycogen is helping you power through.
Next, you also want to include some sort of protein with your pre-workout regimen. Protein is the primary structural component in cells, and is composed of amino acids (also known as the building blocks of protein). Amino acids are involved in the process of muscle protein synthesis. Protein consumed through the diet works to repair cells by providing the necessary amino acids to build the muscles being broken down during a workout. By consuming protein prior to exercise these amino acids will be available for the body to use during exercise.
With pre-workout snacks, timing is key. You definitely don’t want your stomach feeling overly full of upset while you are pushing through your workout. So the ideal window for your pre-workout snack is 1-4 hours before activity. This helps to prevent digestion occurring while you are exercising.
Perfect Pre-workout fuel
kencko with your choice of plant milk
Yogurt with fruit
Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
Apple with almond butter
Post-workout: Recover and rebuild
After a workout, your body’s main focus is replenishment. During exercise your glycogen stores are being depleted, and muscles are being broken down. So it's time to rebuild! The goal is to replenish glycogen, slow down protein breakdown, and increase protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is particularly important during this time so that your muscles can begin to rebuild. Skipping this step can leave you heading into your next workout with extra sore muscles, so make sure your post-workout meal or snack includes a source of protein.
Antioxidants are also a great addition to your post workout routine. They fight free radicals, and can help reduce inflammation - which can also result in reduced soreness.
Lastly, don’t skip the carbs! Carbohydrates are going to replenish those glycogen stores and help prepare you for the next time you are heading out to move your body.
Perfect Post-workout fuel
kencko golds with almond milk (add a shot of tart cherry juice for extra antioxidants)
Overnight oats made with oats, yogurt, and nut butter
Rice cake with peanut butter
Energy bites (made with dates, oats, nut butter, and seeds)
Nutrition & exercise FAQ
I just started running outdoors, but I only run short distances. Do I need to “carb load”?
Carb loading refers to the consumption of carbohydrate-rich meals to increase storage of carbohydrate, or glucose, in the body. Glucose is stored in the form of glycogen in the muscle and liver. By increasing consumption of carbohydrates, you increase glycogen stores, which translates into more stored energy available for exercise. However, the carb-loading strategy is more appropriate for prolonged exercises that lead to large decreases in glycogen. So, for your daily short run after work, just make sure you eat a snack before and you should be good to go!
If my exercise routine includes only low-to-moderate intensity workouts such as pilates and yoga, does that mean I don’t need to worry about pre- and post-workout meals?
Exercises of any intensity, including bodyweight exercises, require energy. That means the pre-workout rule of consuming carbohydrates, whether in a meal or snack, also applies to low-intensity exercises. Since this kind of exercise also results in breakdown of muscle, consuming protein afterwards is also important. Some studies also support healthy fats as a good source of long-lasting fuel for low-intensity exercises, although more evidence is needed.
Is it true that I need to consume protein within 30 minutes of my workout?
This is probably the most common misconception when it comes to nutrition and exercise. Research has shown that the window to consume protein after a workout can be up to several hours, depending on the type of exercise and duration, Although opinions vary, it is now widely accepted that the idea of a 30-minute window is not necessarily accurate, so you don’t have to rush from the gym to grab that protein bar! As long as you consume a source of protein in your meal following exercise, your muscles will be just fine.
Is it necessary to drink an electrolyte drink after I sweat?
When we sweat, we lose fluids and electrolytes (minerals) such as sodium and potassium. Although electrolyte drinks can help you replenish those minerals, they are not a necessity. That’s because many foods contain these minerals: leafy greens, bananas, nuts, soybeans, beans, strawberries, and watermelon, to name a few. So, unless you have just run a marathon, you should be fine with simply drinking plenty of water and consuming a balanced, whole-food meal.
Many people seem to drink protein shakes after working out. Do I need to implement protein beverages and/or protein powder into my diet? And how much protein do I need in a day?
Daily requirements for protein are much lower than most people think. Although the exact amount will vary by age, gender, physical activity level and health conditions, it’s safe to say that for most healthy individuals, the daily protein requirement is between 0.8 to 1.0 grams per kilogram of body weight (or 0.4 to 0.5 grams per pound of body weight). More active individuals can aim towards the higher end of the spectrum. However, if you are consuming a balanced diet consisting of either animal or plant proteins, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, you should be getting plenty of protein. Protein drinks are a convenient on-the-go option after a workout, but are not necessary if protein requirements are being met through the foods you eat.