Fueling Foods for Your Next Workout
Updated: Jun 6
Written by: Julie Tang, MS, RDN, CNSC
Nutrition and Fitness how are they related?
It is well known that nutrition is important in fitness. Taking in proper hydration and nutrition before and after a workout can help you build muscle, recovery quickly optimizes exercise benefits, and prepare for the next workout.
The macronutrients, carbohydrate, fat, and protein all play different and essential roles in the body. Knowing what, how much and when to eat can help maximize exercise performance and recovery.
Carbohydrates provide the body with a source of energy. When we eat carbohydrates, the body breaks them down from foods and converts them to a sugar called glucose. Glucose is the main source of fuel for our cells. Our muscles store glucose in the form of glycogen in the liver and muscles and they are readily converted into energy during exercise.
Glycogen is especially important during and following endurance training such as walking, jogging, biking, swimming, and jumping rope. Glycogen is most quickly depleted during higher intensity workouts with resistance. Following endurance training, athletes often restore their glycogen stores by consuming some carbohydrate foods. If they are not adequately restored, subsequent physical performance may be affected by increased fatigue, tiredness, and/or decreased endurance.
A study by Hawley and Burke (1997) published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that the optimization of carbohydrates was essential to enhance performance. To get the most out of carbohydrates, it is important to choose the right carbohydrates. Eating a combination of complex and simple carbohydrates before a workout will help slow down and steady the release of energy during your workout.
Complex carbohydrates are longer chains of sugar molecules and take longer to digest. Examples of complex carbohydrates are whole grains, beans, legumes, and vegetables.
Simple carbohydrates are made of shorter chains of sugar molecules and are quicker to digest. Examples of simple carbohydrates are fruits, milk, honey, white bread, and pasta. If you follow a low carbohydrate diet throughout the day, just be sure to account for some carbohydrate allowance around the time of your workout.
Fats are another source of energy. Most fats from food are stored in the form of triglycerides in skeletal muscle, liver, and adipose tissue. Lipolysis is the breakdown of triglycerides for energy. During lower intensity cardio exercise such as light walking, slow rowing, yoga, water aerobics, or Tai Chi, the body induces lipolysis, and fat becomes an important source of energy.
Keep in mind, the consumption of fat around a workout requires more careful planning since fat takes a longer time for the body to digest. It is not recommended to have a high-fat meal immediately before or after a workout.
When you are including some fats, choose healthy sources of fat. Some examples of healthy fats are nuts, seeds, fish, peanut or almond butter, or avocado. Before a workout, only have modest portions of fat such as a tablespoon of nut butter or a few sprinkles of nuts or seeds with a piece of whole-grain bread to avoid the sluggish or nauseous feeling that may be caused by having too much fat.
Protein plays an essential role in muscle growth and repair. For this reason, consuming adequate protein for workouts is essential to increase muscle protein synthesis. Muscle protein synthesis is rebuilding muscle tissue after intense workouts. An increase in muscle protein synthesis often results in an increase in muscle mass and/or strength.
The timing of when to eat protein around a workout is often a hot topic. While most health and exercise experts recommend eating protein before and after a workout, there was a study done by Schoenfield et. al (2017) published in Peer Review-Journal, that found no significant difference in muscle strength or size between the group who consumed protein before their workout compared to the group who consumed protein after their work out.
The study results suggest that whether the protein is consumed before or after your workout, a muscular response is still activated as long as protein is consumed around the time of your workout. Some examples of protein to eat include lean meats such as chicken, turkey, tuna or eggs, Greek yogurt, tofu, nut butter, protein shake, and chickpeas. Ideally, it is best to fuel your body with a meal 2 to 3 hours before a workout. However, if you’re not able to have a full meal, then aim for a snack 30 minutes to 1 hour before a workout. For post-workout, it is recommended to eat within 45 minutes.
Some ideas for workouts
What to eat before a workout
Peanut or almond butter (2 tablespoons) and ½ banana sandwich;
Small sweet potato with steamed vegetables and a drizzle of olive oil (1 cup);
Greek yogurt (6 oz) and nuts;
Multigrain crackers (8-10 each) with hummus (2 tablespoons);
Apple and walnuts (1/4 cup);
Peanut or almond butter (2 tablespoons) and celery sticks (2-3 sticks);
Whole wheat toast (1 slice) with 1/2 sliced banana;
Smoothie (1/2 cup green leafy vegetable, 1/2 banana, 1 cup almond milk, 1 handful of berries);
Protein shake (1/2 cup green leafy vegetable, 1/2 banana, 1 cup almond milk, 1 scoop of protein powder).
What to eat after a workout:
Whole wheat toast (1 slice) and scrambled egg (1 each);
Hard-boiled egg (1 each) and trail mix (1 handful);
Whole-wheat bread (2 slices) with turkey (2 slices), guacamole (2 tablespoons);
Brown rice (1/2 cup) with beans (1/2 cup), guacamole (2 tablespoons), and salsa;
Steamed or sautéed vegetables (1 cup) and non-GMO tofu (1/2 cup);
Protein shake (1/2 cup green leafy vegetable, 1/2 banana, 1 cup almond milk, 1 scoop of protein powder);
Turkey on a whole-grain wrap with half an avocado;
Greek yogurt (6 oz) with fruit (2 oz) and nuts (2 tablespoons);
Quinoa bowl (1 cup) with blackberries (1 cup) and pecans (1/4 cup);
Low-fat chocolate milk (1 cup);
Whole-wheat bread (2 slices) with tuna (3 ounces) mixed with lemon juice (1 oz), salt and pepper to season.