What should I eat before and after I exercise?
Do I need specific snacks?
My answer to this question is basically my answer to everything: you have to experiment and see. Just as there's no one diet that is appropriate for everyone (shock of all shocks), not every person will do well with the same fuel surrounding exercise.
It depends on the type of exercise you do, the intensity, the duration, your goals, your lifestyle, your health status, etc.
You've got to experiment, listen, learn and adjust accordingly. There's no one formula that works for everyone. Unfortunately, it's just not that simple.
Below, I've given my recommendations for fueling yourself before and after exercise — including specific snack ideas. But first, be sure you're not making some of these common fueling mistakes.
Mistake #1: Overwhelmed with information.
I am a questioner. I don't take things at face value. I question what I'm told. I don't blindly follow recommendations from people. I dig, I research, I study. This is great for information gathering purposes. I'm well studied on the subjects I'm interested in (like food). This is not so great for decision making purposes. I find myself in analysis paralysis often. Overloaded with so much information that I feel trapped from making a move. I see this happening SO MUCH with people in regards to diet and food choices. Sometimes we get nuggets of information (even false information) lodged in our heads. They sink in there and fester and keep us from making sound, rational decisions (thought progression: I usually eat a banana before a run, but I heard fruit is too high in sugar, so I'm not really sure what to eat, so I just won't eat anything).
You can get lost down rabbit holes trying to figure out the exact science of training fuel: whether to go high fat or high carb, how to perfectly stack your macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) around exercise. I have found, however, that the majority of people just need to make sure they are putting some good quality fuel in the tank. It really is that simple for most of us. For the vast majority of recreational athletes, it's not necessary to apply those advanced dietary strategies for the goals we have.
Mistake #2: Not eating enough.
Some do this with the intention of losing weight. Thinking: working out is good for weight loss...working out and eating less is even better! Great idea in theory, not so great in practice.
It's counterintuitive, but here it is: eating less isn't always great for weight loss. Let me explain.
When we diet and restrict calories, muscle is often sacrificed - it's one of the first things our bodies start to catabolize in an energy defecit. So while you may lose weight, you are also losing muscle. The less muscle mass you have, the lower your resting metabolic rate is (meaning you burn less calories at rest). So you restrict calories = you lose weight = you lose muscle mass = your metabolism slows down = your body requires less calories to maintain = you have to eat less forever. This is one of the reasons why diets often fail, and why they aren't sustainable. Especially if you're active!
Many of my active clients don't realize how much food they actually need. I think people have a hard time seeing themselves as an athlete if they're not competing in something. But if you interval train, lift weights, swim, run, cycle, climb, practice athletic yoga, etc. more than a few times a week, then you're an athlete, and you have to fuel yourself as such. I will admit this to you: it took me a really long time for me to wrap my head around this.
In the past, whenever I started to see favorable body composition changes with my training, I would get fixated on maintaining those changes. I'd fall into the "some is good, more is better" trap, and I'd increase the training (duration, intensity or frequency) without increasing my nutrition. This always ended badly. One of two things would happen: my body composition progress would stall due to improper fuel, or I'd end up with some major physical malfunction or injury. But then I'd do it all over again. Like...so many times, you guys. It actually wasn't until I was dealing with some health stuff and my exercise goals shifted from aesthetics to healing that I was able to "see the light". I saw some interesting (favorable) changes in my body composition and realized I was eating more than I ever had (like over 2500 calories most days). When I made this connection, I actually laughed out loud.
Mistake #3: Relying heavily on protein powders.
The Cliff Notes: Many protein powders are rubbish, overpriced and unnecessary.
Proteins used can be low quality, and/or poorly absorbed by the body.
The added ingredients in many powders are icky.
Some powders contain "all the things" - vitamins, minerals, herbs, probiotics, prebiotics - which can actually be a huge waste of money, as your body can't assimilate all of these things at once, and you probably don't actually need all of these things.
Protein powders are usually unnecessary if you’re eating a proper whole food diet.
Replacing one of your meals with a protein powder is not something I condone. It's far more important to learn how to construct a nutritious snack or meal using whole foods.
I do think there can be a time and a place for protein powders — for example, right after an intense workout.
If you're looking for a decent whole foods protein powder, my favorite is Rootz Nutrition Paleo Protein Superfood. It has Egg white protein, sacha inchi protein and hemp protein - no weird isolates or junk. It also has coconut and banana for electrolytes, chia and flax, maca root, bee pollen, goji berries, blueberries, and a greens blend mixed in.
Check it out here and use code erinholthealth to receive 10% off your order!
Mistake #4: Relying on "Pre-workouts".
If you're not familiar with the term "pre-workout", great. You're probably better for it. Pre-workouts are supplements taken before exercise and are designed to increase your energy and endurance. They almost always contain caffeine or other stimulants (other typical ingredients include creatine, arginine, synthetic b-vitamins, artificial sweeteners, added flavors).
These supplements give you what I call "false energy" - they provide the sensation of feeling more energized, and let's face it, more capable, than you actually are. Supplements like these can take you out of sync with your body's signals, and can push you beyond your actual capabilities.
The way I see it: if you need artificial energy to fuel your workout, this is a problem.
If you're bonking during a workout, there's a reason for it. You need to figure that reason out. Are you not getting good quality sleep? Are stressors in your life taking a physical toll? Are you not eating enough? Masking these symptoms with a supplement doesn't make them go away. It just makes them more likely to showcase themselves louder and harder somewhere down the road.
I see this as an issue for many women - they’re running around exhausted, and rather than figure out where they can take a step back in their life, they instead rely on some exogenous form of energy. Whether this is in the form of coffee or a supplement, it has the potential to make the problem worse. If you have a need for a product like this, there’s a bigger issue at play that needs to be looked at.
Some of these products may also suppress your appetite, which I would not recommend for reasons stated above. If BEAST MODE is your goal, then you've gotta feed the beast.
If you're eating well, sleeping well and overall taking care of yourself and you want to enhance your workout with a whole foods-based product that doesn't have any weird ingredients, you can check out Rootz Nutrition Paleo Energizing Superfood blend. It contains plants and herbs to provide sustained energy and proper nutrients for high intensity exercise: Yerba Mate Extract, Guarana, Tongkat Ali Root, Rhodiola, Schizandra Berry, Asian Ginseng, Ginkgo Biloba, Raspberry, Lemon, Matcha Green Tea, Yohimbe Bark, Beetroot, Turmeric, Ginger, Devils Claw, Cinnamon, Goji Berry, Blueberry, Acai, Maca Root, Bee Pollen, Royal Jelly
Check it out here and use code erinholthealth to receive 10% off your order!
Mistake #5: Listening to all the gurus.
There's lots and lots of nutrition, exercise and wellness "experts". Everyone has an opinion. Many experts conflict with one another. Listening to everyone all the time can lead to overwhelm and confusion (see Mistake #1).
My advice is this: Be selective about the advice you follow. Be particular about where you invest your time and energy: who you follow on social media, blogs you read, newsletters you subscribe to, programs you sign up for.
Follow people who align with your values and who you can trust. Those that are not only educated, but experienced, and can provide testimonials from others they have worked with. Listen to those who have followed their own advice for a long time, those who walk their talk. And really be sure that you're being fed the right information for what you're looking to accomplish (if you're a casual yogi looking to lose some weight with your practice, you probably don't want to listen to nutrition advice from an endurance runner. Nothing wrong with endurance running, it's just not what you're looking to fuel yourself for).
The point is, rather than listen to what everybody in the world is preaching, figure out who you align with, and then apply their information to your lifestyle and your body to figure out what works best for you.
At the end of the day, you still have to experiment for yourself to see how YOUR body responds to different foods. I know this can be easier said than done. This is one place where it can be helpful to have access to a practitioner while you implement changes.
That’s exactly what my Carb Compatibility Project™ does. Throughout the 4 weeks of this online nutrition program, you can check in with me (and others on the journey) to assess in real time what’s working for you and what’s not.
When is a pre workout snack necessary? When should I eat it?
A few things factor into whether or not your body will require fuel prior to exercise. What time of day are you exercising? How much time has elapsed since your last meal? How substantial was your last meal? How long will your workout be? How intense? Are you bonking during your workout or do you have plenty of energy (without relying on stimulants or supplements)?
If you're bonking, you probably need more fuel (or less training, more sleep, less stress...but these are all topics for another blog).
If you workout first thing in the morning, you may be fine without eating anything. Key words: may be. Refer to some of the questions above to determine for yourself. Keep in mind here I'm talking first thing - exercising within an hour of waking. If it's going to be longer than that, think about a small snack beforehand.
If you workout later in the day and it's been more than 4 hours since your last meal, you might need a snack.
If you feel AT ALL shaky, lightheaded or wonky before exercise, then definitely eat a snack (and reevaluate the caloric intake of your previous meal).
I'd say eat your pre workout snack 60-90 minutes before training. There's definitely some wiggle room here, but that's a good starting point.
When is a post workout snack necessary? When should I eat it?
If you will be able to eat a meal within 30-60 minutes of completing your workout, then you probably don't need to worry about a post workout snack. If, however, you're going to run errands after the gym or hot yoga class, or you come in from a run, stretch, shower and head out to work (where you plan to eat breakfast at your desk), then definitely put some fuel in your tank sooner than later. This is where some protein powder + a banana (or
Keeping an “emergency” snack bar in your gym bag or yoga bag is always a smart idea!
1/2 roasted sweet potato + 2 T almond butter
1 pear + hard boiled egg
1 banana + 2 T tahini
2 medjool dates + small handful Brazil nuts
Small green smoothie (fruit, greens, coconut milk)
*These are primarily fat. If you currently eat a lower fat diet (30% or under), your body may not be used to digesting this much fat at once and Fuel Bites might sit too heavy before exercise.