If you’re like most people, your actual workout time logs in at roughly an hour, but what happens during the other 23 hours of the day is what ultimately determines your results, especially when it comes to nutrition. What you eat before and after a workout is a crucial element in your programming, and choosing wisely will help you get the results you want.
But not all foods are appropriate for fueling your specific activity. For instance, you’d never eat fried chicken right before running a marathon — unless you want to revisit it shortly after mile one — and you’d never just eat a plain salad after a tough metcon, since lettuce alone will not give your body what it needs to recover and rebuild your tissues.
Here, we’ve uncovered the latest in sports science nutrition to divine the best foods and eating patterns to use around specific activities. This will help you determine how to gas up before training and top off your tank when you’re done. Use these as a guideline to fuel your machine and hit the road to Resultsville.
Power Up With Protein
Research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition shows that eating protein as part of your pre-lift nosh can help reduce muscle protein breakdown and encourage better gains afterward. But don’t pound a burger before hitting the squat rack (hello, gut bomb). Instead, have a light preworkout snack with some easy-to-digest protein and carbs about 30 minutes before training.
Eat This: Power Balls
Soak 1½ cups of dried Mission figs (stems trimmed) in hot water for 30 minutes. Drain, pat dry and process in a food processor with 1/3 cup of plain protein powder, ¼ cup of cocoa powder, ¼ cup of almond butter, ½ teaspoon of cinnamon, zest of one orange, juice of ½ an orange and pinch of salt. Form mixture into 1-inch balls and keep chilled. Eat two balls before a workout.
In a head-to-head comparison, researchers from the University of Illinois found that providing people with 18 grams of protein from whole eggs after lifting weights was about 40 percent more effective at stimulating myofibrillar protein synthetic response (aka muscle building) than egg whites alone. The protein in egg whites is complete, meaning it contains the right mix of essential amino acids, but it’s likely that the fat and other nutrients found in the egg yolk work synergistically with the protein in the egg whites to help battle-worn muscles recover.
Eat This: High-Pro Egg on Toast
Mash two hard-boiled eggs with 2 teaspoons of pesto and ¼ cup of plain Greek yogurt. Spread on a piece of toasted whole-grain bread.
Gotta Have Ricotta
Ricotta is a standout source of leucine, the most muscle-friendly amino you can eat after pumping iron. According to research, leucine behaves like a hormone in your body, sparking muscle protein synthesis in response to weight training. Eat a leucine source such as ricotta with an equal ratio of carbs to raise insulin levels and encourage more efficient protein assimilation.
Eat This: Bodybuilder Bowl
Stir together ½ cup of part-skim ricotta cheese and 1 scoop of whey protein powder in a bowl. Top with 1/3 cup of muesli and ½ cup of chopped pineapple.
Get the Blues
Researchers from Appalachian State University in North Carolina found that consuming blueberries before intense exercise reduced the markers of muscle damage. The high level of antioxidants in blueberries work to reduce the stress associated with vigorous exercise like high-intensity interval training, and their natural sugars provide a source of quick-digesting energy so you can work at a higher intensity for longer. Combine blueberries with some protein 30 to 60 minutes before interval training to prevent your body from tapping into your muscles for energy.
Eat This: Blueberry Rice Cakes
Spread 1 tablespoon of cream cheese on a rice cake and top with 1/3 cup of blueberries and 1 teaspoon of unsalted, dry-roasted sunflower seeds.
A study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that subjects who consumed a bowl of whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk after moderate interval exercise experienced better recovery: The carbs restored spent glycogen reserves, while the milk protein reduced muscle breakdown. As little as 9 grams (1 cup) of a postworkout milk-based protein is enough to kick-start the muscle-making process.
Eat This: Simply Cereal
Add 1 cup of a 100 percent whole-grain, low-sugar cereal to a bowl and top with 1 cup of low-fat milk and a small handful each of walnuts and dried tart cherries.
Joe to Go
Recent research found that adding caffeine to post-exercise carbs can improve performance in subsequent interval training sessions four hours later. It might be that a shot of caffeine increases how much glycogen is produced from the carbs consumed, allowing you to tap into more energy reserves to push harder. Add a little protein to repair the micro-tears in your muscle fibers and accelerate recovery while also quelling hunger.
Drink This: Coffee Cure
Blend 1 cup of brewed coffee, 1 scoop of plain or vanilla protein powder, 1 tablespoon of almond butter, 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder, ½ teaspoon of cinnamon and 1 chopped frozen banana.
Boost Blood Flow
Research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reported that subjects who drank about 2 cups of watermelon juice an hour before working out had less muscle soreness 24 hours later. L-citrulline, a naturally occurring amino acid in watermelon, is thought to increase blood flow to muscles, flushing out metabolic wastes and delivering reparative nutrients.
Eat This: Watermelon Warm-Up
Scoop ¾ cup of plain low-fat Greek yogurt into a bowl and top with chopped watermelon, 1 tablespoon of roasted pumpkin seeds and a drizzle of honey.
Colds vs. Carbs
Including quality carbs in your CrossFit recovery plan not only replaces spent energy stores but also could keep the sniffles at bay. According to research, carb-rich foods like spuds, grains and fruit appear to prevent the drop in immunity that occurs in response to intense exercise, making it harder for viruses to invade your body and beat you down.
Eat This: Sweet Potato “Toast” Sandwich
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the ends off a sweet potato, then slice lengthwise into ¼-inch slices. Place on a baking sheet in a single layer, brush with oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 10 minutes, flip, brush with more oil and roast another 10 minutes, or until fork-tender. Spread hummus on potato “toast” and top with sliced roasted chicken.
Studies show that higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids such as are found in salmon, sardines and mackerel may translate into reduced delayed onset muscle soreness: When omega-3s enter muscle cells, they limit the exercise-induced damage that causes painful inflammation and may even turn on pathways in the body that increase lean body mass.
Eat This: Salmon Savior
Spread 2 tablespoons of cream cheese on two rye crackers like Wasa and top with 3 ounces of sliced smoked salmon and ¼ cup of sliced roasted red peppers.
In an International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism study, people who ate chicken noodle soup before cycling drank and retained more water during the ride than those who just downed H2O. Sodium and other aspects of the soup seem to bring about a change in kidney function that promotes better hydration, and the noodles will give you some necessary energizing carbs for endurance.
Eat This: Pregame Potage
Warm up a quality store-bought soup such as Pacific Organic Chicken Noodle about 30 to 60 minutes before cardio. If you need more carbohydrate calories, eat some whole-wheat crackers along with it.
Beyond the benefits of restocking energy stores and healing muscles, British researchers showed that people who consumed protein and carbs in a 3-to-1 ratio after a treadmill run experienced less bone breakdown and increased bone formation. Cottage cheese has all the protein you need for speedy recovery, while add-ins like granola and fruit will please your carb-thirsty muscles.
Eat This: Bone-Bolstering Bowl
Blend together ¾ cup of low-fat cottage cheese, 2 teaspoons of peanut butter, ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract, ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon and 1 frozen chopped banana. Pour into a bowl and top with raspberries and granola.
Put a Cherry on Top
Pucker up: Several studies show that the antioxidants in tart cherries (particularly the American-grown Montmorency variety) can promote better recovery from exercise, including decreasing muscle inflammation due to repetitive motions such as running. And when consumed after endurance exercise, the simple carbs in dried fruit are more likely to be stored as glycogen than as fat.
Eat This: Power Wrap
Stir together 1/3 cup of ricotta cheese with 1 tablespoon of almond butter, 1 teaspoon of maple syrup and ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract. Spread on a whole-grain wrap, and sprinkle with a handful of dried tart cherries.
Mix It Up
If you hit the mat without eating, your body won’t have the pep needed to hold that Crane Pose. Trail mix provides a nice mix of carbs, protein and fat to keep your energy up and your stomach satisfied. Since trail mix tends to be low-glycemic, eating a handful or two will encourage your body to tap into fat stores to power your vinyasa.
Eat This: Ohm-M-G Mix
In a large bowl, toss together 4 cups of air-popped popcorn, 3 ounces of chopped jerky, ¾ cup of pecans, ½ cup of dried cranberries, ½ cup of dark chocolate chips and 1/3 cup of pumpkin seeds (pepitas).
Hydration and Immunization
Though big on mobility and relaxation, most yoga sessions don’t burn a ton of calories, so post-ohm look for something light and refreshing such as cantaloupe, which is packed with water for rehydration and natural sugars for re-energizing. Eat it with yogurt to tame any post-Warrior I hunger and mend hurting muscles. Bonus: The probiotics found in yogurt may work to bolster immunity in those who like to regularly work up a sweat.
Eat This: Cantaloupe Recoup
Scoop the seeds from a cantaloupe half and fill with plain yogurt. Sprinkle on 1 tablespoon of pistachios and 1 tablespoon of sliced mint.
The antioxidants and minerals in dark greens like spinach contribute to muscle recovery from more intense forms of yoga that require you to pump out one hard move after another.
Drink This: Green-Machine Smoothie
Blend 1 cup of unsweetened almond milk, 1 scoop of protein powder, 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed, 1 cup of baby spinach and ½ cup of frozen mango cubes.
Helping Hands The sports-nutrition market is so replete with powders, bars and gels, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Here are some of our top picks to power your workouts.
Organic Valley Organic Fuel Whey Protein Powder
This whey protein sourced from organic milk is great for post-gym smoothies, flooding your body with recovery-boosting amino acids.
organicvalley.coop, $30 (12 oz)
HealthySkoop Endurance Beets
Mix this beet powder with water preworkout for a hefty dose of nitrites, which have been shown to increase blood flow to muscles, allowing them to operate more efficiently during training.
healthyskoop.com, $24 (7.7 oz)
GoMacro Thrive Ginger Lemon Bar
With a good balance of carbs, protein and fat, this bar is great for taking the edge off before a workout. Made from 100 percent plant-based ingredients.
gomacro.com, $26 (12 bars)
Munk Pack Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Protein Cookie
Combine your recovery fuel with dessert with this gluten-free cookie that contains 18 grams of non-GMO plant-based protein.
munkpack.com, $17 (pack of 6)
Made in Nature Figgy Pops Mocha Almond Pop a couple of these 100 percent organic, responsibly sourced, whole-food nutrition balls infused with ground espresso for a preworkout energy boost.