What you eat before and after exercise can have a huge impact on your body. When you eat is also crucial to ensure you get the most out of your workout.
Fuelling your body with nutrient-packed food before and after exercise will provide you with the energy you need to help your body perform more effectively, improve recovery and reduce the potential for injury. Achieving the right balance of healthy fats, carbohydrates and protein are important to help you sustain energy levels and to avoid feeling fatigued when working out.
The golden rule: everyone is different.
Firstly, it’s crucial to remember that everyone’s different. Physiologically, the effects we feel from certain foods — and the time at which we eat them — will vary from person to person. This is about finding what works for you! Perhaps you have a goal in mind, like losing fat; in which case, your approach to nutrition and exercise will vary compared to someone looking to build muscle.
What and when to eat before a workout
If possible, aim to eat around one to two hours (closer to two hours ideally) before you start exercising.
This gives your body time to digest the food and prevent a stomach upset. Again, the optimum time differs for everyone. Some of us prefer to eat in advance and let our food digest, whereas others dig in right before exercise for an immediate source of energy — it depends on the person.
Busy lifestyles can get in the way of a structured eating and exercise routine. If you’re running low on time and can only squeeze in a quick bite before fitness, then don’t worry. It’s not dangerous, but you may run the risk of low blood sugar levels. So, plan ahead – wake up an hour earlier to eat, so your body has time to digest and you feel energised. If you’re already getting up at the crack of dawn to get your workout in, then firstly — great work! However, this can make it hard to eat first thing. Instead, make sure you hydrate beforehand and put more focus into a nutritious meal after your exercise.
Remember to drink water before exercising. Even if you choose not to eat, or only have a snack, it’s important to stay hydrated.
What to eat after exercise and why
Rehydrate, recover, re-fuel energy you’ve lost and enhance the performance of the training you’ve done — these four targets are all worth considering post-exercise. For this, a mix of carbs and protein is recommended. Carbs stimulate insulin, which is needed to uptake protein into the muscles. If we cut out carbs, we simply can’t uptake that all-important protein.
A misconception exists that we need lots of protein post-workout. Instead, aim for around 20- 30g of protein, as this is optimal to maximise the body’s ability to recover. Research shows that if you have significantly more than that, there are no extra benefits on the repairing of muscle tissue. So, what does 20g of protein look like? It could be half a chicken breast, two eggs and a few almonds, two-thirds of a cup of cottage cheese, 170g of Greek yoghurt or 75g of tuna. Keep this serving size of protein going throughout the day with every meal (a little less if you eat smaller, frequent meals).
Here’s a little post workout meal inspiration – why not whip up half a chicken breast with a side of spinach or quinoa? Again, scrambled egg on toast with fresh veggies works just as well post-exercise, as before! Snack on almonds if you’re feeling peckish later, or not quite hungry enough for a full meal.
Staying hydrated will help combat hunger levels. If you get into the routine of eating a couple of hours before exercise, enjoying a light snack 60 minutes before then eating afterwards, you’ll curb any cravings. If you’re getting enough nutrition elsewhere throughout the day, you shouldn’t feel those pangs.
Exercise causes us to sweat and, in turn, lose electrolytes. Electrolytes hydrate the body, regulate nerve and muscle function, and help to rebuild damaged tissue. Drinking plenty of water will replenish electrolytes, salts and prevent dehydration. Feeling dehydrated can not only compromise performance, but induce headaches, dizziness and, in more severe cases, fainting.
So, it’s worth taking a bottle of water with you on a fitness session. Seasoned runners, who tend to exercise for long periods of time (two hours or more), may opt for an electrolyte drink.
If you’re working towards an exercise goal, it’s worth considering how your eating habits can support it.
If your training is cardiovascular based, you’ll need a higher amount of carbs both pre- and post-exercise to give you the energy, then recovery, you need.
Strength training and muscle gain will require a higher emphasis on protein, but carbs are still important. It’s about being mindful of the balance of carbs, proteins and fats to ensure that you’re giving your body what it needs and not depriving it of anything important, as this could lead to fatigue, injury and illnesses.
Spirulina powder contains 65g of protein in every 100g which will keep your protein levels topped up, but it also has many fringe benefits such as a high Vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium and iron content. It wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t mention Hemp Protein powder. Often overlooked, it isn’t just about the protein. It’s loaded with omega-3, fibre, calcium and pumped full of iron and magnesium.
Keeping your iron levels balanced is essential to your performance in the gym. Your body needs iron to make hemoglobin-rich red blood cells, which carry oxygen from your lungs to your muscles. If you don’t top up your iron levels, then exercise hard you will burn through your iron reserves and feel fatigued and tired. Keeping your iron levels balanced is essential to performing well in the gym because you will be able to go for longer. And if your protein intake is good you’ll be back and pushing yourself in no time at all.
Some iron supplements can be difficult to digest, unlike iron found in food. So superfoods are a great, easy and tasty way of incorporating more iron into your diet.
Spirulina powder contains 58 times more iron than raw spinach
Foods to think twice about
It’s wise to avoid processed foods and high saturated fats like crisps, bacon and ready meals. Take-aways may be treat occasionally, but they won’t benefit your fitness performance.
Spicy foods can also cause an upset stomach. If you fancy an exotic, warmer dish, chicken fajitas will satisfy your cravings; if you’re vegetarian, add vegetables or a meat-free substitute.
Think twice about eating refined sugar immediately before; it may give you a quick surge of energy, but this diminishes quickly, leading to a ‘crash’. Instead, choose carbs that offer sustainable energy.
Drinks to think twice about
Different people are sensitive to different drinks too. Fruit juice may seem a healthy option, but it contains high levels of sugar that again can trigger stomach troubles, likewise with carbonated drinks.
Coffee is a popular choice to put a spring in our step. Indeed, a little coffee can give us that boost of energy and alertness we need when getting ready for a workout. But while caffeine might give us a temporary burst of energy, like sugar this can be followed by a crash. To avoid this, couple your coffee with energy from a light bite of food. As a side of caution, for some people caffeine can have side-effects, particularly when consumed in excess. You may experience an increased heart rate or stomach discomfort from an increased acidity in the stomach, which is an unwelcome distraction during exercise.