Coach's Corner: What (And When) Should You Eat Around Your Workouts?
Updated: Apr 6
One of the things I get frequently asked is "what should I eat before I do the thing?" Well, my answer is "I don't know. The thing that works the best for you?" Very often that isn't the answer the judges were looking for.
Well, here's a knowledge gem for you my friends: I am a fitness coach. Meaning? I coach people on how to become more fit. Well, doesn't that include helping them fuel their bodies as well as possible? May be yes, most likely no. I don't know your food allergies. I don't know your inflammation foods. I don't know which ones your body will like the most.
The biggest reason I'm not your resource is because I'm not a nutritionist. I don't even want to play one on TV. Especially since there are people who know a lot more about eating the right ways than I do. And lets be honest, if you want a jack of all trades master of none answer of (as Dan John says) "eat like an adult, you're welcome." Then sure, let's talk.
If you want to get deep into nutrient timing, the best ways to ingest said nutrients and what those should be? Nope, don't look in my direction. If you do, I'll point you to TRH Online Fitness & Nutrition Coaching's Tiffany Heath, ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist, Precision Nutrition Level 2 Certified Coach.
See the word "Nutrition" in her credentials? I don't have that word in mine. See where I'm going with this? Something to the tune of "DAMMIT JIM!! I'm a fitness trainer not a tells you what to eat in detailed details person!"
With that being said, let's ask Coach Heath the question from the blog post title and see what advice gems she drops on you!
What (And When) Should You Eat Around Your Workouts?
Answer: It depends! What are your goals? Are you trying to lose fat, gain muscle, improve your performance? Improve your overall health?
Contrary to what the latest Instagram fitness trainer or the media might have you believe, most people don’t need to worry about any specific supplements, or workout nutrition guidelines. Focusing on eating high quality whole foods, in reasonable amounts that seem to work best for you, will help you have more energy, and help you feel and look better.
If you are exercising for general health & fitness, or even just trying to lose a few pounds of body fat, simply eating a normal, balanced meal 1-2 hours before and after exercise, taking into consideration your hunger and fullness cues, as well as your body type, is all you really need to focus on. It will also provide the energy for your workouts, as well as the nutrients to help you recover faster, and support a healthy ratio of body fat to lean muscle mass. Aim to focus on food quality and quantity. If on the other hand, you are an endurance athlete, or you really want to maximize muscle gain, the guidelines will change a little bit.
Let’s start with pre-exercise nutrition needs. What and when you eat before exercise can have a big impact on your performance and recovery. Your actual needs will vary depending on your size, goals, genetics, and the duration and intensity of your activity.
When to Eat
A good rule of thumb to keep in mind, is the more intense the workout, the more time you want to allow for you food to digest. Plan on eating 2-3 hours prior if you are eating a “normal” meal. If you want or need to eat anywhere from 0-60 minutes before your workout, you are going to want to eat a smaller, snack sized portion.
You might be wondering about working out in a fasted state. For example, what about exercising first thing in the morning? Once again, the answer to this will vary from person to person. Some people do really well in a fasted state, while others may not. The best way to find out? Experiment to see what works best for you. If you generally feel energized, and are able to push through your workouts without feeling like you’ve “hit the wall” or “bonked”, you might be fine just to continue as is. On the flip side, if you are used to working out from a fasted state, but notice you start to lose your momentum, or don’t have the energy to push yourself as hard as you’d like to, then you may want to try eating a little something beforehand to see if it makes a difference or not. Take note that it will take some trial and error to find what works best for you in regards to timing and what to eat. And if you are an athlete, trying something new right before an event isn’t the time to do this. You’ll want to experiment well in advance so you have it down for your event.
What to Eat
If you are eating right before your workout or within 60 minutes of your workout, you’ll want to eat foods that are easy to digest, and have a good balance of carbs, protein, and fats, and that you know your stomach tolerates well. Liquids are the perfect solution in this scenario. Ready to drink protein shakes or making your own Super Shake or smoothie is a great way to do this.
Carbohydrates before exercise fuel your training, help with recovery, and preserves muscle mass. Protein before exercise can help maintain or increase muscle mass, reduce muscle damage, and boost your muscle building capabilities. Fats before exercise help slow digestion (so please don’t go eating large amounts right before your workout), help maintain your blood glucose and insulin levels so you are even keeled during your workout.
Here's an example of a smoothie you could make for a pre-workout meal that has the perfect ratio of carbs, protein, and fats.
1 scoop of your favorite protein powder
1 handful of spinach or your favorite greens
1 banana OR cupped handful of frozen berries
1 Tbsp of your favorite natural nut butter
8 oz. water, or unsweetened almond, coconut, pea plant, or oat milk
If you are eating 2-3 hours before you exercise, you can eat a normal, balanced meal.
Next, let’s talk about during-exercise nutrition needs. Unless you are an athlete, or trying to gain a decent amount of muscle mass, you don’t need to eat during exercise! You’ll just want to focus on staying hydrated, and drinking water! If you do fall into the first category, your “what to eat” will be basically the same as the pre-nutrition guidelines. For endurance athletes who are training longer than two hours, sports drinks can be a huge help. Every hour you’ll want to consume 30-45 grams of carbs, and 15 grams of protein. Liquids, gels, or even solid foods that you tolerate and like are your best options.
Finally, let’s talk about post-exercise nutrition needs. What you eat after exercise helps with recovery, and can improve future performance as well. Unless you are an athlete or someone trying to really increase your muscle mass, or even gain weight, having a protein shake immediately after your workout isn’t necessary. Eating a normal balanced meal 1-2 hours after your workout will be just fine and provide optimal recovery. One more exception to this, is if you exercised from a fasted state. If this is the case, you will also want to eat sooner than later, and eating a normal balanced meal is just fine, as is a protein shake. It really comes down to your personal preferences.
In conclusion, remember that your actual needs will vary depending on your size, goals, genetics, and the duration and intensity of your activity. Context is important. An athlete running a marathon will have different needs then someone trying to lose weight. Exercising in 90 degrees with high humidity will be different than exercising in an air-conditioned gym for 30 minutes.
Prioritize high quality, whole food sources of protein, carbs, and fats to provide the optimal blend of nutrients that build muscle, give you energy, decrease inflammation, and boost your recovery. Pay attention to your hunger and satiety cues, and try to eat within that 1-2 hour window.
Last but not least, remember it takes trial and error to find what ultimately works best for you. You aren’t going to figure it out overnight. Be curious, open minded, and most importantly, have fun with it.