"I's Complicated": Finding the Perfect Pre & Post-Workout Nutrition

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Written By

Lauryn

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Expert Reviewed By

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTD, MS

Dr. Lauryn, OTD, MS is a doctor of occupational therapy, clinical nutritionists and functional medicine expert with 25 years of clinical and personal experience in healing from complex chronic health issues and helping others do the same.

 

What to eat pre and post workout has been a topic in of debate within health and fitness circles for as long as Jack Lalane time (“the first man of fitness”).

 

 

 

Google the term “what to eat before and after a workout” alone and you will yield about 72, 900, 000 results.

 

A bit overwhelming to say the least.

 

Nevertheless, there is one thing that is for sure: Nutrition is key to your progress—both inside and outside the gym

 

You’ve probably heard it before: “80% of your results are related to your nutrition.”

 

While the exact percentage may look different amongst different people (genetics, training, practice, etc.), there’s no denying that quality fuel=power in the tank (like gasoline).

 

With that established…the question now, therein lies, what is the BEST source and foods to eat pre and post-WOD?

 

After all…

 

 

  • The running world hosts pasta parties pre-marathon, snacks on a banana first thing in the morning ,enjoys bagels, pancakes after a hard run, and has popularized a whole new food on the market: Gel (yum?).

 

  • CrossFitters fuel up with Advocare Spark, followed by Progenex More Muscle and Kill Cliff Recovery Drinks (pop quiz: What’s in your Kill Cliff—what is it?)…and of course, LOTS OF BACON!

 

  • Powerlifters carb up with chicken-fried rice before hitting the weights and snack on Gummy Bears post-workout…Not caring too much about what they inhale throughout the rest of the day.

 

  • Body Builders get in their Pre-workout BCAAs, Beta Alanine, Creatine and Caffiene, followed by a whey isolate within 30 minutes post-workout, and chicken and broccoli exactly 60 minutes later…then salmon and broccoli 2 hours later…and chicken and broccoli two hours after that…

 

With all these varying practices…the real truth is, in the same way that there’s more than one way to get stronger or faster or fitter (Zumba to CrossFit to Pilates and everything in between), there is also more than one way to support your body with workout fuel.

 

The needs of athletes and fitness enthusiasts vary greatly depending upon the sport and level of activity. The needs of a triathlete are quite different from those of boxer or Olympic Weightlifter. Despite these different needs, however, all trainees share a couple things when it comes to their fuel:

 

  • Means of optimizing performance
  • Methods for improving recovery

 

That being said, it’s important to establish one overarching rule of thumb by first answering this question:

 

You have a really, really nice car—talking a Ferrari or Porsche here…what type of fuel do you put in it?

 

 

Unleaded or Premium?

 

High-quality fuel, right?!

 

Well, like it or not, your body is the same way…want to perform optimally, recovery beautifully, and feel amazing?

 

And how will it feel amazing?

 

Real food people. And not just any real food: But NUTRIENT DENSE REAL FOOD.

 

True…It’s not a ‘sexy’ answer. Nor is it what any product or company in the fitness market will tell you.

 

But if you really want your body to be at it’s peak…don’t you think it would be most apt to do so by consuming the fuel it was designed to consume?

 

Frankenfoods, sports drinks, packaged and processed bars claiming to be food just won’t cut it in the long run.

 

Alright, alright. Point taken.

 

But what am I supposed to eat if not my Builder Bars? Or Gatorade? Or pasta bowls?

 

 

And, what the heck does ‘nutrient dense real food’ mean anyways?!

 

It’s not complicated: In essence, nutrient density is the ratio of actual nutrient content (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids) to the total energy content (calories) in a particular food.

And, just because a food is “energy-dense” (nutbutter, rice, oats, whole grains, legumes, granola bars, dried fruits, powders and bars) does not mean it is nutrient-dense. For instance, the idea that grains and legumes are amongst the healthiest foods comes from an analysis of them in their raw and inedible state. Once you look at their cooked values, they are amongst the worst from a nutrient density standpoint (i.e. they’ve lost many of their nutrients). Or just because a post-workout powder has a dense combination of protein and carbs does not mean it is rich in nutrients (again, where are the vitamins and minerals?).

 

In other words: By choosing foods with more COLOR, natural flavor and nutrients (i.e. rich, fresh veggies, fresh organic meats, whole essential fatty acids, fresh fruits, some bright colored starches—butternut squash, yams, sweet potatoes), your body (and training results) is going to benefit way more than just focusing on consuming foods with ‘calories’ and energy around workouts (like those bars and shakes)—able to better stave off hormonal and metabolic stress of training.

 

There are plenty of options for you!

 

Here are some general ideas to start with:

 

Pre-Workout:
The primary aim here is easily digestible foods to allow your body to focus on doing work—rather than digesting. Have you ever eaten too much too close to a workout and all you could think about was when your workout would be over? Or the opposite—not eaten enough during the day, and struggled to get through your workout? You really must gauge what and when you eat on your body, but aiming to have some source of energy in your system that best sits with you.

 

-Blended/Juiced Foods. Drinking your foods pre-workout is much easier on the digestive system in order to allow your body to jump into the sympathetic state (exercise) and focus its energy on moving, lifting, breathing, grunting and the like. Get a Vitamix, Magic Bullet or Ninja, toss in some coconut water or coconut milk + kale, or some unsweetened almond milk + frozen blueberries + spinach and hit it.

 

Easily Digested Carbs
Carbs (i.e. sugar) are the first line of readily available energy the body looks to use when it comes to exercise. White potatoes, sweet potatoes/yams, and even some white rice are easily tolerable carbs that are excellent for athletes. Pair with a little protein and get revved to go. If you reach for fruit, best choices are low glycemic berries—more easily digested=less GI stress and a little bit longer lasting (as opposed to a quick spike in fruit—sugar—energy).

 

A Small Amount of Protein. Did you know your body can actually use protein as an energy source? Especially if your workout is a long grinder—your body can convert protein to glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. You don’t need much; just a little snack size (1-2 oz.). Think: an egg + yolk (hardboiled, scrambled, etc.), a handful of pulled chicken, 2 oz. leftover protein, grass-fed jerky, etc. If you just need a little something to tide you over before your workout, protein alone is fine. If you have a little longer before hitting the gym or plan on having a longer workout session (2+ hours), you can pair with carbs or a little bit of fat to get a little more bang for your buck.

 

Even (gasp) a little bit of healthy fat. Fats have been touted as ‘bad’ when it comes to eating them around workouts (man, they can’t ever catch a break can they?). However, some people actually perform excellently by eating fats. Obviously not pounding back a bag full of almonds (‘nut gut’ feeling)…but you could do a tablespoon of coconut butter or even an almond butter ball (1 thumb-sized spoonful of almond butter + a touch of raw honey + unsweetened coconut flakes) or add 1 tbsp. coconut oil to your pre-workout blended smoothie or cup of high-quality coffee. Medium chain triglycerides from saturated fat sources (i.e. coconut) actually bypass the normal process of digestion and instead get absorbed directly into your liver – where they can then be metabolized to provide a quick source of energy.

 

Ben Greenfield’s White Rice ‘Workout Sushi.’ This stuff is a pretty legit snack for a longer workout (hello competitors and triathletes):

 

Ingredients:

2-3 c. white rice

1 c. unsweetened coconut milk

lemon

Enjoy Life chocolate chips or dark chocolate chips

Blueberries

 

Directions

Start with 2-3 cups sticky white rice; transfer it to a large bowl and add a cup of coconut milk, the juice of 1 lemon and stir. Let that cool, and spread half of it on baking pan. Sprinkle it with dark chocolate chips and blueberries, then press the remainder of the rice evenly over that. Let sit for 5 minutes, cut into squares and wrap. Consume 1-2 squares pre-workout.

 

Bone broth. I cannot say enough great things about bone broth!! A wonderful source of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids. It can also heal your digestive system, fix joint pain, and enhance sleep. If you don’t have time to make bone broth, you can purchase it from a website like The Brothery. A great option if you workout early in the mornings and want some source of energy in your system, but are not super hungry.

 

-Collagen. Another great liquid to drink, like bone broth, that supplies tons of amino acids. Add 10-20 grams of a hydrolyzed collagen protein source to herbal tea, black coffee or even your bone broth itself. Great Lakes or Bernard Jensen are two reputable brands.

 

-Better choice packaged products. If you are going the product route, thankfully there is at least better options: RX Bar, AMRAP Bars, Lara Bars (homemade or store bought). For powders and liquids, Wild Foods, Mt. Capra’s DEEP30 protein and Natural Stacks are three brands that provide workout nutrition based around a ‘real foods’ philosophy. Try to buy the protein with the least amount of ingredients, sticking to those which have just protein, i.e. just powdered egg whites—no flavorings, no additives or ingredients you can’t pronounce. With whey protein in particular, opt for a 20-30 gram of a hydrolyzed whey protein, which is a type of “pre-digested” protein that is more expensive, but much more readily absorbed and assimilated, compared to regular ol’ whey protein

 

 

 

Post-Workout: 


Like pre-workout nutrition, post-workout nutrition has its own balancing act around it—what’s the right time, amount, types of foods, etc.?

 

For instance, you’ve probably heard this before:
“You only have a 20-60 minute window—so act fast! Drink protein or eat a recovery meal immediately.”

 

While we have established that food is necessary to fuel your performance, nothing magical happens between the time the clock strikes 60-minutes, and 61-minutes.

 

“But according to research that’s true…”

 

Yea, yea, yea…But here’s what researchers don’t tell you:

 

In the studies that have researched the benefit of an immediate post-workout nutrition replacement, subjects were fed after completing an exercise session that they had performed in a fasted or semi-starved state.

 

In other words here: If you’ve been eating your regular meals throughout the day, or had a pre-workout snack, or even ate a large dinner the night before, it’s not an end-all-be-all to consume a post-workout protein shake or bar in that 20-60 minutes following your workout.

 

In fact, immediately post-workout, your body is still in a heightened sympathetic state (stressed) and, if anything, needs at least 20-minutes to calm down from elevated cortisol levels for optimal digestion.

 

The first fuel of choice? Reach for water. Nourishing, hydrating water.

 

 

 

Then…start to think about fuel.

 

You ARE going to eat—but a real meal is perfectly fine, especially if you are working out to be healthy, fit and live your life to the fullest—outside the gym.

 

“But I like my shake post-WOD.”

 

If you are a highly active individual (training 5-6/days per week, lifting weights, high-intensity interval training, competing in sport), a post-workout high quality hydrolyzed whey protein (or even hemp protein for digestive purposes) mixed with water at the gym (prior to eating your next meal) is not necessarily a bad thing.

 

This is particularly applicable to those who:

 

  • Are trying to put on muscle and size, increase your lifts, etc.
  • Are going to have another that day (two-a-days for you competitors)
  • Are totally energy depleted (didn’t eat a pre-workout snack or trained fasted, first thing in the morning before breakfast)

 

However, if you just train to train for life, you may not necessarily need or benefit from this post-workout shake (particularly from a digestive point of view, as many people experience poor digestion from the chemicals/dairy in these products).

 

The choice is yours.

 

If you want a post-workout shake option, check out my recipe below (that combines some nutrient-dense foods in it), along with some of my other favorite post-workout whole-foods meal ideas :

 

 

 

 

Whole Foods Shake 1: Unsweetened (chocolate) almond milk/coconut milk + 1 serving hydrolyzed whey protein/hemp protein + spinach + ½ banana + 1 tbsp. almond butter

 

Whole Foods Shake 2: Unsweetened coconut milk + 1 serving hydrolyzed whey protein/hemp protein + kale + frozen blueberries + ¼ avocado

 

Burger & Fries: Grassfed beef/bison with homemade sweet potato wedges

 

Tuna or chicken salad: Tuna/chicken mashed with ½ avocado + diced tomato/bell peppers/celery+ Dijon mustard in a lettuce wrap

 

-Scrambled Hash: 2-3 eggs + 2 slices nitrate free bacon + small diced sweet potato + kale, sautéed in 1 tsp. coconut oil

 

Sweet potato or Butternut squash basil soup with ground meat or pulled chicken mixed in (combine 2 sweet potatoes + can unsweetened coconut milk + fresh basil + black pepper + garlic powder; cook on low for

 

Crockpot shredded pork tenderloin with sweet potato or ‘fried’ plantains (1/2 plantain fried in 1-2 tsp coconut oil or grass-fed butter, sprinkled with cinnamon)

 

Homemade turkey sausage patties or chicken sausage links (nitrate free) + ½ mashed avocado on top + heaping serving of sautéed greens (kale, chard, spinach) in 1 tsp. coconut oil

 

Grilled salmon + roasted/steamed broccoli, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil + roasted carrots

 

Roasted chicken + Japanese sweet potato + 1 tbsp. coconut butter + power greens sautéed in coconut oil

 

2-3 Egg Muffins (Homemade egg muffin cups) or 2 Meatloaf Muffins (recipes below)

 

Shrimp + Quiona + Roasted asparagus

 

As you can see…similar to some of your pre-workout options…quality protein, easily digestible carbs (sweet potatoes, white rice, veggies, hard squashes, roasted carrots, beets, etc.) and some healthy fat will get you far. Post-workout, in particular, is the best time to replenish glycogen stores (energy stores) with carbs. In general, a meal of 4-8 oz of lean protein plus 50-100g of nutrient-dense carbs, with a little bit of fat for taste and good measure will do the trick.

 

ABOVE ALL, for both pre-workout and post-workout nutrition, the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing…eat some balanced quality eats following your workout.

 

YOUR personal needs will vary from the next person. For instance, you may very well find that you perform better consuming solely protein pre-workout, while others feel best with some carbs and protein in their system. Still others actually find that a more ketogenic approach to their diet (more often times I see this with men) is perfectly sustainable and they actually replenish stores through more fats (debunking all conventional fitness nutrition to date as we know it!).

 

THE BOTTOM LINE: Keep it real (or as real as possible)…Experiment—play around with it…and be open to finding out what works best for you.

 

After all, this is your journey.

 

And food, real food, is the fuel to get you there.

 

 

 

Egg Muffins

 

Ingredients

  • 9 large eggs
  • 8 ounces ground breakfast sausage
  • 1 red, green, or yellow pepper, I used a mix of colors because that is what I had
  • ½ cup frozen kale, chopped
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper

 

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees, spray a muffin tin with non-sticking cooking spray or use coconut oil. I used coconut oil. Set aside.
  • Brown the ground sausage in a medium-sized pan over medium-heat.
  • In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and then add in the sausage, peppers, kale, and pepper. Pour the batter into the muffin tins, filling ¾ of the way. Bake for 20-25 minutes, my oven needed 23 minutes.
  • Allow the muffins to cool for 5 minutes, use a knife to loosen from the sides.

 

 

Meatloaf Muffins

 

 

Ingredients

  • 1 lbs. ground turkey/bison/beef
  • Coconut Oil
  • 1 Head of Broccoli
  • 3 Medium Zucchini
  • 2 Eggs
  • 1 Tbsp. Wholegrain Mustard
  • 1 tbsp coconut aminos
  • ½ tsp. Himalayan Sea Salt
  • ½ tsp. Ground Black Pepper
  • FRESH Herbs – Parsley, Coriander (cilantro), Garlic Chives (1 handful of each)

 

Directions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350-degrees
  2. Place the veggies, herbs mustard, S&P and eggs in the food processor (if you don’t have one then you should invest in one! It will pay for its self just with the time you save on prep and cooking!) Whizz it all up until it looks a bit like green slime.
  3. Add meat into the food processor one at a time until you have a thick, paste like consistency.
  4. Grease muffin tins with coconut oil (or baking dish if you want to make it into a slice instead)
  5. Spoon mixture evenly into muffin tins (makes approximately 12 muffins) and bake for approximately 30-40 minutes or until they are firm to press (double check that they are cooked through by removing one from the pan and cutting it in half)

 

**FRESH HERBS are a must for this recipe! They make everything taste so much better!!

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