What should I eat before and after going to the gym?
November 13, 2011 6:11 PM   Subscribe

What should I eat before and after going to the gym? My priorities are food that (1) won't make me feel like throwing up if eaten before an intense workout, (2) is nutritious and beneficial for a weight-training/cardio improvement regime, and (3) is inexpensive. Specific requirements inside.

At the gym I do weight lifting, calisthenics, or TRX suspension circuit training. This can be pretty active and involve moving my stomach around much, which results in nausea. The only breakfast that's easy to make that I've found so far that seems to keep me fed without running the risk of feeling horrible later is instant oatmeal made with water, and apple juice. I've considered smoothies but usually run out of time. Some things that make me feel not-so-great: bananas, oatmeal made with milk, cereal with milk, yogurt.

Also, what are good things to eat afterward? I don't have access to refrigerated storage during this time, so I generally need things need to be stable for a couple of hours. What I'm eating now: bananas, apples, granola bars. Occasionally if I am above average in planning, I can bring in things in advance such as yogurt.

I also have the option of buying food in the building where I work. This is necessary some days because I occasionally won't manage to bring the food with me. Some options are: bagels, cream cheese, cheddar cheese, hard-boiled eggs, bananas, apples, cut melon, Greek-style yogurt, fruit-and-yogurt parfait, hummus and pita, quiche, egg-and-ham croissant sandwiches, granola bars, energy bars (for example, Clif Bars).
posted by grouse to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I can't eat before I work out, at all. To me the ideal post-workout food is nonfat plain yogurt with a few spoonsful of sunflower seeds mixed in. This seems like it would be pretty trivial to pull off.
posted by troublesome at 6:22 PM on November 13, 2011

Before or after a workout: Nonfat chocolate milk. It's great for you, helps to build muscle, and if you stick to nonfat, it generally won't make your stomach feel ooky.
posted by xingcat at 6:31 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

My only successful pre-workout food has been citrus or a small portion of whole-grain cereal (no added sugar) with almond milk.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:35 PM on November 13, 2011

Frankly, I can't think of any better options then the ones you listed up there yourself.

Personally, I'm a fan of yogurt (plain) and hard-boiled eggs. These can also stand not to be refrigerated for a while. They are filling but light on the stomach too.
posted by bearette at 6:40 PM on November 13, 2011

We've been buying the little mesh bags of Babybel cheeses for our days on Hawk Hill. They're not, you know, delicious, but they're fine out of refrigeration for hours on end, and they'll give you a little hit of protein and fat without a lot of volume.
posted by rtha at 6:41 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you are doing weight training, then you need protein post-workout (like, within an hour would be the best) to help repair your muscles. Hard-boiled egg, yogurt, protein bar or shake, whatever. But you need the protein, so just eating granola bars or fruit aren't going to do much to help your body actually recover.

I never eat right before working out, and it isn't actually necessary because unless you're doing distance running or biking, your body will already have enough energy reserves in it to keep you going. Just stay well-hydrated all the time.
posted by so_gracefully at 6:42 PM on November 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

I love eating raisins / dates / dried apricots / dried whatever pre- or post-workout. Especially with strength training - my body burns hungrily through all the sugar, feels good.
posted by 3FLryan at 6:47 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

(and yes, protein post-strength-training is important, but so are simple carbs - you just destroyed your muscles and they are hungry for glucose)
posted by 3FLryan at 6:51 PM on November 13, 2011

I do just half a banana before a morning workout - 30 g of carbs is all you need to help you work out hard without making you feel worse.

And yeah, most importantly, you need some simple carbs to replace that muscle glycogen, and the sooner the better. You can do the chocolate milk that comes in boxes - I refrigerate mine beforehand so they're still a little cool at the end of the workout, but you don't have to refrigerate them at all. They're Great after a workout. You can read more about it by googling, but the casein and the whey make for two great protein sources.

A little bit later you'll need something more, and more protein. You can take things like frittata to work in a cooler bag and heat them up there, or old fashioned oat meal soaking in milk (that shortens the cooking time, too). The hardboiled eggs, yogurt, quiche (as long as it's not a super-rich cream-laden one), cheeses - most of those things on your list are fine for days when you couldn't bring food. Just be sure you get a mix of protein and carb with a little fat.
posted by ldthomps at 7:02 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

After 5ks and longer distance events they usually have bananas, bagels, chocolate milk, and sometimes cereal, raisins, and apples available, so that's what I eat after I go to the gym or do a long hike or whatever. I can't do much more than nibble crackers and drink water within the hour before starting, though - anything else makes me sick.
posted by SMPA at 7:06 PM on November 13, 2011

I can't eat right before working out (especially weight-lifting). I get too nauseous. So on days where I am going early, I skip breakfast. A cup of black coffee gives me (the perception of) enough energy, and then I eat right afterwards.

I keep little tins of tuna in my gym bag - the 95g ones. And a fork. The top of the tin has a ring so you can just peel it off and eat the protein. I have also gone through stages of carrying around a jar of peanut butter in my bag, and a spoon. A couple of tablespoons of that and I'm good to go.
posted by lollusc at 7:09 PM on November 13, 2011

The only breakfast that's easy to make that I've found so far that seems to keep me fed without running the risk of feeling horrible later is instant oatmeal made with water, and apple juice.

You didn't mention any downsides to this breakfast. Honestly, I'm in the camp that prefers consistently feeling awesome, and knowing that I will feel awesome, to having variety simply for variety's sake.

That said, it sounds like you should be able to do variations on a theme here. For example, cream of rice instead of oatmeal. OJ instead of apple juice. Etc.

For me, a banana is perfectly fine pre-workout food, but so is a bacon wrapped hotdog, so I really think this varies enough from person to person that it's going to be hard for us to say.

Post-workout you want some simple carbs and some protein. You can get this from a processed food-type-item like Muscle Milk or from whole foods like a chicken breast and a piece of fruit.
posted by telegraph at 7:12 PM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think you want light carbs before and protein afterwards. Lyle McDonald is my guru.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:41 PM on November 13, 2011

Egg and cheese slow your digestion which you are trying to speed up->metabolism. Almonds are supreme. I do smoothies but I realize most ppl can't.
posted by femmme at 7:50 PM on November 13, 2011

femmme, your comment sounds like many of the unexamined and dubious assertions made on daytime TV. I don't mean to be harsh, I just don't necessarily think it makes sense to say things like "egg and cheese slow your digestion" or, if they do, that that somehow slows your metabolism. That second part especially seems just wrong to me.

grouse: whatever you eat, it probably takes your body somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes to translate some of that food into blood sugar with which you can move your muscles around. This spike in blood sugar is especially high after the first meal of the day, which makes it the ideal time to work out for weight loss reasons.

If it's possible at all for you to eat ~ 45 minutes before your workout begins, I think you'll find that you can eat a greater variety of things without risking nausea.
posted by kavasa at 8:00 PM on November 13, 2011

Thanks for the answers! I'm still digesting them, but looks like there is a lot of food for thought here (no puns intended).

I forgot to add: I have a choice of eating immediately following my workout, or after I walk up a big hill to work (takes about 20 min). Is there any advantage to eating while I am still at the gym? It is slightly less convenient but still possible (and on days when I'm super hungry, very tempting).
posted by grouse at 8:40 PM on November 13, 2011

Whey in water with glucose/dextrose and a pinch of salt is probably optimal in terms of muscle building, followed by a high-protein meal 45 min to an hour later.

Personally, as someone who lifts, I just try to make sure I get high-quality (animal) protein and starch in my whole-foods post-workout meal, and don't usually bother with shakes or other concoctions.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 8:50 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here are some basic principals on workout nutrition.

Pre-workout: you are about to do a lot of work and your muscles need energy to do it. So you want some slow digesting food: protein and fat. I do a little protein powder and a tablespoon of peanut butter. It keeps you fueled and gets protein going into your soon to be damaged muscles.

Post-workout. Your body needs fast-digesting protein and carbs. A protein shake and a banana are perfect. Avoid fat which slows digestion. Get a protein like whey isolate which digests much faster than the standard whey protein complex that is in most mixes.

A good, inexpensive protein is NOW brand whey protein isolate. I get mine from All Star Health.
posted by munchingzombie at 8:54 PM on November 13, 2011

Most of the things you mentioned that make you nauseous are dairy. I would try cutting them out.
posted by brujita at 9:44 PM on November 13, 2011

Here is the answer from a scientific point of view.

The article answers almost all your questions:

What should I eat before and after going to the gym?
In the past, conventional wisdom held that weightlifters should ingest protein to build muscle, while endurance athletes should focus on carbohydrates. Now researchers agree that both macronutrients are important no matter what type of exercise, Dr. Stellingwerff says.
Also, what are good things to eat afterward?
Chocolate milk isn't the only way to refuel after a workout. You should aim to consume about one gram of carbohydrate and 0.3 grams of protein for each kilogram of body weight within an hour or two of finishing a typical cardio workout. Some suggestions from Trent Stellingwerff, who advised the Canadian track team in Beijing last summer:

For a 55-kilogram female

A tuna sandwich and a 500-millilitre sports drink
A cup of oatmeal with milk and a 200-millilitre sports drink

For an 80-kilogram male

A protein sports bar and a 750-millilitre sports drink
Spaghetti with lean meat sauce and a cup of low-fat milk
Personally, I tend to eat a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. The things you are buying (the Greek yogurt, hummus, bagels and cream cheese) have both protein and carbs so they seem like better options than the things you are bringing now, which are mostly carbs and little protein.

I have a choice of eating immediately following my workout, or after I walk up a big hill to work (takes about 20 min). Is there any advantage to eating while I am still at the gym?
For the first half-hour after exercise, the body is processing nutrients to repair itself at a dramatically elevated rate. After about two hours, the "window" is closed and the opportunity for any accelerated recovery is lost.
So it would be good to have a snack at the gym, but if not then have it immediately when you get to work.
posted by I am the Walrus at 6:27 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't know if what I do fits all your specs necessarily, but I'll throw it out there just in case. From what I've read on Stumptuous, Brain Over Brawn, etc., the best macro breakdown immediately after working out intensely is high protein, carbs (particularly starch) are fine for once, and for once you really do want to be very low fat. Your absorption rate is different supposedly after working out, so this is also a good time to get a ton of nutrients (read: colorful produce) in especially if you're generally low carb and hence perhaps limiting fruits and veggies the rest of the time. So I make a smoothie with 3 ice cubes, a small cup of non or very low fat yogurt, sweet potato I've cooked beforehand (I do it ahead once a week for the 3 workouts I do each week; oats or chickpeas also work), a banana or two depending on the size (can be frozen), a big fat fistful of spinach (fresh or frozen), enough skim milk and/or water to get it loose (say, 8 oz total), and enough whey protein powder to get me up in the 30-40+ grams of protein range. I sometimes add a pinch of cinnamon too because it tastes nice and supposedly helps control blood sugar response (I'm not generally a fan of smoothies because of the sugar/GI rush issue). This tastes better than it sounds (even my husband likes it enough to beg for some sips of mine every time). It helps in that aside from blending it all, if get into a groove where you have everything readily on hand it takes less than 5 minutes to throw together. And when I am really beat from lifting heavy and doing intense cardio, my brain is kind of mush and I just want to lie there and do nothing but surf the internet or listen to music like a zombie right afterward, and having the meal be drinkable and not some knife and fork fuss helps with that. And it's also very hydrating. I really like it, but that's just me.
posted by ifjuly at 1:09 PM on November 14, 2011

Oh, and I meant to mention too that I know I'm "supposed" to prep right before working out, but I just can't. I have zero appetite and the couple of times I've forced myself to eat a little something beforehand it just made me feel really damn funky while I was exercising. YMMV of course. If you don't want to do it though...don't. It's not the end of the world, at least I haven't found it to be.
posted by ifjuly at 1:10 PM on November 14, 2011

Oh, and wheatgerm. I often add a tablespoon of wheat germ for textural interest and added nutrients.
posted by ifjuly at 1:11 PM on November 14, 2011

Thanks for the helpful answers! This is what I have been doing:

Before: instant oatmeal
After: one of:
  • apple, banana, two hard-boiled eggs
  • bagel with cream cheese
  • yogurt and cut fruit
  • egg, turkey and cheese on croissant breakfast sandwich (on days when I feel ravenously hungry)

posted by grouse at 8:29 AM on February 26, 2012

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