This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Australia, which closed in 2021.

How To Eat Around Your Exercise Sessions

Running together - friends jogging together in park, rear view
Running together - friends jogging together in park, rear view

Putting on your gym clothes and actually doing exercise is hard enough as it is.

Adding the important factor of eating properly around your exercise session on top of this -- well, that might tip you over and send you to the pub with your mates (or your couch for an afternoon of Netflix).

The good news is that it’s easy to eat well before and after your sweaty workout -- whether your goals are weight loss, endurance or strength training.

“Eating after an exercise session is definitely the most important thing from a recovery perspective,” Chloe McLeod -- an accredited practising dietitian who specialises in sports nutrition -- told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Consuming a combination of protein and carbohydrates is essential,” McLeod said. “The protein, in particular, helps your muscles repair.”

Carbohydrates, on the other hand, is “topped up” in your muscles and stored as a compound called glycogen -- so you've got the energy to continue your day.

While eating after exercise is vital for muscle recovery and fuelling your energy, eating before exercise can be optional -- depending on the individual and the type of exercise they are doing.

"I would definitely recommend eating before activities in some instances,” McLeod told HuffPost Australia.

"If it’s a resistance training session -- so using weights -- then I would always recommend having something before that.”

For a more cardio-based session that's going to be less than an hour, it’s not always necessary to eat beforehand, according to McLeod.

“If you feel you need to have something beforehand you can, but don’t feel like you have to,” McLeod said.

However, if you're doing a cardio session for more than an hour, McLeod recommends eating something small.

"Particularly if it is a longer session, it's a good idea to eat something before,” McLeod said.

The pre-workout snacks McLeod recommends are a muesli bar, banana, oats with yogurt and fruit, or tuna on crackers.

“I generally recommend something that’s got carbohydrates in it so you've got that top up of energy to help you push yourself as hard as you can in the session,” McLeod said.

“There’s also evidence that shows having protein before resistance training may help with muscle growth and improvement of strength.”

The best time frame to have your important post-workout food is a long-standing debate, but McLeod advises a half-an-hour window.

“Twenty to 30 minutes is the optimal time to eat for muscle recovery, but you can still get the benefits after the 30 minutes,” McLeod said.

Again, this 'window of opportunity' depends on the individual.

“If we’re looking at an elite level athlete, I’d be saying definitely get the nutrition in within that 20 to 30 minutes after,” McLeod said. “But if you're more of a weekend warrior or someone who’s just aiming to keep fit and healthy, 45 minutes is not going to make that much of a difference.”

Like pre-workout snacks, your post-workout nutrition should have a combination of protein and carbohydrates -- and McLeod suggests one snack in particular that might catch you by surprise...

“One of the things I like to recommend is low fat chocolate milk,” McLeod said.

“The research shows that this is a really great option to have as a recovery drink. If you can do that 20 to 30 minutes after you’ve finished your training session, that works really well.”

The reason McLeod recommends having lower fat options before and after exercise is due to fat’s rate of digestion.

“This relates to gastric emptying -- consuming fat slows down digestion, so if you’re having a fatty meal before training that can make it take longer to digest,” McLeod said.

“It’s not as much of a big deal afterwards, more so beforehand because you’re more likely to be training will a lot of food in your stomach, which can be quite uncomfortable.”

While McLeod doesn’t say to avoid fatty foods like nuts before exercise altogether, if you are going to include them, make sure it’s only a small part of what you’re having.

“For example, a muesli bar that has nuts in it -- I’m not going to be too fussed. But I wouldn’t recommend going to have a doughnut,” McLeod said.


As for protein shakes?

"I will generally only use the protein shakes for convenience's sake or if it’s a person who is not able to get enough calories in because they have a very high energy requirement," McLeod said.

"For the majority of the population it’s not really needed because you can get what you need so easily from food."

"That said, I can appreciate how handy protein shakes can be -- you can bring it in a shaker with some water, go off to the gym and then you’re getting your recovery after straight away," McLeod said.

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