You invest time, sweat, money, and maybe even tears into your workouts in order to help yourself look, feel, and perform better. But, are you doing the one thing that can ensure you have the energy you need, to keep your muscles healthy, and help you get the most benefit from your workouts? Are you properly nourishing your body for a maximum return on your workout investment?
I often ask my clients to tell me about what they ate in a day, and after 10 years in my profession, I still hear many of the same answers. Some people insist on skipping breakfast, others aren’t consuming enough calories/nutrients, and a few still struggle with planning their meals ahead of time.
I have heard of and seen numerous people post-workout sessions, scarfing down a power nutrition bar or chugging a sports drink in hopes to “replenish” their body. Now, it’s not that these are necessarily all “bad” choices overall, but they may not be the “best” options to ensure you get the most out of your healthy efforts. Proper nourishment provides whole-body benefits that start at a cellular level.
A Quick Physiology Lesson
When working out, we use fuel and breakdown tissues at the micro-level. Glycogen, a carbohydrate that is stored in muscles and the liver, is the major fuel source used during activity. That means that when you are running, biking, lifting weights, or engaged in a quality workout, your body uses glycogen (carbohydrates) to keep you moving. As a result, by the end of a good training session, your glycogen reserves are highly depleted. Additionally, physical activity makes your body break down old, damaged proteins, and construct new ones. This protein breakdown and construction phase occurs after a workout, and it is the relationship between breakdown and construction that helps determine muscle growth. However, muscle growth can only occur when we have enough raw materials for protein construction to take place. And, that only happens when we properly nourish our cells.
Basically, regardless of your age or gender, consuming the proper pre and post workout nutrients can provide benefits that make all that huffing and puffing pay off. Consuming the right type of workout “fuel” can help the body through:
- Improved recovery
- Less muscle soreness
- Increased ability to build muscle
- Improved immune function
- Improved bone mass
- Improved ability to utilize body fat
If you are convinced that what you eat is important… Read On!
With the body needing glycogen for fuel, and protein for muscle growth, pre-workout nourishment needs to be more than just fruit and water, for example.
Your pre-workout food goals should be to:
- Consume a carbohydrate-rich snack or meal to make sure you have enough glycogen for fuel
- Include a bit of protein to help repair and build muscle tissue during your workout
- Select foods that are low in fat and low fiber for optimal digestion
Every body breaks down food at a different rate, so you may need to experiment with your body’s own personal timing to find what gives you the best performance. However, ideally, you should fuel your body about 2-3 hours before an intense workout. Some pre-exercise fueling meals include:
- Fresh ground peanut butter and local honey on Ezekiel bread
- Organic Greek yogurt with fresh berries
- Fruit, vegetable and protein smoothie (I prefer vegan or organic whey protein)
- Oatmeal with organic milk, almonds, and a banana
- Lean chicken breast, a spinach/kale salad, and a sweet potato
Some people do better with a small snack 30-60 minutes before their workout, so get some fluids such as water with lemon, or pure coconut water, and eat something light such as:
- A piece of fruit (banana or apple)
- A handful of unsalted nuts and fresh grapes
- A small pre-workout smoothie with fruits, vegetables, and protein
Post-Workout Rebuilding and Replenishing
After your workout, you need to replenish the nutrients lost as a result of your activity. The first 30 – 45 minutes after exercise is the optimal time for refueling. During this “window of opportunity” the body is most able to recover.
Your post-workout goals should include:
- Restore fluid and electrolytes (sodium and potassium) lost through sweat
- Replace muscle fuel (carbohydrates)
- Provide protein to aid in the repair of damaged muscle tissue, and stimulate the development of new muscle tissue
In general, a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates and proteins are recommended in that 30-45 minute window. Food options can include snacks or meals such as:
- Post-workout smoothie
- Grilled chicken with steamed fresh veggies, farro
- Tuna fish on Ezekiel bread with spinach
- Lean turkey breast, on salad greens, baked sweet potato
- Quinoa bowl with beans, avocado, and fresh salsa
- Stir fry with lean meat, broccoli, bell peppers, carrots, and brown rice
Again, I can’t stress how important it is to get your post-workout re-fueling within the first 30 – 45 minutes after a workout. If you are short on time, eat a small snack, such as a protein shake, within the “window”, and then consume a healthy meal within 2 hours of your workout for efficient nutrient absorption.
How Much You Should Eat Post-Workout
Now that you understand the importance of proper nourishment, let’s look at the amount you should be consuming. While there are many ways we could categorize nutrient requirements, I want to keep things simple:
Protein & Carb Amounts to Consume Post-Workout
- 20 – 35g protein
- 40 – 65g high complex carbohydrates
again, it’s best to consume both in one whole food meal within 30 to 45 minutes of completing your workout
Most people today know that “No Pain, No Gain” is NOT the best recipe for a beneficial workout. In fact, research has shown that chronic workout pain indicates you are putting too much stress on your body, and as such you are doing more harm than good. To help with muscle recovery and reduce soreness, stretching and antioxidants can provide the extra support you need.
There is a lot of talk about the importance of antioxidants in health, but few people really understand what they are and what they do. We could write a book on antioxidants and the body, but let’s just look at the role they plan in muscle health.. at least for now. Antioxidants are substances that decrease free radical damage to our cells. Free radicals are responsible for destabilizing muscle tissue. Antioxidants can help limit the cellular breakdown produced by training, help reduce swelling and inflammation, and help remove metabolic waste from muscles. They also minimize collateral damage to surrounding tissues.
Eating fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants can aid in the maintenance and growth of your muscles. So, when you are selecting your pre or post workout nourishment, include foods that are high in antioxidants such as:
- Blueberries, Raspberries, or Blackberries
- Spinach, Kale, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Broccoli, and Brussel Sprouts
- Ginger, Onion, Garlic, Chives, Peppers
- Carrots, Peas, Tomatoes
- Grapes, Cherries, Pomegranate
- Orange, Pineapple, Lemon, Grapefruit, Watermelon
- Plums, Prunes, Dates, Apricots
- Walnuts, Sunflower Seeds
- Pinto beans, Fava Beans
For many athletes and even general exercisers, stretching is the least favorite part of a workout. Maybe because it can sometimes feel like self inflicted pain, or seemingly takes too long. However, there are several benefits associated with stretching that makes it a vital role in your health routine.
- Stretching can help improve and/or maintain joint and muscle range of motion
- Stretching can release tension in the muscle and decrease pain
- Stretching promotes circulation, allowing for a faster removal of metabolic waste, while helping nutrients (such as glycogen and amino acids) get to the cells more quickly
- Improves functional performance by maintaining muscle elasticity and range of motion
Stretching lightly before a workout and stretching deeper and long after a workout can provide that extra advantage you need in order to get the most from the time and energy you allocate to your health.
Capitalizing on Your Investment
Overall, if you want to truly get the most benefit from your workouts, you need to make sure you are providing your body with the tools it needs. By consuming the right combination of carbohydrates and proteins at the right times, selecting foods that are high in antioxidants, and including pre and post workout stretching, your body has what it needs to function at an optimal level.