One of the things that’s easiest to neglect when embarking on a new workout plan is making sure you’re getting adequate nutrition before and after. Without a good pre-workout meal, workouts will be arduous and unpleasant, making you less likely to continue with your new plan. Without a proper post-workout meal, your post-workout recovery will suffer, and you may even find yourself doing more harm than good.
The key thing you need to know is that even if your workout aim is to lose weight, cutting down on your food intake isn’t the way to go. Eating smarter, not less, is the way to go.
So how do you eat smarter?
It’s more straightforward than you might think, and boils down to making sure your body is getting everything it needs, when it needs it. It’s essential to make sure your intake of carbs, protein, and fat are high enough to sustain your body, especially when you’re putting it under more stress than usual.
Keep reading for the science behind pre- and post-workout meals and the top ten options for each--you might be surprised!
The challenge with a pre-workout meal is finding something your stomach can tolerate before a hard workout. If you’ve tried pre-workout eating before, you may have found that you end up uncomfortable quickly, or that you feel sluggish toward the end.
There are two ways to eliminate this. Firstly, instead of trying to eat an hour or an hour and a half before your workout, try eating two to three hours beforehand--that’s the earliest you’re likely to get any energy benefits from your meal, anyway, so it’s a generally better option.
Secondly, choose a meal that’s easy to digest--this is also generally good advice, but especially important if you find your stomach is sensitive. Carbs digest fastest--that magic two to three hour timeframe we were just talking about--so they’re a good basis for a pre-workout meal. Low GI carbs--that is, the slow-release kind--will sustain you over the course of your workout and longer, but you shouldn’t neglect the use of high GI ones to give you an energy boost that’ll make it easier to get moving in the first place.
The goal of a pre-workout meal is to boost your energy levels and mitigate any muscle damage your workout might cause. Building muscle relies on adequate nutrient intake, and losing weight (or just becoming stronger) relies on building muscle.
With that in mind, here’s what you’re looking for in an ideal pre-workout meal: high and low GI carbs, a moderate amount of fat to aid in your post-workout recovery before you get to your post-workout meal, and, ideally, somewhere between 10-20g of protein. Potassium is also great if you can work it in, because it’ll pre-emptively replace what you lose through sweating. However, you can also get around this by putting a little low-sodium salt (this sounds silly, but it’s a real thing) in your drinking water--not so much that you can taste it, though, or you’ll be making a loss rather than a gain.
So what kinds of things can you eat pre-workout? Here’s 10 ideas to get you started:
- Oatmeal--with a sprinkling of your favourite fruit--is the ideal pre-workout meal. Berries are a good choice for this, since they contain a lot of trace elements and vitamins you need, but bananas are also a good choice for their potassium content. If you’re not a big fruit fan, consider overnight oats made up with peanut butter and honey or maple syrup (and cocoa powder, if you like!) for a protein boost and some extra high-speed energy.
- Toast is another excellent option--wholemeal or multigrain--with a generous smear of your favourite nut butter for protein. Feel free to add fruit to this as well. Wholemeal or multigrain bread offers a great low GI carb content, and nut butter and fruit provide necessary protein and fats.
- The classic yogurt and granola combo ubiquitous in cafes is also surprisingly good as a pre-workout option. Yogurt is especially easy to digest--since the lactobacillus cultures have already done half the work for you--so it’s a perfect choice if you find it hard to eat before a workout. Milk proteins are especially valuable, because they’re easier for the body to make use of than plant-based ones.
- Don’t discount smoothies! Again, if you find it hard to eat pre-workout, drinking your nutrition might be the way to go. Try a banana, peanut butter, and honey smoothie for everything your body needs before a workout, and top up the protein content with powder if you feel the need to (try a chocolate-flavoured one for an even more delicious smoothie).
- An apple a day doesn’t just keep the doctor away--it also makes a good basis for a pre-workout meal. Cut your apple into slices and spread peanut butter on it--or try it with almond or sunbutter (from sunflower seeds) for a different taste. I buy my Almond butter from Myprotein as I’ve found they have the lowest priced and nicest tasting nut butters.
- A delicious option--especially if you’re more a fan of savoury foods--is to grab some wholemeal pita bread and make up a dip consisting of peanut butter, tahini (sesame seed paste), and low-sodium sweet soy sauce. This is nice and easy to eat--who doesn’t love dips?--and if you choose a low-sodium soy, you’ll get the benefit of potassium as well.
- Rice pudding is another ideal option for pre-workout eating, especially on cold days when you could use something warming. The combination of white rice and egg custard is carb and protein loaded, as well as being easy to digest and therefore less likely to make you uncomfortable mid-workout.
- If you find you can manage something heavier--or you feel you need some fortification before a workout--try a Spanish omelette. Microwave potatoes (leave the skins on, but prick them with a fork) and then cut them into slices before arranging them in a frying pan to brown on the bottom. Then combine eggs, cheese (good old cheddar is ideal for this) and a decent sprinkling of chives for flavour, and you’re well on your way to a pre-workout meal that’ll provide you with the quickly-absorbed fuel you need (plus, the leftovers keep well as a snack for later).
- Waffles and bacon, if you can handle the fattiness before your workout, are also a good option (seriously!). Wholegrain waffles are ideal, but plain yeast-raised are fine, and feel free to have your maple syrup, too, for some near-instant workout energy.
- Last but by no means least is the humble turkey wrap. Take a wholemeal tortilla, and add turkey slices, cheese (brie or camembert are delicious, but harder cheeses are definitely an option), and no-added-sugar cranberry sauce (you don’t want to overdo it, and cranberries have plenty of sugar naturally). Handy if you travel to the gym or go after work and need something you can easily take with you.
A post-workout meal is absolutely essential if you’re trying to build muscle. Failing to get adequate fat and protein intake after a workout is worse than not working out at all, because you won’t just fail to build muscle--you’ll actively damage the muscle you already have, making you more susceptible to injury and reversing any gains you may have made.
The last thing you want to do is negate all your hard work by failing to do something as simple as eating after a workout. It’s also important that you do this fairly quickly--ideally within an hour of your workout, and it’s honestly better to grab a takeout hamburger than it is not to eat within that time (but there are way better options, and we’ll look at those in a second). Leaving it longer than two hours can actually cause you harm, and you’ll definitely feel it the next day.
What you’re looking for in a post-workout meal is protein and fat. Ideally, between 20-40 grams of protein, and at least a small amount of fat--without the necessary number of calories, you cannot build muscle. Your body turns to muscle as a source of fuel the moment it exhausts your caloric intake, so there’s absolutely nothing to gain by restricting your calories unduly. That said, it’s worth remembering that fat has nine times the calories protein does by weight, so you don’t need as much of it to keep your intake up--however, you do need it, both for the trace elements it contains and for several of your body’s vital functions, including such important organs as your liver and brain, which you’d have a hard time living without.
So what does a good post-workout meal look like? Here are 10 excellent options:
- One of the best possible post-workout meal options is a chicken burger--a grilled fillet of chicken in a white bread roll with mayo gives you everything you need post-workout. Chicken is high-protein at 26g per 100g of meat, white bread contains quickly-digested carbs which will push nutrients to your muscles faster, and mayo (homemade, please--it’s easy!) brings more animal-based proteins and fats, which are essential to muscle recovery. Add lettuce and tomato if you feel dehydrated after a workout but can’t face another sip of water.
- A ham and cheese omelette is a quick-and-easy post-workout meal, especially if you have it with a couple of slices of toast to get those carbs in. If omelettes are too hard for you, scrambled eggs and a couple of slices of bacon are basically the same thing, but with less folding.
- Steak, if you can face it, is an excellent choice of post-workout meal. Meat--especially red meat--contains a compound called creatine, which aids in muscle recovery and acts on the muscles similarly to a growth hormone. After a workout, this gives you a free boost. Feel free to have a side-order of fries--simple carbs are a valuable recovery resource as well.
- Here’s a cool fact for you: caffeine is your post-workout best friend, especially if you often find yourself sore the next day. Studies have shown that it reduces muscle soreness by up to 50%. You can just drink a cup of coffee, but here’s a better idea: try a tiramisu smoothie, with a dollop of cottage cheese, black coffee, honey, and milk. Great if you can’t bring yourself to eat after a workout or don’t have time. Add some vanilla protein powder for a protein and flavour boost!
- A quick and easy option is an avocado and bacon English muffin. Spread half an avocado as if it were butter and top off with a few slices of bacon. Avocado is a particularly useful post-workout food, as it helps your body absorb vitamins and is packed with monounsaturated fat (that’s the best kind).
- Salmon is an excellent post-workout food choice because in addition to being a source of protein and good fats, it has anti-inflammatory properties, which aid in muscle recovery. For an extra recovery boost, pair it with sweet potato wedges, which help restore your muscles’ glycogen levels.
- If you like hummus (and really, who doesn’t?), here’s some good news: it’s packed full of things your body needs after a workout. If you’ve got leftover pita bread from your pre-workout snack, dip it into some hummus and enjoy all the benefits of easy-to-digest carbs and protein without any post-workout effort.
- Spinach and feta scrambled eggs are not only delicious and high-protein, but they have other benefits, too. Spinach has anti-inflammatory and blood sugar levelling properties, and the carbs and protein in eggs are extremely easy to digest, meaning your body gets the benefit of eating them much sooner.
- Ricotta ‘cheesecake’ is a fast-and-easy option. Combine ricotta and a little honey, and add fruit for a quick sugar boost to put fuel back into your muscles straight away. For an extra protein boost, mix in a scoop of vanilla protein powder--it’ll make it taste more like cheesecake, too!
- This may surprise you, but a bowl of good-quality whole grain cereal is also an excellent--and super-fast--post-workout meal. The cereal contains both carbs and protein thanks to being whole grain, and milk contains those all-important animal proteins that are great for post-workout recovery. If you prefer yogurt, feel free to have that instead--it’s just as good, and faster to digest.
Breanne is a protein-baking enthusiast, with a huge obsession with all forms of nut butter. When out of the kitchen, Breanne works full time at Protein Promo managing social media & content.