Figuring out a pre- and post-exercise nutrition regimen can be tricky. I get it — I have been there.
If you eat too much — especially too much unhealthy food — you will feel ill during your workout. I have made the mistake of eating too much before a run and feeling nauseated. I have even eaten too much before a race and almost had to bow out. Yuk.
On the flip side, if you don't eat enough you will probably feel weak and/or sluggish during your workout, and if you are anything like me you will be so hungry post workout that you will literally hoover down everything in sight. Not the ideal thing to do post workout.
Like so many things in life, the trick is to find the balance; we need to eat enough before and after the workout to feel nourished and full, but not so much that we feel bloated and gross. Unfortunately, the balance will look slightly different for everyone. I have learned what works for me through trial and error. You will have to decipher what works for you, but there are a few tips I can offer that might help guide you in the right direction!
1. Set yourself up for success by eating breakfast. A healthy breakfast will decrease your hunger throughout the day, which will hopefully help you make healthier midday food choices.
Have healthy "grab and go" breakfast options prepped so you have no excuse to skip the meal! Hard boil a bunch of eggs. Then grab one of them plus a few cut up vegetables for a healthy meal in literally seconds. Make a smoothie the night before. Then drink it as you leave the house. Leave apples and unsalted nuts at work, or better yet, if you have a fridge at work leave some yogurt or almond milk at work and mix in some Chia seeds and a banana for a fast and fibre-filled meal.
Or, make six or ten mini "egg muffins" every Sunday and eat them through the week. Sauté a bunch of vegetables then place them into separate muffin tins. Mix a bunch of eggs and pour roughly half an egg into each cup. Cook the muffins in the oven, then viola — a healthy breakfast you can grab as you walk out the door. When you have an extra minute, enjoy the "muffin" with some avocado or a piece of whole grain bread.
2. Consider splitting your lunch into two smaller meals. This will help you stay energized without consuming unwanted calories.
For example, if you usually have a sandwich and a salad for lunch, have half the sandwich and the salad at lunch and the other half of the sandwich as a snack. Have roughly 60% of the calories you would usually have for lunch around noon, then the other 40% in the late afternoon.
3. Plan your post-workout snack or meal in advance. Aim to eat within 30 to 45 minutes of finishing your workout. That will help to ensure your body recovers optimally. If dinner is a few hours away, carry a small healthy snack in your gym bag. An apple and a few almonds is my "go to" choice. Carrying a snack will also help ensure you never have to suffer through the internal "is it better to starve or buy an unhealthy snack?" debate.
If you eat dinner directly after your workout, plan what you will eat in advance. Don't let yourself decide what is for dinner when you are hungry. I make bad nutritional choices when I am hungry. I just want something — anything — fast. The solution? Have easy-to-assemble, healthy foods already prepped and waiting so you can make up a healthy meal as quickly as you can microwave pizza. On Sunday I like to make a big batch of a healthy soup or chili, cut up lots of vegetables, grill chicken, cook some quinoa and beans, and/or wash spinach or kale. That way I can always create a healthy salad or quinoa bowl in minutes.
Basically, I work to set myself up for health success! I try to ensure that I can make a healthy food choice just as easily as I can make an unhealthy choice.
4. Stay hydrated before, during, and after your workout. I often find I mistake thirst for hunger and end up eating when I actually need to drink something.
5. Don't let yourself buy into the myth of "I exercised today so I deserve...." You know what I am talking about — the "I went for a 30-minute run today so I deserve all the beer, cake, fried food, or (fill in the blank) that I want" or "I plan to exercise after work today so I don't have to feel guilty about eating this burger and fries for lunch."
Don't let yourself rationalize unhealthy food choices. A muffin is still a muffin even if you just worked out — it is a processed, nutritionally vapid food that will not optimally help your body recover post workout. Fast food is not a healthy lunch even if you plan on going to the gym in the evening. Your lunch should fill you with pep and vigour to power you through your evening workout — fast food is more likely to make you sluggish and lethargic.
Basically, "preparation, preparation, preparation." Healthy eating doesn't take a huge time commitment, but it does take advance planning and mindfulness!