A lot of athletes are regularly struggling with the question about what they should eat to get the best results from their workouts.
This article will be discussing the usefulness of matching your nutrition with your workout plan, as well as certain foods that I recommend.
Focus On the Basics
Beginners, intermediates and professionals all have in common that it’s important to keep basic nutritional standards up to par.
- Water, about 2L a day
- About half a pound of vegetables
- At least two pieces of fruit
- A handful of nuts
- Whole bread, about 3-8 slices
- Whole grain foods, such as rice
- Dairy products, about 2-3 portions (milk for example)
- A portion of meat, fish or meat substitutes*
* Meat substitutes often contain a lot of salt, so you will have to take this in account. The maximum daily intake of salt is determined to be six grams a day.
This basic food plan provides the body with enough macro- and micro nutrients. Of course, if you are very serious about fitness, this isn’t enough. Most intermediates and professionals require a larger food intake to prevent a caloric deficit.
When Should You Tweak Your Food Plan?
If you preform a light cardio or strength workout once a week, or if you go for a walk 2-3 times a week, the basics will probably cover you. The only thing I’d recommend is to eat a bit more on the day of your workout.
However, if you are a bit more dedicated and therefore work out 2 times or more per week, you might need something extra. You want you reach certain goals, right?
More Training Requires More Food
If you work out a lot, your body requires more calories. Having a caloric deficit will inhibit your ability to recover, which in turn leaves you with a decrease in performance.
So, how much should you eat?
Well, let’s back up a bit. I’ve often mentioned the base metabolic rate (BMR). This is the amount of calories you burn on a regular (resting) day.
How to Calculate Your BMR
First of all, you need to calculate how much energy your body needs in order to maintain all the basic processes. Thus, this is the amount of energy you are using if you’re in bed all day. Since men and women are different, I’m going to provide you with two formulas.
Men: BMR = 88.362 + (13.397* mass in kg) + (4.799 * length in cm) – (5.677 * age in years)
Women: BMR = 447.593 + (9.247 * mass in kg) + (3.098 * length in cm) – (4.330 * age in years)
* 1 kg = 2.222 lbs
I’m not planning on boring you to sleep by explaining why these formulas are the way they are, so just bear with me. Try to fill in the formula with your own data. The result will be your BMR in calories per day.
Physical Activity Level
Now that you’ve calculated your BMR, you need to estimate your physical activity level (PAL). The reason for this, is that just adding some calories on top of your BMR is not exactly how it works.
If you multiply your BMR with your PAL, you get a new amount of calories per day. This is what you should ingest in order to get the best results from your workouts.
For example: is your BMR is 1750 calories a day and your PAL equals 1.6, your body uses 2,800 calories a day.
Metabolic Equivalent of Task
Another method you can use to estimate the energy that your body uses, is through the use of the metabolic equivalent of task, or MET for short.
MET is used to check how much energy each activity costs. Therefore, it is more accurate than the use of your PAL. It does however require you to do some extra work.
The formula that is used to calculate the amount of energy that an activity costs is as follows:
((MET * weight in kg) / 200) * 60 minutes.
Every activity must be calculated separately. Adding them all together gives you the amount of calories that your body uses.
The Importance of Proteins
If you are working out at least 2 times a week on a relatively high level, your muscles are going to need extra proteins, as they are vital to muscle recovery. If you don’t eat enough protein, your recovery will be slower and your performance might decrease.
These are the general guidelines when it comes to protein intake:
1.4-1.6 grams per kg body weight or 0.63-0.72 grams per lbs body weight.
- Strength + Endurance
1.6-1.8 grams per kg body weight or 0.72-0.81 grams per lbs body weight.
1.8-2.0 grams per kg body weight or 0,81-0,90 grams per kg body weight.
This table shows you some foods and their protein contents, which is measured in grams of protein per 100 grams of food.
Guidelines regarding protein rich foods before working out
Preferably, you’d consume a protein rich meal before training. Mind you, not right before you’re stepping in the gym or there will be problems during your workout. Aside from that, having 2 to 3 protein rich meals ensures a steady supply of proteins.
Every meal should contain between 20 and 40 grams of high quality proteins. High quality proteins contain every essential amino acid.
Having a meal that is rich in proteins right before you head to bed might also be a good idea. It ensures that your muscles have enough proteins to recover during your sleep. I used to be lazy, so instead of making myself a meal, I took a protein shake right before sleeping.
Right, so what should you eat before a workout?
I’ve summed up a few meals that I personally take about 30-60 minutes before a workout.
- Chicken breast (100-150g) with pasta (100-150g) and broccoli (250g) contains about 40-45 grams of protein.
- A bowl of low-fat cottage cheese (250g) with muesli (about 50g) contains roughly 30 grams of protein.
- Two slices of whole bread, one with a slice of cheese (about 20g) and one with apple syrup contains about 25g of protein.
You don’t have to be extremely strict about measurements and all that, but these are just a few examples.
Guidelines for protein rich foods during a workout
A long and intensive workout (> 2 hours) might require you to take some extra proteins (about 0.2g per kg body weight or 0.1 g per lbs of body weight) to prevent muscle tissues from being broken down.
Note that this is only necessary if you’re planning to deliver a comparable amount of energy during a workout on the next day.
So what should you eat after your workout?
Well, for example some cottage cheese with muesli, some fruits and a handful of nuts will suffice. You could also go for chicken, cheese, veggies and pasta. Be creative!
The Importance of Carbohydrates
The amount of carbs you should eat depends on the duration and intensity of your workout.
- Athletes that perform strength training, dancing, or running exercises, whose workouts take between 1 and 2 hours (> 3 times a week) are required to consume about 4 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram body weight (1.8g per lbs body weight).
- Cyclists, long distance runners and swimmers, whose workouts take between 1 and 2 hours (2-3 times per week), require about 6 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram body weight (2.7g per lbs body weight).
- Athletes that work out more than 8 hours a week, require about 10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram body weight (4.5g per lbs body weight).
Guidelines regarding high carb foods before working out
It’s important that your body holds enough glycogen. Therefore, I’d recommend to consume enough carbs before a workout.
- Consume between 1 and 4 grams carbohydrates per kg body weight (0.45-1.8 g/lbs) about 1.5 to 5 hours before a workout.
- If you’re planning on doing a very intense workout with a duration greater than 2.5 hours, I’d recommend increasing the amount of carbs to 3-4 grams per kg body weight (1.35-1.8 g/lbs). Mind you that cardio requires more carbs than strength training.
- Don’t pig out before a workout!
What to eat before a workout
These are few meals that I often consume about 1.5 to 5 hours before my workouts.
- About 6 slices of brown bread with apple syrup, chocolate sprinkles, peanut butter and jelly.
- Some pasta (100g) with chicken breast (100g), some vegetables (250g) and some sauce if I feel like it.
As you can see, there’s nothing special about these meals, but they do contain a lot of carbohydrates.
Guidelines for high carb foods during a workout
Consuming carbohydrates during your workout is not necessary per se. The body holds between 300 and 600 grams of glycogen that can be used as fuel. This equals around 1,200 to 2,000 calories.
A normal strength workout does not require extra carbohydrates. Why? Well, you’re resting between sets, right? If you add it all up, you’re not really moving all that much, compared to an hour of running for example. Just drinking some water will suffice.
Speaking of which, running for 1.5 hours doesn’t require an extra intake of carbohydrates. If you’re planning to have an intense cardio workout that lasts longer though, you might want to eat something during the workout.
If your workout takes between 1.5 and 2.5 hours, I’d recommend consuming about 30-60 grams of carbohydrates. Examples include a banana and a workout beverage of your choice.
A workout that lasts for over 2.5 hours can be quite heavy. I’d say that consuming about 90 grams of carbohydrates will get you covered.
Carbohydrate intake after your workout
You will want to restock your glycogen levels as fast as possible after a workout to prevent muscle proteins being broken down. Consuming about 0.6 to 1.0 grams of carbs per kg body weight (0.27-0.45 g/lbs) within the first 30 minutes of your workout is recommended.
If your workout was really tough, I’d recommend consuming this amount every 2 hours after your workout up to 6 hours after the workout (so 3 meals).
Foods that provide the body with enough (complex) carbohydrates include but are not limited to brown rice, oatmeal, chicken breast, ground meat, brown bread, bananas, apples and so on.
And Then There’s Fats
Yes, fats too have their rightful place in every athlete’s diet! Why? Well, most vitamins you ingest are fat-soluble. Without vitamins, everything you eat would be obsolete.
About 20-35% of your daily intake should consist of fats.
I will admit that I won’t recommend eating a lot of fat before or during your workout. Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning that they exist and are useful.
Drink, Drink, Drink!
We’ve talked a lot about food, but drinking is just as important. Water is needed to make sure that waste is excreted, and it cools your body. Not drinking will 100% affect your performance.
A great way to check it you drank enough during your workout, is through the use of scales. If you’ve lost more than 2% body weight after your workout, you did not drink enough.
It might be easier to just check your urine, though. Its color should be a light yellow or even transparent. If it’s darker, drink!
About 2-4 hours before your workout, I’d recommend drinking at least half a liter of water. Tea is also an option. Coffee on the other hand, is one of those drinks that I would not drink a lot of before working out, as it might cause nausea during the workout.
Does your workout last about 1.5 hours? In that case, drinking some water will suffice. Pay attention to how much you’re sweating though!
If it’s hot or if you’re doing a high intensity cardio workout, you can lose up to a gallon of water per hour!
Workouts that take longer than 1.5 hours may require you to add some electrolytes to your drink. As you sweat, you’re actively losing electrolytes. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to find out what happens if you run out.
After your workout, keep drinking. For this it might be useful to know how much water you’ve lost, so go get that scale. Drink about 1.5 times the amount of water you’ve lost.
Supplements: Do or Don’t?
If you have mastered the basics around your workout and nutrition, it’s time to talk about supplements. Right of the bat, remember the word ‘supplements’. By no means do supplements replace a healthy and balanced meal plan.
The most commonly known supplement of course, is the protein shake. If you could use some extra protein, go ahead and have some! If you’re good, you’re good.
Creatine is a supplement that might increase your performance. It’s no miracle drink, but it could definitely make a difference.
Then there are vitamins. Not everyone has the luxury of consuming enough vitamins every day thanks to work or other things that might be going on. If that’s the case, a multivitamin might be for you.
When in doubt, make sure you contact a dietitian.
All of this might seem like a lot of information. You might be wondering how you could ever follow all of these ‘rules’. Well, fear not. You definitely don’t have to be a nutritional miracle worker in order to make progress.
These are general guidelines that, in general, provide optimal results. I hope you took notes. Go ahead and play with what you’ve learned.
Don’t forget to leave your thoughts in the comment section below!