What we put into our bodies before, during and after we hit the gym, head out for a jog or play a game, can impact the effectiveness of our exercise.
To get the most out of your workout, consider both what you eat and when you eat it, says Montreal-based registered dietitian Pearle Nerenberg, a former NCAA hockey player and founder of nutrition consulting company Eat This For Performance.
Nerenberg believes thinking about the combination of nutrients is important, too. If you’re eating three or four hours before a workout, she says, you’ll want a balanced meal with grains or starches loaded with carbohydrates to fuel your body with energy, protein to help build and repair muscles, and fruits or vegetables to keep your body working in tip-top shape. But things change as you get closer to your workout time and your body has less chance to digest and utilize nutrients. Here’s what you need to eat and drink before, during and after, to increase your odds of a great workout or winning game!
What to eat before a workout
4 hours before
Mix: Arugula + Beets + Goat Cheese + Couscous
This dish is a perfect pre-game lunch or dinner and is best eaten 3 to 4 hours pre-workout. It has all of the essential macronutrients, plus nitrates in the vegetables. “Some good research shows that if you have nitrate-rich arugula before you do an activity, you will perform better because it increases your muscle’s ability to use oxygen,” Nerenberg explains. You can also get those nitrates in closer to your exercise (say 15 minutes out) by juicing beets and carrots, she suggests, since juice is easier to digest in a short time. (Try this Beet and Strawberry Smoothie.)
3 hours before
Sauté: Peppers + Tomato Sauce + Tofu + Whole Wheat Pasta
2 hours before
Blend: Greens + Fresh Fruit + Soy Milk
1 hour before
15 minutes before
Juice: Pears + Beets + Carrots
That balanced lunch may not be enough to sustain you if you’re heading into a really intense late afternoon workout. It’s important to have enough fuel in the tank to not only power your game or cardio class, but to also keep you going post-workout. “Snacks are encouraged beforehand to ensure your body has enough energy to perform at maximum efficiency during the activity,” says Paige Hayes, a sports-nutrition-focused registered dietitian based in Swift Current, Sask. Greek yogurt is an ideal choice, since it contains carbs and protein in a single portion. Whole-grain toast and a boiled egg, regular yogurt with nuts or grapes and cheese will also give you just the right combo. Carbs fuel your muscles as well as your brain, which will help you concentrate. “Athletes sometimes find that if they don’t have a snack beforehand or don’t fuel properly throughout the day, they fatigue earlier and have less focus during their workout,” she explains.
Between sets, or partway through your game, focus on hydrating. If your match goes into overtime, or you’re switching from, say, a cardio session to a weight-training circuit, you may want a sports drink — Hayes says most people don’t often need a snack during a workout. “[If ] it’s greater than 60 minutes of high intensity exercise I would recommend hydrating with water or a sports drink and having a recovery snack,” she says. But if you have an hour between sets, matches or classes, she says go for a food-based snack, like fruit and nuts or cheese and crackers, which, she notes, offer a wider range of nutrients.
What to eat after a workout
0 – 30 minutes after
Water + Blend: Yogurt + Banana + Peanut Butter
0 – 30 minutes after
Water + Assemble: Tortilla wraps + Mozzarella Cheese
0 – 30 minutes after
Soy Milk + Enjoy Together: Carrot Sticks + Hummus
Hayes says that you should definitely eat and drink within half an hour of finishing your activity to refuel, rehydrate and rebuild your body. “In some cases, those that don’t do recovery nutrition will find that they are more fatigued, or they have more muscle soreness, or their performance is lacking the next time that they exercise,” explains Hayes.
Food combinations are important here, as well. Hayes suggests a snack that contains carbs and protein, the former to replace the glycogen stores in your muscles, and the latter to repair and rebuild any damage done to your muscles. Some go-to post-workout snack ideas she recommends are Greek yogurt and a piece of fruit, cottage cheese and peach slices, or whole-grain cereal with milk. Nerenberg agrees that carbs and protein are the way to go. She suggests a smoothie made with yogurt, banana and peanut butter, or a tortilla wrap with mozzarella cheese.
When it comes to what to drink to replace the fluids you lost during your activity, both Hayes and Nerenberg agree that water is the drink of choice. But Hayes says chocolate milk is another option, especially if you’re short on time. “If you’re hopping off to go to a meeting, chocolate milk is probably the best out there to provide you with carbohydrates, proteins and your fluid needs,” she explains. “The chocolate gives it an extra boost. And I find people generally like chocolate milk, so it’s an easy way to get that recovery going.”