How to Program Your Meals Around Workouts

Oxygen Challenge coach Erin Stern shares three key steps to create an effective, customized eating plan for maximum results.

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Preworkout meal

Standard meal plans come as “one size fits most.” The average person can rarely enjoy one of these plans without having to make some adjustments. But in three easy steps, you can modify any meal plan to fit your goals and caloric needs.

Meal planning tends to be a blend of science and art. The science dictates that we need a minimum amount of calories to survive and that we need macronutrients and micronutrients to thrive. The art comes in when figuring out your specific metabolic rate — which can be faster or slower, depending on age, body type, genetics, activity level and amount of muscle you carry.

It’s smart to keep track of what you eat during the first few weeks of a new plan because you can track your food with your progress. If you’re gaining mass in the wrong areas, your meal plan should be adjusted.

Let’s take a look at these three key steps and how you can implement them.

Calculate Your BMR

Calculate BMR

Your BMR, or basal metabolic rate, is the amount of calories you burn just by being alive. You’d burn this amount by sitting in bed all day. So if your meal plan is at or below this number, increase your calories. Always. You can determine your BMR with this quick calculator.

A meal plan that’s at or below your BMR will offer you no energy or nourishment. Metabolism is an elastic thing, so the goal is to be able to eat more food and stay lean. It’s OK to have a low-calorie day here and there, but persisting with a low-calorie diet will cause your progress to stall. You may even gain weight, as the body is amazingly adaptive. A diet that’s chronically low in calories will cause the body to think it’s starving, and it will hold on to fat. To avoid this from happening, eat more.

Adjust Your Calories Accordingly

Postworkout meal

I suggest adding 500 calories to your BMR right off the bat. If you’re active every day, you’ll burn 600 to 1,000 calories just by moving around. If your goal is to maintain, you might be good at this amount or add slightly more. If your goal is to gain muscle and lose fat, you may add an additional 500 calories (BMR+1,000), and add those calories to your preworkout and postworkout meals. If your goal is to gain muscle, you may add 500 to 1,000 calories on top of this amount.

In terms of calories, I mean calories from whole foods. When training, the body needs a lot of protein for muscle growth and maintenance, carbs for fuel and recovery, and fats for fuel and hormone production. Progress photos, along with a food log or journal, will help you figure out adjustments. Give each adjustment a week before tweaking it.

Fuel Your Body When It’s Most Active

Berry green smoothie

Eat more when you’re most active, and eat less when you’re sedentary. Food restriction during the day can often lead to overeating at night. While the overall caloric intake might be lower for the entire day, you’re fueling up your body right when it’s time to wind down and go to sleep. Metabolism tends to be slower at night, so a large meal may not be digested as well as if it was eaten earlier in the day.

Focus on fueling your body before and after training. Increasing calories during the day can help to prevent overeating at night. Eating should become somewhat intuitive, too. If you are hungry all the time, give yourself more food around the times you’re more active. Just be sure that you’re truly hungry and not thirsty or bored.

I try to get 30 grams of protein and carbs before and after training. Your preworkout meal should be eaten one to two hours before your workout. This meal should contain complex carbs and lean protein, which will help fuel the workout. Chicken and rice is a simple option. Postworkout carbs and protein should be a little easier and quicker to digest. The goal with this meal is to encourage recovery and to replete energy stores quickly. A shake with fruit and whey isolate is an easy choice.

The Erin Stern Challenge offers three different meal plans over 90 days. You’ll learn how to eat for maintenance, building and shredding. The meals are easy to shuffle, in case your schedule changes from day to day. Check it out and join the community!