The other part of the equation is nutrition.
Finding the right nutrition before and after exercise can have a big impact on how effective your workouts truly are. You've probably seen dozens of articles online and in fitness magazines that promote the best types of foods to eat before and after exercise. One theme remains clear in all of these articles: it's all about carbs before and protein after, and those are the rules that most of us follow.
Essentially, those rules are correct, but I'd like to add to them and go into a little more detail. Keep in mind that your nutritional needs will vary based on the time of day that you're exercising, what you're doing and how long you're doing it for.
For example, when I'm doing a short cardio workout, I tend to eat a smaller amount of food that is higher in carbohydrates. When lifting weights, I consume a pre-workout drink (which is just a powder that I mix with water) that includes caffeine because it acts as a stimulant and can increase muscle strength, along with a snack that's a mix of carbs and healthy fats. If I'm going to be exercising for more than two hours (a hike or long bike ride), I'll eat an actual "meal" that includes simple and complex carbs and healthy fats.
What to Eat Before Working Out
There are several things to consider when choosing what to eat before a workout. First and foremost, you'll want to consume foods that are easy to digest and that your body tolerates well. Stay away from high fiber foods, as they can cause discomfort and bloating (which is not ideal during exercise!).
Foods eaten before working out should be a balance of carbohydrates (both simple and complex), protein and healthy fats (for long workouts). Simple carbs will provide a quick burst of energy, which complex carbs will release slowly to provide sustained energy throughout your workout. Simple Carbohydrates are those found in sugar and include honey, maple syrup and table sugar. Complex carbohydrates are fiber and starches and can be found in fruits, vegetables, grains and bread. Fats are also a great source of sustained energy and break down much slower than carbohydrates. My preferred sources of fat (before working out) include nuts, nut butters and coconut oil.
Here are a few options for great pre-exercise snacks and meals:
Banana with Nut Butter and Honey
This is my favorite thing to eat before lifting weights. Slice one banana in half width-wise and save the other half for your next workout. Slice the remaining banana in half length-wise and spread 1 TBSP almond or peanut butter on one side. Drizzle on 1 tsp honey and top with the other banana slice, to make it like a sandwich. You can also replace the banana with a small apple.
Oatmeal with Maple Syrup and Blueberries
This is great to eat before a longer workout or hike. Combine 1 cup (cooked) oatmeal with 1 TBSP maple syrup and 1/2 cup blueberries. For a shorter workout, cut the recipe in half. You can also try replacing the oatmeal with the same amount of cooked brown rice.
Peanut Butter & Jam Open-Faced Sandwich
Depending on your workout, you can use anything from a rice cake to a sheet of graham crackers to a slice (or two) of whole-grain bread as the "bread" component for your sandwich. Spread 1 TSBP on each slice of bread (or rice cake or graham cracker) and top with 1/2 TSBP of jam. If you're going to be exercising for several hours, eat two!
Coconut Honey Toast
Toast one piece of whole-grain bread and spread on one TBSP coconut oil. Drizzle one teaspoon of honey on top. This is the perfect fuel for almost any workout!
If you're short on time, grabbing a granola bar or handful (about 1/4 cup) of trail mix or granola are also great options.
What to Eat After Working Out
When you finish a workout, your body wants to be replenished -- fast. Eating within an hour after exercise is definitely ideal, so plan ahead accordingly!
I usually work out first thing in the morning and eat breakfast immediately when I get home. Protein is an important macronutrient to consume post-workout, but carbohydrates are too! Both macronutrients work together to replenish glycogen and repair and rebuild muscles and give you the greatest benefit from your workout.
If you aren't going to have access to a meal right after your workout (or if you don't work out around the time that you'd normally eat a meal), a protein bar (that's not too high in fat), protein shake (16 oz. water mixed with protein powder) or a cup of chocolate milk are good alternatives.
Here are some of my favorite options for post-workout meals:
Green Monster Smoothie
This is SO good and filling! In a blender, combine 1 cup ice cubes, 1 frozen banana, 1 cup fresh spinach leaves, 1 cup almond (or dairy) milk, 1/2 cup water and 1 scoop protein powder. Blend until smooth. Other good additions to this smoothie include 1 TSBP hemp seeds, nut butter or coconut oil.
PB, Apple, Cheddar + Ham on an English Muffin
I know that this combination sounds crazy, but just trust me on this one. Cut an English muffin in half. Top both halves with 1/2 TSBP peanut butter, a few slices of apple, a piece of nitrate-free ham and 1/2 oz. sharp cheddar cheese. Place in the toaster oven or oven at 350Ëš for a few minutes, then switch to the broiler for an additional minute. If you want a little extra protein, enjoy this with an egg or glass of milk on the side.
Cottage Cheese + Fruit
Combine 1 cup cottage cheese with 1 cup fresh fruit. My favorite types of fruit to use are peaches, pineapple and strawberries. Add in 1 tsp honey or maple syrup and stir together well. If desired, you can also add in 1 TSBP of your favorite nut or seed butter (sunflower butter is an awesome addition!).
Egg Scramble in a Pita
Scramble together 2 eggs + 1 cup chopped up vegetables (such as mushroom, onion and red bell pepper). Add in 1 oz. cheese. Place scramble inside a pita pocket and enjoy as is or top off with hot sauce.
Other quick options for post-workout nutrition include Greek yogurt topped with fruit or granola, 1-1/2 cups cereal with 1 cup milk or 4 oz. lean meat with 1 cup brown rice or quinoa.
In addition to these tasty and nutritional snacks, don't forget to drink plenty of water before, during and after your workouts. Try to drink at least 16 oz. of water 30 minutes to an hour before your exercise session, 8 oz. during every fifteen minutes that you exercise and an additional 8-16 oz. after. Water is important during all parts of a workout because it helps regulate your body temperature (to keep you from being overheated), helps avoid dehydration and keeps your cells functioning properly.
Ready to hit the gym? Give one of these workouts a try:
Mix Strength & Cardio with this Trail Running Circuit Workout
7 Backpacking Exercises to Help You Become a Stronger Hiker
3 Circuit Workouts to Prepare You for Hiking Season
4 Cycling Workouts to Strengthen Your Ride
Featured Flickr image courtesy Joanna Slodownik.