One of the questions we get asked the most as nutrition consultants is,
"When should I eat before and after my workouts?"
This is generally referred to as meal timing and we believe there is no other aspect of a training more important than getting your meal timing right.
In this blog, we will tell you
- when and how to eat before, during and after workouts,
- and why the simple answers are the most effective.
Before you go buy that next pre-workout shake (read our blog on supplement rankings here), take a look at our advice on how to kick butt during your workout and set yourself up for success in the next one.
It All Starts With Basic Clean Eating and Hydration
No single change in your nutrition lifestyle will make as great of an impact as replacing processed foods with real foods.
We talk about this a lot because there is simply no substitute. As Brian Mackenzie says in his excellent book Power, Speed, Endurance,
"If you don't eat properly, hydrate well, and keep your electrolytes in balance, it doesn't matter how technically proficient you are----your performance will suffer."
While you might be able to bio-hack a workout here or there, serious athletes will tell you it is all about the day to day nutrition that matters most during a race or a workout. If you want to read more about where you should start your own nutrition journey, read our blog on How to Create and Amazingly Personalized Nutrition Plan here. If you feel like you already eat healthy enough on a daily basis, then let's move on and talk about specific times to work out.
The Early Riser
Working out at 5 AM is great. You start your day off with a stress-relieving activity and set yourself up for a great day. The downside is figuring out when to eat. In all the years we spent as CrossFit box owners, this was the question we received the most.
Because who really wants to get up and finish eating by 3 AM to work out at 5 AM?
It is not realistic and therefore we need to look at early morning workouts a little differently. Assuming you ate a healthy diet the day before, we can make two important suggestions. First, drink 8-16 oz of water first thing in the morning. If you need to, fill up a glass the night before and put it on your night stand or bathroom counter. Not only will drinking water begin to rehydrate your body with lost fluids overnight, but it kick-starts your brain and helps with focus during the workout.
If you want to try something cool, weigh yourself right before you go to bed and then first thing in the morning. Look at the difference in weight and you will know first hand what your body has been up to during the night.
The second step is actually to eat closer to your workout and not further away. This is assuming you could not finish eating at least one hour prior to your workout starting. The reason is eating at 45 minutes can actually have a negative effect due to the increased insulin your body will produce to help control your blood glucose levels. Instead, you want to eat a fast acting energy source like unsweetened apple sauce about 15 minutes before your workout. It is a quick sugar (energy) source that has little fiber and no fat. Remember, fiber slows down digestion and fats take longer to digest, so both are negatives this close to working out. Otherwise, you run the risk of your body working harder to digest which means less overall energy to devote to working out.
Working Out at Other Times
If you are not a 5 AM warrior, there is a good chance you will be able to eat 2 hours prior to working out. How much and what you eat largely depends on what you can tolerate and how much time there is prior. For example, most athletes will be able to eat a decent sized meal 2 hours prior and still have plenty of time for digestion. These meals should have relatively equal portions of carbs, fat, and protein in them with variances based on individual goals or needs.
However, if you are eating 1 hour prior, you will want to reduce the overall size of the meal and focus more on carbs and protein and less on fat. This goes back to the previous statement about fat taking longer to digest. Ultimately, your pre-workout nutrition is going to be mostly dependent on your overall diet and hydration protocols. Beyond that, it is simply about watching what you eat and how close you are to the workout.
As a general rule, we are not fans of pre-workout supplements because they often have questionable ingredients in them. For example, LabDoor.com tested 25 different popular brands and found that many "proprietary blends" were mostly caffeine based. One product even had 400mg of caffeine in its blend and it was not stated on the label.
Not only is that too much caffeine, it will negate any other positive nutrition effects.
If you are worried about losing important supplements like BCAA's and creatine prior to the workout, we would suggest researching them individually and combining them into a shake or otherwise. You can find out the top ranked supplements on our Amazon page here. Both the BCAA and creatine supplements that ranked highest were also some of the cheapest per serving. It is definitely worth checking out.
Eating During a Workout
Luckily, if your workout is like a typical CrossFit workout and less than 60 minutes long, you do not need to eat during a workout.
However, if you are going to be active for more than minutes, you should start thinking about replacing your glycogen stores with popular foods like dates which have been used by endurance athletes for years. If you don't think you can tolerate dates or are used to the gels or gummies, you can actually make your own. Here is a video on how to do it for cheap. We would personally use some higher quality ingredients, but the video does a good job of showing you how to make them. The key to eating during a workout is trial and error. Since every person will tolerate foods like dates or gel packets differently, you will want to experiment with different options that give you a quality carbohydrate source and help build back your glycogen stores.
Post-Workout and Recovery Meals
There are two parts to this section. What you eat immediately after a workout and then what you eat 60-90 minutes after.
Let's start with the first 15-minute window. We like how Dr. Loren Cordain, founder of the Paleo Diet, explains it in his book The Paleo Diet For Athletes. He says,
"At no other time in the day is your body as receptive as it is now to macronutrient intake. Research shows that the restocking of the muscles' carbohydrate stores is two to three times as rapid immediately after exercise as it is a few hours later. In the same way, other research reveals that the repair of muscles damaged during exercise is more effective if a protein is consumed immediately after exercise. Don't delay."
We could not have said it better ourselves. You are doing yourself a great disservice if you do not have a plan for consuming quality nutrients right after working out. Because this window is so short, it is essential to have the right fuel with you at the gym. After looking for a product we thought would fit our high standards and not finding it, we came up with our own recipe which you can get for free here. We call it 5/15 Recovery because it has five basic ingredients that you take within 15 minutes. It is powder based so it can sit in your gym bag or car all day until you need it and only requires adding water to it.
Of course, there are other options out there for people would rather not drink something. One of our favorites is the organic baby food packets you can find at most grocery stores. Plum Organics makes several versions, but something like the Butternut Squash, Carrots, and Chick Peas would work. Just make sure to read the ingredients label carefully to make sure there are only basic ingredients inside and nothing artificial added sweeteners, or food dyes. Other popular starch choices include sweet potatoes which many athletes swear by for a quick post-workout snack that starts protein synthesis.
Outside of the 15-minute window, you want to eat a more substantial meal no more than 60-90 minutes out from finishing your workout. We found several of our athletes had difficulty with this in the morning because they would typically finish working out and then head off to work. If they weren't prepared, hunger would set in quickly in the car and they would find themselves at Starbuck's or in a drive-through looking for a quick bite.
This is not where you want to be after just putting in the hard work at the gym.
Plan ahead of time if you won't have access to a microwave or a kitchen within that hour to 90 minutes. While meal replacement shakes are certainly an option (you can read about our version here), a more balanced whole food choice is better. The key here is to set yourself up for success for the next workout and beyond.
Meal timing is not an exact science as some diets would have you believe. While everyone will benefit from real food and following our guidelines above, everybody is unique enough to need personalized nutrition plans.