Although you may be tempted to skip a meal or snack before hitting the gym, eating before you exercise fuels your workout, maximizes your efforts and improves your results. When properly nourished, you’ll workout harder and prevent low blood sugar, which leads to light-headedness and fatigue. That said, you need to choose the right foods, both before and after you hit the treadmill or trail.
Remember this: 70% of the energy in your pre-workout nosh should come from carbohydrates, namely complex carbs with a low glycemic index (they won’t cause a spike in blood sugar). Great choices include whole grains (cereals, bread, crackers), vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes) and fruit (bananas, apples). Avoid simple sugars like candy because they cause huge fluctuations in blood-sugar levels and lead to early fatigue. Protein-rich foods should make up the balance of the energy because it decreases muscle breakdown during and after exercise. Dodge fat, it takes the longest to digest and can cause stomach upset.
Enjoy the following foods about 30-60 minutes before you exercise. If you typically don’t eat before working out, start with smaller portions to see how you feel.
Bananas are loaded with energy-producing carbohydrates and potassium, a mineral that’s crucial for muscle and nerve function. Since the body doesn’t store potassium for long, eating foods high in the mineral will ensure you have what you need.
Fiber-rich oats gradually release carbohydrates into your bloodstream, keeping your energy level consistent during your workout. Oats also contain B vitamins, which help convert carbohydrates into energy. Adding fresh fruit (berries, sliced apples and/or pears) will increase the fluid content and help keep you hydrated.
Whole Grain Bread or Crackers
Whole grains are a great source of complex carbohydrates and fiber, so they take longer to digest and provide a stable energy supply. For added protein, top bread and/or crackers with nut or seed butter, or a scrambled egg.
Greek yogurt has double the amount of protein in regular yogurt, it’s easy on your stomach, and it’s a good source of carbohydrates. For added complex carbs, sprinkle granola or whole grain cereal on top.
Trail Mix (without candy)
Choose nut- and fruit-based mixes or create your own with granola, nuts and dried fruit. The dried fruit provides quick energy and nuts and seeds keep insulin levels from dropping mid-workout. Just remember, seeds and nuts are high in fat and take longer to digest, meaning too much and you’ll feel sluggish. A handful of mix is all you need.
Fruit smoothies are easy to consume, quickly digested, high in carbohydrates, and a great source of protein. Blend 1/2 cup Greek yogurt with 1/2 cup fresh or frozen fruit. For added carbs, add granola or whole grain cereal.
Apple Slices with Nut Butter
Spread one tablespoon of almond or peanut butter on an apple and you’ll dodge a sugar crash mid-run while loading up on vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Soon after you exercise, your body is in recovery mode and craves nutrients. The following ideas make excellent choices.
Grilled Chicken with Pineapple and Sweet Potato
Chicken provides high-quality, lean protein, which the body needs and gobbles up after a workout. Arrange pineapple slices over the chicken and enjoy the anti-inflammatory properties it delivers, important for helping your muscles recover. Sweet potatoes provide a great source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and complex carbs, which help to restore depleted glycogen levels in the body.
Scrambled Eggs with Bell Peppers and Avocado
Eggs are an impeccable source of protein and help aid in muscle growth and recovery after exercise. Avocados are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, and they help your body absorb the fat soluble nutrients found in red and green bell peppers (vitamins A, D, E and K).
Salmon Stuffed Pita
Salmon has bioactive peptides, small protein molecules that help reduce inflammation, regulate insulin and offer joint support. Opt for roasted or grilled salmon or salmon from a can or pouch. Toss with a little light mayo or Greek yogurt and stuff into a whole grain pita with red leaf lettuce (pita delivers complex carbs and red lettuce boasts antioxidants).
Tuna Sandwich with Baby Spinach
Tuna is high in protein and low in calories. Make tuna salad with Greek yogurt to ramp up even more protein. Whole grain bread adds restorative complex carbs and spinach is brimming with antioxidants and compounds that reduce inflammation.
Hummus on Whole Grain Crackers
Chickpea-based hummus is crammed with protein and fiber. Just make sure to spread the Greek staple on whole grain crackers for optimum nutrients.
Surprised to see this on the list? Turns out, chocolate milk has become the post-workout snack of choice because it offers everything in one glass: carbohydrates and protein for muscle recovery, water to replace fluids lost in sweat, and calcium, sodium and sugar, ingredients that speed recovery.
Greek yogurt is a great post-workout food too because the protein and carbohydrates help restore the body’s energy stores. Add whole grain cereal for extra carbs and fresh berries, they contain nutrients that help fight muscle soreness.
Choose whole grain tortillas and add turkey breast or lean roast beef – the perfect combo of protein and complex carbs. Add veggies (lettuce, tomato, spinach, arugula, kale) for a blast of antioxidants.
Quinoa and Beans
Toss together cooked quinoa, red or black beans, soy sauce, and cilantro for a quick meal that has the perfect balance of protein and complex carbs. You can also swap whole grain pasta, brown rice and whole wheat couscous for the quinoa.
Fruit is all carbohydrate and water, meaning it helps restore glycogen in the muscles and replenish fluids lost through sweat. Fruit also contains enzymes that break down nutrients so they can be delivered to fatigued muscles.
Robin Miller has been a TV personality, food writer and nutritionist since 1990 and she is the author of ten books, including Robin Takes 5 for Busy Families, Robin Takes 5, and the bestselling cookbook Quick Fix Meals. Her popular show, “Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller” aired on Food Network for 5 years and she has multiple weekly blogs, Robin’s Healthy Take, on http://www.foodnetwork.com/healthyeats. “Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller” is currently airing on Great American Country Channel. You can view her website at: www.robinmillercooks.com.