Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Pre and Post Workout Foods

What am I supposed to eat after I work out, what about before I work out? I've gotten a few questions about recommendations on what to eat after you work out.  Figuring out what to eat after a workout is not as easy as "have a protein shake." It's actually a bit of a tricky question to answer, but inevitably it boils down to the "It depends on who you are, what your goals are, and what kind of workout you just did."  Frustrating I know.  The who you are part plays into what you're currently doing with your food. If you are a Paleo follower or eat a Standard American Diet (SAD), what you look to eat after working out may be a little different because you have a different selection of foods to choose from. You also need to work with something that you like and will actually consume after working out.  The recommendations that I have below are primarily Paleo, because I think that you should focus on eating real food as much as you can.  Feel free to read within the guidelines and make substitutes based on what you currently eat within your diet.

So before you can figure out what you eat before or after working out, you first need to figure out what your goals are, for this  post I'm going to cover the following 3 goals:
1. "Lean out" - Primary Goal is fat loss
2. "Get 70s Big" - Primary Goal is to gain a lot of muscle quickly
3. "Just to Recover" - Primary Goal is to heal your body you can workout again tomorrow

In addition to identifying what your goal is, you also need to consider what your workout will be.  How long is the workout?  Are you doing a Brick training session of bike and run for +2 hour as part of your triathlon training program? Completing a 2m leisurely jog?  6 sets of 400mrepeats with 3mins rest in between?  A relaxing yoga class? The type of workout you do also plays into what and how much pre and post workout food you need in order to fuel your body throughout that workout and then what you need to eat after you're finished.  Another factor to consider during longer workouts is if are planning to consume any fuel - dried fruit, salt, gu, etc. while completing the workout - you want to account for that in your fueling and refueling plan. 

Ok let's break this down:
1. If you goal is to "Lean out":
If you are trying to lean out then your primary goal is fat loss and your secondary goals is muscle gain.  From a fat loss perspective you should avoid liquid calories completely - both post workout and in your normal food routine - meaning no shakes and no smoothies at all.  You want to keep your food clean make sure you stay Grain, Legume, and Dairy free (this means whey protein people) but you still want to mix some protein and complex carbs in.  Your ideal sources are whole, real foods.  For complex carbs think starchy root veggies and squash over fruit.  You want to avoid fruit because fruit is high in fructose and fructose can only be processed through the liver, once you liver is full of fructose guess what happens to the extra - yup, you guessed it, it's stored as fat.  Keep in mind that the food that you eat post workout should look similar to what you're doing with your food for fat loss too, you can have some carbs here, but recommend keeping them smaller and that this should be one of the only places of concentrated carbs in your food until you reach your leaned out goal.
Sample Post Workout foods:
Protein: Hard-cooked eggs, grilled chicken, canned or packaged tuna, canned or packaged salmon, leftover protein from dinner or lunch...
Complex Carb: Small amount of sweet potato, butternut squash, acorn squash, carrots, parsnips
Maybe No food at all, if you're trying to lean out and you didn't do a "hard" workout that would have depleted your muscle glucose and glycogen then you are fine to wait until you next meal.  Just make sure that meal follows your normal "fat loss" goal foods and that you are eating it in the next 1 -2 hours.  Whether to eat or not will be an individual thing, if you get light headed and loopy after working out eat something!  
2. If your goal is to ""Get 70s Big":
Keep in mind that in addition to your post workout food your goal should be at least 1g of protein per 1lb of body weight per day -and maybe should look more like 1.5-2g of protein per 1lb of body weight.  In general you need to just eat more, but eat more Paleo foods that are good for you - eat more meat and veggies.  Add some starchy carbs, and remember to add fat to all of your meals.  Add some extra nuts, make curries or meals with full fat coconut milk and use the whole can.  You can also try adding dairy, this is the instance where you want to do the liquid food and where you can do the whey protein.  I recommend whey protein isolate and you can add it to sweet potatoes, squash, mix it with water or mix it with milk.  If you do add dairy try to make it grass fed and experiment with raw milk - disclaimer here - raw milk is not for everyone read up on it before you try it and try it in small quantities at first, it tends to have mixed results on your digestive system.  If you do milk you can try the gallon of milk a day - and in order to do that I'd imagine you are drinking milk all the time, including post workout.

Sample Post Workout Foods:
Carbs: Larger amounts of starchy veggies (sweet potatoes, winter squash), root veggies (carrots, parsnips), fruits low in fructose like blueberries, strawberries, blackberries - you can also do other fruits here just to get in calories like cantaloupe, oranges, and pears.
Protein:Whey Protein Isolate, Milk*, Hard-cooked eggs, grilled chicken, canned or packaged tuna, canned or packaged salmon, leftover protein from dinner or lunch (wait you should be eating more so maybe you won't have leftovers), steak, grilled salmon - you can turn this into another meal if you want to
Fat: Add some nuts, olive oil, coconut, coconut milk or avocado to what you're eating, if you're doing milk make it whole milk, get some fat in here too

Remember in general to build mass you just need to eat more, so get some food into you after training and then make sure you're planning to have a meal soon after. Building mass this way is not going to be just lean muscle, its really difficult to just build muscle without adding fat.  Robb Wolf recommends getting your body lean to where you want it before going on a mass gain approach/program, adding the weight and then you'll have to go through the fat loss food to pair down to just muscle and not fat.
*I don't think that you have to have milk to get big, dairy is a growth food but you can get there without milk too.
3. If your goal is "Just to Recover"
You did a hard workout and you want to make sure you're repleting all of the glycogen and glucose that your body just used to complete the workout.  Maybe you're training for an event, maybe you just ramped up your own training and you're finding that you're dragging a little or not recovering as fast as you'd like.  Here you want to make sure you are repairing and replacing the energy you just lost.  Here if you're not trying to lean out you can do a whey protein if that's something that you want to include in your food, you could also look to add some BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids) for recovery to help give back the amino acids you just broke down and build them back up again.  If supplementing isn't something you're looking to do, just make sure you get some protein and carb in your food after your workout and experiment with quantities until you find something that works for you.  Ideally you want to mix a non-fructose based complex carb with protein.

Sample Post Workout Foods:
Carbs: sweet potato or yam, squash, carrots, raisins (to restore body alkalinity - especially if you are working out later in the day), natural unsweetened applesauce, you can do higher glycemic fruits like bananas and apples if you are doing a LONG endurance workout
Protein: hard cooked eggs, chicken, whey, jerky, canned or packaged tuna, canned or packaged salmon, high quality hormone/antibiotic free deli meat, leftover lunch for dinner meats
                                            Fat: small amount of nuts, avocado, coconut

You can get creative here and mix sweet potato with whey protein, or make a souffle with sweet potatoes or squash, coconut milk, and eggs (you have to cook it) and then portion it into smaller servings to eat post workout.  You can use a little more of the complex carb here since you're not as worried about fat loss and you can be more lenient on your carb intake.

What to eat before you work out

Ok lets back track to the beginning, what are you supposed to eat BEFORE you work out? Here it is about your goals and the level of workout you are planning to do. Use the above guidelines in combination with what your workout is going to be - is your workout going to be short and intense, long and intense, or long and moderate? If you're gearing up for a long event you will probably need to eat something pre-workout. Short and intense you may not need it. Everyone responds to food differently, so the pre-workout food is definitely something you need to experiment with. Don't wait until "game day" to try your pre-workout regime. Most people do well with a small meal that mixes protein, fat, and carbs 1 to 2 hours prior to a workout. The longer and harder the workout, the more fuel you may want to eat before it.  There is no hard and fast rule for pre-workout food either - you want to have enough energy to work out but you don't have to eat pre-workout just for the sake of eating.

Sample Pre-workout foods:
Carb: sliced veggies (carrots, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, etc), half a piece of fruit (apple, pear, orange), something green and leafy
Protein: high quality antibiotic and hormone free deli meat, grilled chicken breast, eggs
Fat: small amount of nuts, coconut, avocado

Remember that you need to stick with foods and things that are easily digestible for you and that don't make you feel overly full or bloated. You need to experiment with these foods and find out what works for you.  The closer to the workout the less food you should eat since you don't want your body to put too much energy digesting - you want that energy going into your workout!

Try these things out and see what works best for you, do you have any other suggestions or ideas on what you eat pre and post workout I'd love to hear your comments.


  1. Wow, very thorough post with great real-life examples of what you can eat. I like to grab a sweet potato, microwave it right before a metcon (over 10 min), and eat it within 5 minutes of finishing. Then eat a regular dinner at home.

  2. Thank you, this is exactly what I was looking for and so simple to understand.

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