Pre + Post Workout Food
What do I eat before and after a workout?
I recently surveyed the social media world to get a sense of what people struggled with the most around living a healthy life. What area(s) do we find ourselves falling short?
Of course it’s tough to name just one thing, right? Each piece relates to the other. But if we can take better control over one area, this can help us take control over others. A beautiful and infuriating cycle that, with discipline, will produce a beautiful and more infuriating you.
One of the most popular responses I received was a food and fitness combo question. My favorite kind.
“What the heck should I eat before and after my workout?”
Before, during, after, and all around a workout. What are the best options?
Before we get to the good stuff, let’s talk about this complicated relationship between what we eat and how we work out. Sometimes we nail one, like solid and consistent workouts. But then we suck at the other. Maybe we hit our stride and rock our new and improved healthy lifestyle, eating a lot of green things and lean proteins, and working out consistently. Only to go strong for a few days, maybe a week or two, and then fall back.
When we fall, one of two things will typically happen.
First option. We turn back to old and familiar and habits because they’re comfortable and we love taking the feel good, easy out. Choosing happy hour over a workout. Going out and splurging because we’ve been so good and we deserve it.
Second option. We get frustrated because we’re trying so hard but question if what we’re doing is even working. The results aren’t happening fast enough and instead of feeling better and appreciating the long game, we’re actually running on fumes and questioning everything.
Third option. It’s both. We work hard, we splurge, we get frustrated with ourselves, we forget that we’re human and that things take time and we’re doing better than we think. And we treat ourselves only to feel guilty.
But if you do find yourself running on fumes. I ask you to take a mental step backwards and ask yourself a few basic questions.
- How did you sleep last night?
- What did you eat today or yesterday?
- Have you drank a good amount of water?
- Have you laughed at all and remembered that this is life and you can’t change what you did yesterday but you can instead refocus on tomorrow?
Because the great news is ladies and gents. You can control all of this. And when you take control of one area that you know you need to get together, the others will start to fall into place as well.
Like what you eat.
But keep in mind, that this is the long game. And finding the right foods that fill, fuel, and sustain you require a lot of discipline.
Now listen. Everyone is different. I want to warn everyone reading this right now that what I have to say might make you more frustrated. Simply because it’s what I have found to be true in my own life and with those I’ve worked with.
We’re all different. And to find out what fuel we need to feel and perform optimally requires one thing:
It’s trial and error. Trial. And. Error.
It’s following a general guideline of what to eat and when to eat it, implementing it for a solid 2-3 weeks, reassessing how your body is feeling and responding, and adjusting accordingly.
Anytime you change up your routine around food and fitness, tracking makes all the difference. Trust me. The act of writing down in an app or note in your phone will hold you to what you’re doing. And more often than not, show you that you’re not eating enough, working out like a maniac, indulging on the weekends, not sleeping because you’re stressed out, and wondering why the hell you’re not losing weight..
Track and make note of:
- Energy levels during and after a workout
- Bloating, gas, or other gross out of whack feelings
- True hunger
- Hunger masking as thirst
- Is your body asking for more? Are you unsatisfied or going back to the kitchen after an hour? Is it actual hunger or thirst? Was your “meal” a lousy bar or drink?
Understanding your body and being aware of what it is actually feeling and telling you will help you craft a smarter meal plan and eat more intuitively.
Now while we’re all different and we have our own needs, rest assured that I will never leave you hanging and I do have some general guidelines that I believe can be applied to anyone.
I’m not that much of a butthead.
But remember. Food is fuel. In this context especially, food is fuel. It’s fueling our workouts and it is repairing the damage afterwards, enabling us to perform our best and achieve the results we want to achieve.
So let’s take a birds eye view of what our food is made of.
Many call these our macros. Macronutrients. I have a love hate relationship with this word because the internet and Instagram “influencers” love talking about their macros and making any and everything that’s processed and the farthest thing away from real whole foods fit into their dumb macros. And it makes me want to punch my own face.
Whew. Glad I got that out.
But. It’s what they are. Macronutrients are the three big ol’ building blocks of our meals.
What fuels a workout:
What repairs the damage and makes us lean and mean:
What (in my experience) helps with both
There are two key things to consider when it comes to planning your pre and post workout foods.
- When you work out. The time of day.
- What your workout is. Lifting, HIIT, endurance, CrossFit, etc.
I workout at the crack of dawn. It’s what I like to do and how I like to start my day. Now every day that’s not always the case so I get it done whenever I can. But 90% of the time, I workout in the morning before the world wakes up.
I am going to be completely transparent and say that I do not like to eat a lot at all before I workout. In fact, many times I work out in a fasted state, meaning I’ll have water and coffee and nothing else. Especially if my workout is a long endurance workout, ie run, bike ride, even a slower paced yoga class, I go fasted and I feel better. However, let the record show that I like to experiment on myself, I eat very clean and am very intentional about what I eat and when the night before, and I’ve taken the time to figure out what I know will make me feel and therefore perform the best.
Again, this is what works for me and feels good for me. I am in no way an expert. I hold no degrees in this but I love geeking out on the research around it. And if it’s helped me and worked for me, maybe it’ll work for you.
Now. That being said, you have to listen to your body. Haven’t heard that one before, have ya..
Do you wake up hungry? Then for the love of God eat. Are you doing a more high intensity workout, one with a lot of explosive movements or heavy weight? Then you need fuel. Especially if you’re hungry. Again, I don’t wake up hungry and I don’t like to work out on a full stomach so if I need something I keep it simple and carb heavy. And if I don’t eat beforehand, you bet I fuel up fast afterwards. I also always bring things with me to have just in case.
Some other considerations: Is what you’re doing long? Longer than an hour? You need fuel. You need to be able to keep going. And no I’m not talking about those gross GU and gel things. In my experience, those are nasty and nothing but fake sugar that hurts my stomach and has me crashing shortly after anyway. I’d much rather grab a piece of real fruit or sweet potatoes on the go if I need to.
Yes, I have eaten roasted sweet potatoes out of a plastic bag before a race.
They’re easy on the tum. A complex carbohydrate. And keep me going, releasing its lovely energy low and slow, rather than a hard and heavy sugar rush hit of crappy gooey processed gels.
All in all. If you’re hungry, eat something small before a workout. If you aren’t, hydrate or sip on BCAAs (they make water taste great). And fuel up afterwards.
Quick side note. Dropped a supplement just now (BCAAs), and one I only use if and when I need something sweet that gets me through a workouts. BCAAs do that and only that. They make water not taste boring. That’s it. The end. Use them as a distraction until you can get real food.
Here’s a breakdown of my go-to sources of pre and post workout food, regardless of the time of day. Remember food is fuel and that is how I view it. This list is what I have found to work for me.
The types of workouts I primarily do:
- Very high intensity for shorter bursts of time
- Explosive and functional movements
- Power and Olympic lifts
- High intensity, cardio-heavy
- Total body circuits
Long endurance runs
- Road and trail running 90+ minutes
What I know about myself:
- I don’t like to train on a full stomach
- I tailor what I eat to the type of workout. Putting food and fuel in my body before a hard and heavy CrossFit workout. Timing out carbs before a long endurance workout.
- I eat stupid clean. And I have a very sensitive stomach that doesn’t respond well to shitty food. Probably because I’ve been eating very clean for years now, so when I feed it something it’s not used to because I “deserve” it. I pay hard. So. I rarely do it.
- I eat the same thing every day. I cycle the same handful of foods and meals pretty much 7 days a week.
I look at food as “mini meals”. Meaning that I like to make sure each meal has a good amount of carbs, fats, and protein. If it is around a workout I dial up and down either the carbs (before a workout) or the protein (after a workout).
If all you need is a handful of fruit or a quick yogurt, eat it about 30-45mins before a workout. If you know you have a workout at 6p, get something substantial, aka a “mini meal” in about 60-90mins before a workout.
I brought up a few things in the list above. Carbs. The word that the world has come to fear. Carbs get crapped on because we associate carbs with bread, pasta, cereal, or something of the like.
For me, carbs are fruits, vegetables, potatoes, and the occasional side of white rice. We need carbs. Carbs are good. But remember, the broccoli on your plate is a carb.
I do not eat cereal anymore. Gluten free oats have become comfort food for me and something I save when I’m really craving it. And I’ve already stated my opinion on the gross, processed, great-way-to-tear-my-stomach-to-shreds GU and gel packs.
Supplements. I often get asked what supplements I use in regards to food and nutrition, meaning protein powders or anything like that.
Food is my supplement.
The only additions I throw into my diet are collagen, occasionally BCAAs (again to make water taste better, that’s it), or a bone broth based or collagen based protein.
Food. Eat real food. I eat meat and potatoes at all hours of the day. Eggs are my go to quick meal. Before a workout I need something easy on the stomach that will simply fuel and tide me over until I can re-fuel and re-feed post workout with a full, complete meal. If I workout in a more fasted state, I eat soon after I’m done working out. Probably within the first hour. If I have something in my system I listen to my body and eat when I feel true hunger after a workout. My favorite meal post workout is a big scramble of eggs with turkey bacon and any vegetables, 1/2 or an entire avocado, and small amount of fruit.
What you will never see me eating:
- Highly processed bars or pre packaged shakes
- Low fat/ Reduced fat/ Low carb/ Low sugar labeled anything – labels are marketing bullshit designed to make you eat it and feel good about the fake preservatives you’re pumping into your body.
I hope this helps and gives you some ideas. Remember to listen. Try something, give it a fair chance, assess how you feel and how your workouts feels, and adjust as needed. It’s a journey. May as well have a little fun experimenting along the way.