Best Pre and Post Workout Foods
Fueling before and after your workout is critical.
Eating clean beforehand will give you the oomph to rip up that WOD. Refueling properly after will help your body build muscle and recover quickly.
So stop eating crap that drains energy and impedes healing.
Those sugary Powergades and processed chalkbars are killing your results.
We gathered the latest research and polled the experts to bring you the most effective (and mouthwatering) fuel. Here’s the ultimate guide to the best pre and post workout foods:
Why is pre-workout fuel important?
Some people can jump out of bed and run 10k on an empty stomach. Most of us can’t even roll out of bed, let alone jump.
Unless you’ve tested an empty-stomach workout and know it works best for you, the ideal is to eat two to three hours beforehand.
This meal does three main things:
- Sustains energy
- Boosts performance
- Speeds recovery
How it works:
Exercise physiologist Lyle McDonald of Military Fitness explains that pre-workout meals are broken down into two phases:
- Phase I (2-3 hours before the workout): The body converts carbohydrates within the muscle and liver to stored glycogen. This stored energy will sustain long endurance runs or high-intensity training.
- Phase II (30 minutes before the workout): Anything consumed in this window will be used immediately by the body to boost blood glucose levels and drive a more explosive, energetic workout.
Reserve high-fiber and high-fat foods for phase one. The closer you are to exercising, the smaller your meal should be.
“Foods that take much longer to assimilate and digest take precious blood flow away from the musculature and brain during exercise as the body shunts blood flow to assist in digestion,” McDonald says.
This is why eating too close to your workout could cause nausea during exercise.
Wait a sec…what’s glycogen?
Muscle glycogen is the predominant fuel source used during long bouts of aerobic exercise. In fact, aerobic performance is directly related to initial glycogen stores. Once glycogen is depleted, the athlete will feel fatigued and performance will suffer.
The Winning Formula
Low-GI carbohydrate (slow-release energy)
Moderate-GI sugar (fast-burning boost)
Protein (muscle builder)
Simple carbs burn quickly, like paper, while complex carbs burn like wood and take a little longer to provide energy…combine both types of carbs—a perfect way to fuel your workout from start to finish.
Lentils or Black Beans
An excellent source of protein and low GI carbohydrates, these two legumes provide great slow-release energy. [What the heck is low GI? We got you: Glycemic Index Explained]
This study found, “low glycemic index (GI) foods may confer an advantage when eaten before prolonged strenuous exercise by providing a slow-release source of glucose to the blood without an accompanying insulin surge.”
They’re also extremely high in folate, a powerful B vitamin, which helps produce dopamine, releasing feelings of self-confidence and motivation, and converts glucose into energy. An ideal pre-workout food for endurance training or longer cardio workouts.
With double the protein of regular yogurt, Greek yogurt also has fewer carbs, sugars, and sodium, making it a pre-workout powerhouse. Strength and conditioning specialist Skyler Meine, says: “Unless you’re lactose intolerant, it’s easy on the stomach.”
Greek yogurt is ideal before intense activity or bouncing exercises like jumping jacks or plyometrics, which tend to spell tummy trouble after a heavy meal. Add fruit, honey, or whole-grain cereal for an extra energy kick.
Coconut Milk + Steel Cut Oatmeal
Nutty, omega-3-packed coconut milk is a full-flavor upgrade to your pitiful oatmeal packet. Swap the highly processed Quaker Oats for steel cut, which has a lower GI score and more fiber.
Slowly releasing glucose into the bloodstream without the insulin spike, and B vitamins to boost metabolic conversion, oatmeal provides sustained energy and satiation.
Dr. Louise Burke, author and professor at the Australian Institute of Sport, crowns bananas “nature’s PowerBar.”
Bananas are loaded with digestible carbohydrates (read: fuel) and are packed with potassium, which aids in maintaining nerve and muscle function. The body doesn’t store potassium for very long, so a medium banana before a workout will help keep nutrient levels high.
– Dr. Louise Burke, Researcher at the Austrialian Institute of Sport, in Men’s Fitness
The banana is a total boss, actually. It’s also linked to boosting alertness, lowering blood pressure, and fighting heart disease.
People tend to skip fruit and other foods that are high in carbs, but protein doesn’t break down fast enough to become fuel for a workout. The carbs from fruit break down quickly and the protein is used later to prevent muscle damage.
High in protein and unsaturated fats, nut butters are a health food fav. However, almond butter is superior to peanut butter for your pre-workout load up.
Minimally processed with fewer added sugars, it also has double the cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fat.
Nutritional therapist Justine Campbell reports, “Almond butter contains almost double amounts of magnesium (28%) and iron (15%), triple amounts of the antioxidant vitamin E (28%), four times as much calcium.”
-Justine Campbell of AloWellness
Plus, almonds can protect against insulin resistance and prediabetes.
Spread one tablespoon of almond butter on a slice of whole wheat toast for a long, slow-burning energy supply.
Cup of Coffee
Is it magic, you ask? Quite possibly.
This study admits they haven’t yet determined why caffeine is so effective: “Caffeine may work, in part, by creating a more favorable intracellular ionic environment in active muscle.”
Meaning, coffee makes your muscles go ape shit. We don’t know why – but take advantage!
Why is post-workout fuel important?
Congrats, brah. Now that you’ve sweated through your muscle T, it’s time to replenish those tired muscles. Eating after a heavy workout will help your body:
- Build bone mass
- Rebuild muscle and speed recovery
- Lessen muscle soreness
- Replenish glycogen stores to improve future performance
It’s the repair process that makes us stronger or fitter, not the workout itself. This is why good recovery is so important.
-Jennifer Koslo of Precision Nutrition
How it works:
When you workout, you’re breaking down muscle tissue. Each bench press creates micro-tears in the pectoral and bicep muscles, enabling your body to rebuild them stronger.
Thus, post-workout nutrition is critical to feed those sore muscles the raw materials needed to recover and build strength.
- Post-workout meals capitalize on the increased blood flow, more efficiently delivering nutrients to depleted cells and muscle fibers.
- Giving your muscles the proper amino acids and glucose speeds protein turnover, the process of breaking down damaged proteins and synthesising new (stronger) muscle fibers.
The Winning Formula:
Carbs to restore muscle glycogen (fuel for your next workout)
Anti-inflammatories (to ease soreness / speed recovery)
Protein (to rebuild muscle)
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are used by your body for making muscles, hormones, neurotransmitters, bones and all sorts of other important things. Exercise depletes critical amino acids such as glutamine, valine, isoleucine and leucine–and the way you replenish your body’s supply is with protein.
Tart Cherry Juice and Ginger
Tart cherry juice and ginger have been found to decrease exercise–induced inflammation and delay onset muscle soreness, Today’s Dietitian reports.
This study found that flavonoids and anthocyanins in tart cherries are responsible for suppressing inflammation. Participants drank 11 ounces of the antioxidant-rich anti-inflammatory tart cherry juice twice per day prior to and on the day of a 16-mile race. After the race, the tart cherry group reported one-third the pain scores of the placebo group.
And this study confirmed several chemical constituents in ginger, such as gingerols, shogaols, paradols, and zingerone, block the production of inflammatory compounds and inhibit enzymes that increase pain and inflammation in the body.
Forget the fancy sports drinks, the ideal post-workout recovery beverage can be found in your fifth grader’s lunchbox. Containing an ideal balance of carbs and protein, milk is also rich in calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D.
Multiple studies found the aerobic power and muscle recovery of athletes drinking chocolate milk post-workout was far superior to those drinking sports drinks like Gatorade. Not only that, this study found chocolate milk created significant increase in lean muscle mass and lowered body fat.
Aerobic Exercise Training Adaptations Are Increased by Post exercise Carbohydrate-Protein Supplementation
Athletes consuming chocolate milk (CM) after their workout showed the highest gain in lean muscle mass and loss of fat mass, resulting in the highest muscle/fat differential.
A word of caution, though: Chocolate milk, like other sports drinks, is loaded with sugar. Keep the serving size to 230 milliliters (one half pint carton). You want to replenish your energy stores, but not glug down all the calories you just burned!
Super Fly Fish + Quinoa
Restore muscles with superstar omega-3s: anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and heart healthy, the protein and unsaturated fats of wild salmon are excellent for workout recovery.
Combine it with a serving of quinoa, this non-grain is a powerhouse of protein and fiber (along with micronutrients like magnesium, folate, iron, and potassium). Perfect to stimulate protein synthesis and glycogen restoration.
Bonus: it’s crazy delish. That’ll beat a chalky PowerBar any day, amiright?
The Recovery Fruits:
A recent study in New Zealand found that blueberries were especially helpful in speeding up recovery time and alleviating soreness. Plus, they’ve got phytonutrients a go-go, these berries have the highest of antioxidant capacity of any fruit, vegetable, or spice.
Native to China, where it’s know as the “gooseberry,” the golden kiwi is an excellent recovery fruit. The skin is less hairy, the Produce for Better Health Foundation reports, making it more convenient when consuming the inflammation-fighting flavanoids (organic antioxidants) concentrated in the peel.
The yellow flesh is sweeter than the green kiwi, reminiscent of mango or melon. Eat two small kiwis for a punch of vitamin E and C, both of which fight inflammation and post-workout soreness.
Plus it’s got omega 3 fatty acid in the seeds, and a gram of protein per fruit. Boom!
Sweet Potato + Grilled Chicken
Are you still eating white potatoes? Gurl. The sweet potato is like Yukon Golds on crack: it’s lower on the glycemic index, packed with vitamins B6, C, D, and rich in iron, magnesium, potassium, and beta carotene. It’s such a nutrient all-star, they’re one of the only starches allowed on the paleo diet. Combine it with a lean protein like grilled chicken and it’s the ultimate post-workout fuel.
One egg packs in more than six grams of protein, and with a yolk rich in choline, a B vitamin that reduces chronic inflammation and promotes nerve-to-muscle communication, it’s also rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, antioxidants linked to eye health.
Load it up with fresh veggies like diced tomatoes (bone-strengthening lycopene), mushrooms (rich in iron), and spinach (hello flavonoids!).
It seems like green tea can do anything, right? It’s said to protect against cancer, speed fat loss, improve brain function, boost immunity, and lower cholesterol.
What’s its magical ingredient? A lil’ chemical with a big name: epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG).
And it’s one of the most powerful naturally-occuring cancer-fighting compounds. And what can EGCG do for you after spin class? These teetotaling researchers found EGCG’s antioxidant power helps temper muscle-cell oxidative damage (strains and tears); the study participants experienced less joint pain and muscle soreness.
Drink one cup a day for maximum health promoting effects.
Before. During. After. (Duh)
It’s critical to stay hydrated. Not with Powergade or Vitasugar. Pure, simple H20.
If you drop to just one percent dehydration, you’re compromising your cardio max, restricting blood flow, and lowering cardiac efficiency. Plus, you’ll be cranky. Don’t be that guy.
Go forth and fuel.
Use these formulas to ensure your body performs better and recovers faster. Now you have all the tools for fueling your body before a workout, and replenishing it after.
May you never drink Powergade again!
Latest posts by Emily Hill (see all)
- The Factor 75 Workout Recovery Guide
Over 10 of our ultimate hacks for faster recovery. What else besides foam rolling? - February 3, 2017
- What is “Cold Thermogenesis”?
Basically you voluntarily plunge into ice tanks. Regularly. - February 1, 2017
- Top Winter Workout Myths That Are Holding You Back at the Gym - December 27, 2016