Using proper nutrition to get the most out of your workouts

Learn how you can make a few simple nutrition changes to get the most out of your workouts.

Ellie Brewer

There are a few straight-forward habits you can develop to help fuel your body properly and see improved results in the gym, and in your overall health. We recommend focusing on choosing one of these habits and focusing on it for one month before adding in another new habit. It’s best to start small and choose something you can actually see yourself doing consistently for the next year. 

Pre Workout Snack

What do you eat before working out? Do you work out on an empty stomach, or do you grab a snack or a meal beforehand? As someone who used to work out at 6:00am three days a week with my hockey team, I’ll be honest that I usually didn’t eat anything before I lifted. I thought I was making good progress and felt okay, but I noticed that towards the end of the workout I would get drained, fuzzy headed, and hungry. Our coach noticed a lot of us weren’t eating before, and she shared how important it is to have food before you workout, even if it is just a little snack.

Now, after studying nutrition and dietetics, I can share some of the science behind why this is indeed so important. When we don’t eat for a long period of time, our body uses up all the energy from our last meal in about 3-4 hours. After it has used up that energy, it starts breaking down stored muscle, carbohydrates, and fat for energy. If you exercise on an empty stomach, your body needs to get energy from somewhere to keep your muscles working, and the first place it takes energy from is carbohydrate stores in your muscles and liver. That energy source doesn’t last long though, and for high intensity exercise, your body starts breaking down your muscles to fuel the exercise. This is not ideal, especially when we are trying to grow our muscles and get stronger. In order to prevent your body from breaking down muscle for fuel, we need to eat a snack before we work out that ideally contains some carbohydrates and protein. Having easily digested carbohydrates in your stomach will give your body access to a source of energy it can use relatively quickly. Any protein you eat will prime your muscles to start healing and getting stronger after your workout since your body can tell that you have adequate amounts of protein in your system. 

This pre workout snack doesn’t have to be anything crazy. If you are someone who doesn’t eat anything before you workout, start small with a few bites of a granola bar, a pouch of apple sauce, or half a banana. It’s best not to eat anything high in fiber or fat before a workout because these foods will sit in your stomach for a longer period of time and can make you feel too full, sluggish, or give you a stomachache if you work out right after you eat them. As you find some foods you are comfortable eating before you work out, you can branch out to include a protein source as well. For example, you could have some Rice Krispies and skim milk, low fat yogurt and berries, or jerky and an apple. 

Post Workout Meal

After you work out, your body is primed to rebuild muscle. To repair and grow the muscles you used during the workout, your body needs food to provide energy and building blocks for this process. Ideally, after a workout you should eat a full meal that includes a carbohydrate, fat, and protein source. This provides all the nutrients your body needs to replenish your energy stores and rebuild and strengthen your muscles within the time frame when your body is ready to digest and absorb these nutrients. If you are unable to eat a full meal right after your workout, you can have a snack to help your body replenish its energy sources and do your best to eat a full meal within three hours after finishing your workout. This will ensure your body is not breaking down more muscle for energy while your stomach is empty, and it will speed up your recovery process in addition to providing fuel for muscle rebuilding and growth. 

Eat Enough Protein

We frequently talk about protein intake at Rise, and I want to highlight its importance again. All three macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, and protein) are vital parts of a healthy diet. Protein is especially important when we are trying to grow muscle and lose weight. All of us have different goals, but many of us have a goal to either get stronger and/or manage our weight. 

If your goal is to get stronger, protein intake is a great thing to focus on because our muscles are made primarily out of protein. In order to have enough building blocks (amino acids) to grow muscle after a workout, we need to make sure we have enough building blocks in reserve so our body can use them to strengthen our muscles. We can grow and maintain that reserve of building blocks by making sure we are eating enough protein throughout the day. 

If your goal is to lose weight, protein intake is just as important. When we lose weight, we don’t just lose fat. If you are eating less energy than you are using in activity and your daily routine, you will lose both muscle and fat stores. In order to prevent muscle loss, you can ensure you are eating protein-rich meals so your body has access to those building blocks and can continue to grow or maintain your muscle mass while you lose fat. This, in addition to strength training, will help your body maintain or grow your muscle mass while breaking down fat.

Everyone’s protein needs vary, but one way you can work on increasing your protein intake is including a protein source with each meal and snack. You don’t have to be tracking calories or grams of protein to do this. Instead, start getting familiar with nutrition labels and combine different foods to aim for at least 30g of protein at each meal. Most meat, poultry, and fish products have around 20g of protein per serving, so if you pair that with a dairy product, beans, whole grain bread, or 1-2 eggs, you will at or above that 30g mark. If you do not eat animal products, you can combine different plant-based products to aim for the 30g mark. For example, you could combine rice and beans, tofu and bread, or edamame and whole grain pasta, to make sure you are getting enough protein from a wide variety of sources. 

Working out is just one aspect of health. It is important to remember all of the other things you can do to live a healthier lifestyle, and nutrition is a huge piece of that. If you have any questions or want to sit down and have a conversation about nutrition, Coach Megan and I would love to chat with you. There are so many different ways we can support our bodies to get the most out of our workouts, including getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and eating enough of the right things. Pick one habit you can commit to working on for the next month and track your progress to see how you feel after one month of consistency. We are so proud of you and all the hard work you have already put in.