There have been many disruptions to daily life in 2020 — including the upending of workout routines. A recent study conducted found that as of August, nearly 71% of gym members across the U.S. haven’t returned — the lowest rate worldwide — and about 43% say they won’t return. For many, this has meant changing exercise routines to include more outdoor activities like trail running, hiking, mountain biking and swimming, as well as at-home cycling and strength training.
With this shift, I’ve been fielding more questions about how to fuel up before exercise and what to eat post-workout. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, there are some guidelines that can help.
What and how much you should eat before and after training depends upon what your body can metabolize during the activity you’re going to do and at what intensity. This may require some experimentation until you find the optimal snacks and meals for you.
[READ: Top Upper Body Workouts.]
Eating for Endurance Routines
For true endurance routines of an hour or more, you’ll want to have a meal or snack that provides a good source of carbohydrates and at least 300 calories. Having some carbohydrate before your workout helps you exercise at a higher intensity for a longer period of time. What’s more, for a.m. exercisers, it’s important to raise blood sugar levels to provide much-needed energy to get more out of a workout.
For post-workouts, rehydrating with water is most important followed by replenishing depleted carbohydrate stores (glycogen) as well as getting enough amino acids from protein to stimulate muscle growth and repair. It’s important to replenish carbs in the first few hours post-exercise as the body is primed during that period to store carbs as fuel in muscles that can be used at a later time The combination that’s recommended includes 15 to 25 grams of quality protein, with 0.5 to 0.75 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight post exercise.
Keep in mind that if you’re exercising for weight loss, you’ll want to reduce the calories of your meals and snacks while trying to keep the similar ratio of carbs to protein.
[READ: The Most (and Least) Gut-Friendly Foods to Fuel Your Workout.]
Foods to Optimize Your Workout
With these guidelines in mind, here are foods to help optimize your pre- and post-workouts and how to enjoy them:
— Greek yogurt.
Beets offer unique compounds — nitrates and betalains — which can help the body transfer oxygen to muscles more efficiently, aid muscle contraction, lower blood pressure and act as potent antioxidants. Studies show that beetroot juice, as well as cooked beets, can improve performance when eaten pre-exercise, but they also have post-exercise benefits.
Beets are packed with important antioxidants, like betalins, which are associated with important cardioprotective benefits and may help temper inflammation associated with muscle-damaging exercise.
How to enjoy: Beets are quite versatile, and can be enjoyed baked, roasted, juiced, pickled or grated into your favorite dishes. Consider pairing earthy beets with goat cheese and arugula for a colorful salad or enjoy simply roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper. They’re also great blended into recovery smoothies.
Nutrient-packed eggs are considered a “perfect protein,” meaning that the protein found in eggs is of the highest biological value and serves as the gold standard by which all other proteins are measured against. Since eggs provide all nine essential amino acids, eating a meal with eggs post exercise can aid in repair of body tissues and in gaining muscle strength.
Indeed, studies show that the protein in eggs promotes a significant increase in resistance muscle strength among athletes. One large egg provides 70 calories, 6 grams of high quality protein and 5 grams of total fat, and athletes are encouraged to eat about 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal (especially after exercise) to help encourage muscle repair protein synthesis.
In addition to its high protein content, eggs are also rich in a wide variety of important vitamins and minerals, including iron, vitamin D, zinc, lutein, zeaxanthin and choline, as well as beneficial antioxidants.
How to enjoy: Whether over-easy, scrambled, hard-boiled or sunny-side-up, eggs are delicious no matter the preparation. Partner with high-quality carbs like whole grain bread or English muffin, fresh berries or sweet potatoes. Consider pairing eggs with a high-protein English muffin, fresh berries or a simple potato hash.
With a whopping 14 grams of protein and just 100 calories per 6 ounce serving, plain, nonfat Greek yogurt boasts an ideal protein to calorie ratio, which makes it a great post-workout treat. Greek yogurt is an easy, portable snack you can enjoy after working out or use to make great recovery drinks.
Avoid sugary “fruit on the bottom” varieties, as these are loaded with refined sugar and unnecessary calories. Instead, add natural sugar from fresh fruit for that optimal protein/carbohydrate combination so beneficial for exercise and muscle growth. If you want a change of pace from yogurt and berries, oats or granola are great options.
How to enjoy: The possibilities with Greek yogurt are limitless, but you can enjoy Greek yogurt for breakfast with fruit, in a post-workout recovery smoothie or frozen with a sprinkling of dark chocolate chips for a delicious and calcium-rich dessert.
[SEE: Healthy Drinks Rich in Electrolytes.]
It’s no surprise that watermelon slices are a staple at most endurance events. The sweet fruit is 92% water making it the perfect choice to help rehydrate. Two cups of watermelon have just 80 calories. The fruit is a good source of vitamin C, lycopene, potassium and vitamin A.
What’s more, studies have found that an amino acid in watermelon, L-citrulline, helps maintain healthy blood vessels, increase nitric oxide and improve blood flow. In one study, athletes experienced up to 40% less muscle soreness 24 hours after exercise compared to athletes who didn’t consume watermelon juice.
How to enjoy : It’s perfect on its own or blended into recovery smoothies like this watermelon-mint smoothie: Blend 2 cups of watermelon chunks, 1 tbsp. honey, 1 tbsp. mint leaves, 6 ounces nonfat Greek yogurt and a dash of cinnamon. This smoothie provides approximately 28 g carbohydrates, 20 g protein, 0 g fat and 190 calories.
With more people interested in plant-based diets, roasted pistachios are a perfect vegetarian/vegan post-workout food as they are a complete protein source that provides all nine essential amino acids. A one-ounce serving (about 49 pistachios) provides 6 grams of protein in just 160 calories. Plus they’re loaded with other important recovery nutrients such as potassium, which helps muscle function. A serving of these tasty nuts has as much potassium as a half of a large banana and 3 grams of filling fiber.
How to enjoy: Pistachios are ideal for on-the-go snacking. They also a great addition to smoothies and trail mixes, or you can make your own amazing protein bars.
Salmon is best known for being an excellent source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, omega-3s have been shown to help improve glucose tolerance and promote lean body mass. While fat often gets a bad rap, good fats, like the ones found in salmon, play an essential role in hormone production — think testosterone and growth hormones — and can thus aid in muscle growth and strength gains.
Further, the good fat found in lean protein helps to elevate your metabolic rate, which can help you to shed additional fat and build lean muscle mass.
How to enjoy: Salmon is delicious when served grilled over a colorful salad, broiled in the oven with lemon and thyme or when prepared Asian style.
Berries are rich in immune-boosting, disease-fighting antioxidants, which can help squash the oxidative stress the body endures after intense bouts of exercise. The antioxidants in berries help mitigate the high level of oxidative stress, which leads to further muscle tissue damage associated with exhaustive exercise. Fortunately, by increasing intake of antioxidant rich foods like berries, studies show that exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammation caused by free radicals is diminished.
In addition to being rich in antioxidants, berries provide a substantial amount of carbohydrate, which helps replenish muscle glycogen stores. One cup of fresh berries provides around 20 grams of carbohydrate.
How to enjoy: Berries are delicious when paired with a protein rich snack, like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, string cheese, or a handful of nuts. You can also incorporate into a smoothie.
The Thanksgiving star is often overlooked for the rest of the year, but shouldn’t be if you’re an athlete. Turkey is an affordable source of high quality protein to provide the essential amino acids your body needs to recover after a workout. Protein requirements vary by sport and how long you’ve been training, but as a general rule, endurance athletes need about 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight, and serious strength athletes need 1.6 to 1.7 grams protein per kilogram body weight.
What’s more, for athletes trying to maintain a lower body weight, a higher protein diet may help retain muscle mass while keeping body fat levels low.
How to enjoy: Roll turkey and enjoy in lettuce wraps with spicy mustard, or place turkey slices in a whole-wheat pita and garnish with avocado and tomato salsa. Or skip the bread and spread a soft cheese and apple slices over two to three slices of lean deli turkey and roll up and enjoy for a quick protein-packed option. Turkey dinner? Whip up a batch of turkey meatballs and serve over whole-grain pasta.
Katherine Brooking, MS, RD, LD, is a nationally recognized dietitian, speaker, author, influencer and nutrition advocate who is passionate about helping people achieve healthier lives and supporting sustainable food systems.
Katherine is a go-to resource for the media. Her expert nutrition advice has appeared in hundreds of media outlets including Prevention, Cooking Light, SELF, Reader’s Digest, Huffington Post, Woman’s Day and other top-tier publications. She is a sought-after TV personality, appearing on the TODAY show, The Early Show on CBS, The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America Health, as well as dozens of local affiliate stations across the country.
In 2019 she was listed as a “Top 50 Influencer” at the world’s largest natural foods show, Expo West. Katherine is also the co-creator of the Appetite for Health weekly syndicated nutrition news segment series and Appforhealth.com, a blog about food, fitness and nutrition. She is co-author of “The Real Skinny: Appetite for Health’s 101 Fat Habits and Slim Solutions” (Penguin 2013).