What to Eat Before and After Working Out
Since I have a weightlifting son who puts a lot of effort into timing his eating around his workouts, I started wondering whether I should be paying more attention to what I eat and when I eat it in conjunction with my workouts. Afterall, I, like most people, want to make sure that if I’m putting in that much effort, I’m getting the most out of it. To get the answers I was looking for, I turned to Dani Singer, CEO and Director of Fit2Go Personal Training in Baltimore, Maryland. In this Q&A, Dani fills us in on all of the do’s and some of the don’ts of eating for exercise and what we should be eating before and after working out.
Peppermint Tea & Me: We know that elite athletes and weightlifters are cognizant of what they eat when in order to optimize their workouts or training, but do regular people need to do the same when we’re exercising if the goal is not necessarily weight loss but to become or stay healthy?
Dani Singer: A big part of that comes down to the individual. If you’re running, it’s going to come down to how well you can perform during the run, how well you can improve your cardiovascular efficiency and what makes you feel good after. Whatever exercise you’re doing, it’s about how you can perfect your personal performance. If eating a certain way before a run or workout makes you perform worse, then don’t do it. If it makes you feel better, do it.
PT&M: Is there a certain timeframe in which we should eat before we exercise?
DS: What, for most people, works really well is to eat at least 30 minutes if not 60 minutes before their run or when they exercise. That’s where to start. Some people will be great 30 minutes before, and some people will eat 30 minutes before and they’ll be like, ‘Oh my God no, I get so nauseous, I have to do 60 minutes before.’ So, start with that kind of recommendation of you want to do it 30 to 60 minutes before and see what works for you.
PT&M: What should be eaten before we exercise?
DS: What you want usually is some kind of quick digesting carb around your workouts, which is different than what you usually want to have. Most of the time you want to have slow digesting carbs. You want to have something like whole wheat, brown rice, and something with whole grain, whole fiber. But when you’re doing your workout, that’s when you want the simple, quickly digesting carbs because you want them to be easily converted into fuel, as you’re running, weightlifting, or whatever you’re doing.
You don’t want to have a huge meal, because you just don’t want to have so much that you feel too full and it’s slowing you down, and you don’t want to have too little that you’re feeling hungry and that you are not able to perform as well. Generally, we recommend for clients to do something like a smoothie. Where it will be a fruit smoothie, so the fruit is simple, there’s simple, quick digesting carbs, and we’ll have some Greek yogurt or some protein powder or something in there. If you have both the protein and the quick digesting carbs, that’s really what you need for your workout. One serving of simple carbs, one serving of protein, and then for most people, they’re good to go.
PT&M: How does our nutrition impact what we get out of our exercise?
DS: Everything comes down to conversion of energy. You’re constantly expending energy by breathing, by just being alive. And then when you are exercising, you’re intentionally expending more energy. So, the energy has to come from somewhere. The primary sources of energy our body uses are glucose or fat. Glucose is sugar. All carbs are composed of sugar, and glucose is your body’s preferred source of energy. It’s the best. It can be converted to energy the most readily and the most effectively for your body. Whether it’s an apple, whether it’s brown rice, or whether it’s white rice, all carbs are just chains of simple sugars. So, it’s a question of how long those chains are. Whole grains will be longer chains. Fruit will be smaller chains. The idea is that the smaller chains are more easily broken down. So, if you’re having fruit, it can be quickly broken down and then your body can use it. If you’re having something with whole grain, your body is going to take a long time to break that down before it can actually utilize it. That’s why generally if you’re eating those quick digesting carbs, it’s just spiking your insulin. You usually don’t want that, but you do want that readily available around your workout.
PT&M: What should we eat after we exercise?
DS: If you’re just having a banana and a Greek yogurt before your workout, you’re probably still going to be hungry afterward. Then it might be a good time to have breakfast. You might have some eggs and some oatmeal or something like that, but I wouldn’t say that you necessarily need to have a meal at a certain time after.
PT&M: I think most people have heard the saying “You have 30 minutes to recover” after you exercise, but what does that really mean?
DS: There’s the idea of the anabolic window, which is somewhere between 30 to 90 minutes post workout. Anabolic means just building up. In fitness, we’re talking about building up muscle. When you’re doing your workout, you’re breaking down your muscle fibers and then you have that window where it can most readily utilize nutrition to repair and to build back stronger muscles. The initial research on the anabolic window was done probably 10 years ago at least. Since then, more research has shown that it’s really like 24 hours after your workout that you have that anabolic window. There may be some extra benefit to doing it within 30 to 90 minutes, but the only ones really pushing that strongly are the protein powder companies.
PT&M: If someone is trying to lose weight, eating just after exercising may seem counterintuitive. Do the same rules apply in those cases?
DS: One thing I would caution against is when people are thinking about losing weight, is not to think, ‘Okay I just burned all these calories, so let me not eat now, or I’m going to eat later.’ Because if you’re holding back from eating, specifically if you are hungry and you’re holding back, not only is it not healthy, but you’re going to end up, for most people, they’ll end up just eating even more later. What matters with weight loss is the total calories throughout the day. So, don’t stress about having to put them around your workout, other than how it affects your workout and your performance.