As folks get started with regular, intense, functional training, two questions come up time and time again: what should I eat before I workout? And, What should I eat after I workout?
Like most nutrition questions that are worth asking, the real answer to the pre/post workout meal question will be long-winded, nuanced and will reflect the specific needs and goals of the individual doing the asking. A bit more than I can cover in one blog post. In reality, the food-timing issue is a small fish compared to the much bigger and more important question: what works (nutritionally) for you?
For the person just getting started (or re-started) with their fitness, addressing the basic building blocks of nutrition will have a far bigger impact than any changes to your so-called “workout fueling”. That means getting a handle on WHAT you are eating, HOW MUCH food you need, and what kind of PLAN will actually work for your lifestyle. In this post, I want to give a rough overview of the key components to pay attention to as you move toward a better nutritional approach, and some general recommendations that work for most people as they get started.
Right off the bat, it’s worth exploring how your food intake affects your exercise experience. Food is often described as fuel by fitness people, but we don’t really like that simplistic descriptor. Food is much, much more than simply the gas that makes you go (Thanksgiving dinner comes to mind), and our bodies are far more adept at utilizing food than a car is at using gasoline. Unlike machines, human bodies maintain incredible levels of function--physical and mental--in ever-shifting conditions and with broad types of intake: for every vegan athlete competing in 100+ mile races, there is the retired Army Ranger thriving on a single, daily serving of grass-fed beef--and nothing else. Heck, an obese male could probably survive for a year off of just his body fat alone, provided he had water to drink (and plenty of interesting stuff to keep him from going insane!).
All this is just to say that given an adequate period of adjustment (and barring any significant abnormalities), we humans have choices when it comes how to best nourish ourselves. Anyone who adamantly disagrees with this and claims that there is only ONE way, is probably trying to sell you something. Whether we are talking about preparing ourselves for physical effort (pre-workout nutrition) or recovering from that effort (post-workout nutrition), each of us will feel and perform best when we find the personalized approach that reflects our lifestyle, our tastes, our physical demands, and the goals we have for our physicality.
The first step, then, in figuring out how and what to eat pre- and post-workout is to start paying attention. How do certain foods make you feel under the stressful conditions of intense, functional training? How is your workout quality affected by that pre-workout banana? How about results--are you in fact losing the body fat that you were aiming to lose? All the best research in the world doesn’t even come close to describing your own, personal experience in as intimate of detail as your own, thoughtful observation. In other words, YOU are the expert on you.
Once you have those observations (we recommend keeping a journal, or some kind of record), the next step is to strategically experiment. That means a.) implementing a specific food with consistency for at least 2 weeks, b.) recording how it affects you as described above, and c.) stepping back to see it’s overall efficacy--how is it working? Rinse and repeat! Follow this process through enough iterations, and a nutritional approach that is uniquely optimal for you will gradually come into focus.
Now, in practice, we have seen certain nutritional patterns repeat or overlap from person to person. Though the following guidelines are by no means “the answer”, they are a great framework to help you get started with your self-exploration:
- It is really, really easy to not drink enough water. Even if you’re “usually” pretty good about drinking water, a single day of low fluid intake (“I forgot my water bottle!” is the classic excuse we hear...) can have outsize effects on your workouts, your recovery (sleep) and your general well-being. So drink up! Keep a reusable water bottle with you at all times.
- While most people will describe themselves as “normal” eaters of protein, their actual intake varies widely, as do specific needs (a 200lb guy who wants to put the hurt on in Jiu-Jitsu class has different needs than a 130lb woman who wants to lose 5 pounds of fat). Low protein intake can make you feel weak, sore, and even affect hormone levels in a not-so-fun way. On a daily basis, aim for at least 1 gram of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. This metric comes from the clinical world (thus the annoying conversion to metric), but is an excellent place to start.
- If there’s one thing that about 99.4% of the fitness and nutrition coaching world can agree on it is this: vegetables rock, and you should eat them. Prioritize the leafy and green variety, but seriously, eat at least 2 big servings of veggies a day.
- Tell the low-fat voices in your head to shut the hell up. Proper fat intake is critical to literally hundreds of process body-wide, and it can be the difference maker for people with all types of goals from fat-loss to muscle gain and everything between. Aim for 2 thumb-size servings of healthy fats at every meal; as Coach Hannah says with loving insistence: “Fear not the fat!”
- Sugar should be an occasional treat, not a staple. This one is tough, as it runs contrary to the typical North-American diet, but it makes a really, really big difference. Limiting sugar helps you in so many ways, not least of which is feeling your true hunger cues--which helps you naturally manage portion size, and can be the difference-maker for people trying to lose body fat. On the performance side, athletes often report experiencing less soreness as their sugar (and overall carb) intake drops. Limit refined sugar intake to special occasions.
Next time you’re looking ahead to your next workout, and wondering how you should prepare for and recover from it, check and see if the items above are a regular part of your lifestyle. If you can make a small shift in most of your meals (and not just pre/post workout), you’ll notice big changes in your body and performance. Rather than feeling constricted to eating a super-specific thing pre- or post-workout, feel free to eat whatever you want! ...so long as it includes adequate protein, some veggies, healthy fat, and minimal refined sugar, alongside plenty of water (see what I did there?).
As you can imagine, the hard part of any lifestyle change is not getting the right information--it’s implementing that information day in and day out. Staying disciplined and consistent over time is not an easy slam-dunk. Having a coach to guide your process can keep you on track, help you fine tune, and ultimately be the the differentiator between a moment of “dieting” and a lifetime of feeding yourself well. Our one-on-one nutrition coaching is dedicated to working with you where you are now in order to make big changes. If you are interested, please drop us a line and let us know how we can help you!