Because housing a bag of cheese puffs after your run is apparently not the most productive strategy.
FYI: What you eat before and after exercising can make a huge difference in your workout and your results.
Fueling up with the proper foods can keep your energy levels up, prevent muscle loss, and actually help build muscle. Basically, it can make or break your workout. So to learn more about how your food impacts your fitness, BuzzFeed Health reached out to registered dietitians Brian St. Pierre, director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition, and Albert Matheny, certified strength and conditioning specialist at ProMix Nutrition and Soho Strength Lab.
Keep in mind that their recommendations are for people who are working out for general health and fitness (though we do have recommendations for more advanced exercisers/goals below). Remember to check with your doctor before starting any kind of new nutrition or training program.
Let’s get into it!
We all need carbohydrates, protein, and fat — aka macronutrients.
Macronutrients provide you with the energy (calories) your body needs for daily functions — everything from thinking and speaking to walking and exercising.
And each macronutrient has a particular function in keeping you moving, says St. Pierre. Carbs provide you with the energy you need to get through a workout, protein helps repair your muscles after a workout (and preserve muscle mass during a workout), and fat is important for immune function, helping with the absorption of certain vitamins.
But the amount of carbs/protein/fat you need will depend on what kind of workout you’re doing.
According to the experts, there’s an ideal ratio of carbs/protein/fat that will give you the most bang for your buck. But that ratio will change depending on your workout. Luckily, they gave us snack and meal options for each of these types of activities:
• Steady state cardio — Running, cycling, rowing, elliptical or any other cardio activity that you’re doing for longer than a half hour and at a moderate intensity (like a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10).
• Strength training — Any kind of resistance training (bodyweight, kettlebells, dumbbells, etc.) for 45 minutes to an hour at an intensity of about 7 or 8 on a scale of 1 to 10.
• High-intensity interval training — Any activity where you are alternating a period of hard work (at an intensity of about an 8 or higher) with a period of rest or recovery for about 20 minutes or so.
Keep in mind: These are sample snacks and meals that fit the macronutrient ratios suggested by the experts and have been approved by registered dietitian Erica Giovinazzo. Don’t like them? Use them as examples to make your own food choices that fit the same criteria.
If you’re doing steady state cardio, your pre-and post-workout meals should be heavy in carbs.
Carbs will give you the energy to last your entire workout, plus it’ll help you refill those depleted carb stores after your workout.
“You also want to make sure you’re getting enough protein pre-workout to prevent muscle loss during,” St. Pierre says, “And post-workout to help your muscles rebuild and recover.” He says generally you should be eating a ratio of 55% carbs, 25% protein, and 20% fat for pre- and post-workout meals or snacks.
This will look something like:
If you’re lifting weights, you’ll want to cut down on the amount of carbs and increase your protein and fat.
“Weightlifting places a big demand on muscle tissue, so getting protein is important for preventing muscle loss and stimulating muscle growth,” St. Pierre says. “You want to eat fewer carbs because you’re using less glucose [than if you were doing a longer cardio workout]. And then refuel enough to make sure you’re replenishing what you used during training.”
St. Pierre recommends eating a ratio of 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fat for your pre- and post-weightlifting meals and snacks.
Ditto for short, high-intensity workouts:
Even though a short, high-intensity workout won’t use the same amount of fuel as weightlifting would during the workout, the higher intensity means once the workout is over, your body will need more energy as it burns calories at an accelerated rate. This is referred to as the “afterburn effect,” when your body is trying to get back enough oxygen to regulate your body temperature, restore blood oxygen levels, and restore muscle tissue, says St. Pierre.
Therefore, he suggests aiming for the same carbs/protein/fat ratio for high-intensity interval exercise as you would for weightlifting.
1. Take your pre-workout meal just as seriously as the post-workout meal.
“You shouldn’t focus on one without the other because they work together,” St. Pierre says. “Your pre-workout meal is what’s going to fuel you enough to get in a great workout, and your post-workout meal is what’s going to help you recover and build up that muscle.”
If you’re eating an hour before your workout, St. Pierre recommends making your post-workout meal heavier and your pre-workout meal smaller. That way it’s not sitting heavy in your stomach while you’re exercising. And give your body time to digest before getting to work — if you’re in a time crunch, consider making a smoothie, which will be easier on your stomach.
2. Try to eat your meals within one to two hours of your workout.
While it’s up to personal preference, it’s important to give your body time to digest your pre-workout food and also to get fuel into your system quickly post-workout so your body can refill it’s glycogen stores (what carbs are turned into) and repair the muscles that you used during your workout. So your pre- and post-workout meals shouldn’t be separated by more than a total of five hours, says St. Pierre.
3. If you get mega-hungry after you exercise, try scheduling your meals around your workouts.
The post-workout hunger is REAL. Plus, Matheny says that people often overestimate the number of calories they’ve burned in a workout. So, if one of your goals is weight management, overeating after a workout (because you’re sure you burned a ton of calories and you’re starving) can wreak havoc on your results.
This is where it can help to plan your meals to follow hard workouts. If you’re working out in the morning, try either having a small snack beforehand and then a full breakfast afterwards, or eat half your breakfast before you exercise, and the second half afterwards. If you’re working out at night, try to plan it so you’re eating a snack before and your dinner afterward.
4. But don’t sweat the details, just make sure you’re eating mostly whole, minimally processed, foods.
“Just aim for getting in a high-quality meal a couple of hours before and after your workout,” St. Pierre says. For example, it doesn’t make a big difference if you’re eating steak, salmon, or protein powder, as long as you’re getting enough protein. The most important thing when it comes to what you eat, he says, is that the foods you’re eating are minimally processed with little added sugar.
5. Btw, if you have advanced goals or want to calculate any of this on your own, you can do that, too.
If you want to make these calculations yourself and/or if you have specific fitness, body composition, or performance goals — whether it’s losing body fat or putting on muscle, running a faster mile, or getting better at CrossFit — you can calculate this stuff on your own so it’s customized for you.
You’d start by determining your daily caloric intake (more on that here) and then using an online macronutrient calculator to figure out what ratio of carbs to protein to fat you should aim for. Once you have all those numbers, you should do some trial and error to find a place where you have energy for your daily life and your workouts while also meeting your fitness goals without feeling deprived.
Alright, time to get eating!!!