June 10, 2016

Conscious Kitchen: Pre-, Mid-, and Post-Workout Fuel

(recipe for these protein power bites linked below)

You're likely to have noticed countless advertisements and products on grocery store shelves related to workout fuel. From the shudder-worthy raw egg smoothies that body builders in movies always drink to the grab and go "builder bars", there's a lot of attention on exercise related fuel.

Why is there so much focus? Is it necessary? Why bother concerning with what we eat, or with what we should eat, before and after a workout? Do we even need to eat during a workout?

To begin, your body has various energy sources depending on availability of stored fuels, oxygen, and activity intensity. I'm not going to go very far into the details of this, but here's what you need to know:

  • Carbohydrates: digest & metabolize most easily; they provide quite a bit of energy
  • Fats: digest & metabolize much more slowly; provide the most amount of energy
  • Protein: digest & metabolize faster than fats but slower than carbohydrates; your body relies on protein for 10% or less of your energy needs 
(If you want more details on these macronutrients, read my first Conscious Kitchen post)

Based on these three food sources, carbohydrates are the happy medium and the preferred form of energy. Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in muscles and the liver. What's notable about the liver is that it can also metabolize fructose, a kind of sugar, in addition to glucose, which is metabolized by all body cells. (Here's a short article about fructose that I wrote for HomeRemy)

Here is a simple and basic breakdown of workout fuel:


about 45-60 minutes before your workout, it's important to make sure that your body's glycogen stores are maximized and that you are adequately hydrated. Eat something that is easily digestible (aka not a heavy meal) to minimize GI stress.

  • Drink water
  • Macronutrient of focus: carbohydrate
  • Examples: banana (or any fruit), a piece of toast, a little bit of oatmeal
You may have heard of "carb-loading" before a big game or competition (think: athletes eating giant bowls of spaghetti before an event). What I've learned in my nutrition class is that this practice is actually more effective for endurance athletes during the 3 days before a competition. The average person playing a pick up soccer game? Not very necessary, but if you're hungry, listen to your body and fuel it with the quality carbs it's craving! To be completely honest though, I've met many people (my nutrition professor included) who can't stomach food before a workout. I, on the other hand, can't workout on a completely empty stomach but can't workout on a very full stomach (even after a moderately sized meal). I usually grab a banana, but remember, listen to your body and do what works best for you.


not everyone needs (or wants) a mid-workout snack. This is really only applicable to endurance athletes, like marathon runners. The goal of having a mid-workout snack is to maintain blood glucose (sugar) levels, maintain blood plasma volume (adequate hydration), maintain electrolyte balance (also linked to hydration), and to improve performance. A recommended mid-workout snack will quickly replete your liver's glycogen stores.
  • Drink water
  • A beverage/supplement that contains both glucose and fructose will in fact be very effective in maintaining glycogen stores (in this case, those energy drinks with high fructose corn syrup are effective -- not that healthy, but effective. Remember: they're designed for endurance/high intensity athletes, not a 6 year old's soccer game!)

this is often overlooked, but it's very important! You want to replete your energy stores, prevent muscle catabolism (breakdown), and promote muscle recovery within 1 hour of finishing a workout. Exercising and lifting weights break down your muscles so that you can build stronger muscles -- the catch is, you have to help promote muscle recovery and anabolism, or else you're going to be left with broken down muscles that feel more sore than necessary (this makes future workouts harder because you can't push yourself as far!).

To those who worry about getting bulky muscles, don't be! The exercise form that you choose, whether it's toning your muscles or body building, will dominate how your muscles are trained and how they'll appear. The post workout fuel won't have a significant influence, so even if you want to look lean and toned, you should consume something after a workout.

Now don't fall for those fat and sugar packed energy bars; most people won't need them. A small snack will suffice.
  • Drink water
  • Macronutrients of focus: protein and carbohydrate
  • Examples: 1-2  protein power bites (photographed), egg white and banana, nut butter or turkey on toast, hummus and pita, greek yogurt and granola, protein shake (ex: banana, hemp seeds, almond milk)
Electrolytes are of greater concern if you're exercising for more than 60 minutes. In this case, try some coconut water!

If you are eating a meal within 60 minutes (1 hour) of your workout, then you won't need a post-workout snack in addition to your meal. Always make sure that you reward your body with high quality, nourishing food despite the temptation to down a box of donuts after a workout!

xoxo, han

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