Should you eat before or after working out?

The American Heart Association recommends that you treat your body as a beautiful car (aim high: Aston Martin DB5, not a trashed-by-the-kids, needs trading-in SUV). Keep the parts in good working order and the bodywork pristine and that glorious vehicle (your body) will get you where you need to be, and on time.

Regular exercise has many benefits – but you’ll need the right fuel/food to keep your engine humming. It’s also important to make sure you get adequate nutrition two hours before a workout, sip water during your session, then take advantage of the “anabolic window” (read on) to replenish muscle stores.

Two hours before a workout:

The American Heart Association suggests the following:

  • Hydrate (preferably water)
  • Eat healthy carbohydrates such as whole-grain cereals (with low-fat or skim milk), whole-wheat toast, low-fat or fat-free yogurt, whole grain pasta, brown rice, fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid saturated fats and even a lot of healthy protein — because these types of fuels digest slower in your stomach and take away oxygen and energy-delivering blood from your muscles.

Need a snack 10 minutes before a workout?

If you’re suddenly hungry, and about to enter the gym, grab an easily digestible carbohydrate such as a banana or apple.

20 – 60 minutes post-workout

WebMD recommends drinking lots of fluids. Water is best – but you could also blend it with OJ to get some carbs in there.

This is the “anabolic window” when your muscles will grab onto available protein and carbs to help with recovery. Pick a whole-grain bagel with peanut butter or a small cup of no/low fat yogurt. Real food is best, but, at a pinch, grab an energy bar but make sure it’s not just fake sugar for a quick boost – look for 25 – 40 grams of carbohydrate and at least 10 grams of protein.

Backstory: the anabolic window

If you want to learn more, check out this “Nutrient Timing” research study from the Journal of the International Society for Sports Nutrition. There’s a whole body of on-going tests with athletes to work out how to maximize food intake for best workout results.

Although it makes for interesting reading, it’s clear there’s no definitive answer, as yet. Which makes sense, as everyone’s body is different, and it really depends on the exercise you do, and how your body handles its nutrition stores.

Several of the researchers quoted in the journal refer to an anabolic “window of opportunity”: “Whereby a limited time exists after training to optimize training-related muscular adaptations.” The study provides evidence regarding the positive effects of eating a protein and carbohydrate boost snack directly after a workout. Particularly for “Glycogen repletion” which is involved in the regulation of skeletal muscle growth.

Just don’t drink coffee before working out

Hydrate, definitely. Water is best. But a quick caveat on attempting to boost your energy levels with a cup of Joe. Warm fluids speed food through your intestines so you’ll get caught short with bladder signalling while midway through a sequence. Not fun.


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