Hack Your Workouts with These 12 Simple, Healthy Foods

What your body needs to workout harder and recover faster, according to the experts.

A man in a grey shirt, black short, and black cap squatting and holding a heavy weight over his body
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Just like any machine, your body needs the right kind of fuel to help it run and repair itself. We talked to some sports nutrition experts to see what they recommend putting in the tank before and after your workout to get the best results. Put simply, you’ll want carbs beforehand and a protein and carb mix immediately following. But rather than splurge on pricey protein bars and supplement shakes, why not try some of these simple foods and beverages to help get the most out of your workouts?

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What to Eat Before Your Workout

When it comes to fueling your workout, timing is of the essence.

“You want to have the energy to perform your workout to get the most benefit so a reasonably sized meal 1 to 2 hours before your workout is recommended,” explains Paul McCarthy, Board Certified Nutritionist of Balanced Lifestyle Nutrition. “Generally a good mix of carbs, some high and low glycemic Index with some protein and a little fat is a good choice.”

Glycemic index (GI) is a number that refers to how quickly your body converts carbs into glucose. A high GI leads to a quick conversion, a spike in blood sugar, and an energy boost; whereas a low GI takes longer to convert, which will help keep your energy levels steady. If you have less time to eat, a simple carb (honey, orange juice) will help give you some quick fuel without weighing you down. If you look around your kitchen, you probably have some of the following food sources that have added benefits without added sweeteners and preservatives.

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“Having oatmeal before you workout is a good idea because it provides muscles with energy,” says Carrie Schecter, a certified nutritionist, trainer, and co-owner of Rise Brooklyn Fitness Inc. and Carrie’s Fit Lab. “The more energy you have the better your workout, which gets you better results.”

Oatmeal is a killer source of complex, slow-burning carbs that will help you stay energized. Plus, oatmeal is a source of soluble fiber which helps slow digestion (as opposed to insoluble which makes you have to go), so you’ll feel fuller longer.

Avoid prepackaged microwave versions that tend to be full of added sweeteners. Instead, go for plain old-fashioned oats. For some extra punch, Schecter suggests throwing in a scoop of protein powder in your oats “to keep you powered up throughout your sweat session.”

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If you’re exercise routine includes regular bouts of high-intensity training, you might be sweating more than the average weightlifter. It’s crucial to keep your body hydrated by replenishing electrolytes — chemicals made up of primarily sodium and potassium — because these help regulate how cells store water. “The human body doesn’t store potassium long so eating a banana before a workout will keep your nutrient levels high,” recommends Schecter.

Bananas are a good source of potassium, and they also boost glycogen stores giving you extra fuel.

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How about a shot before working out? A shot of espresso, that is. This hack is small enough that it won’t weigh you down with still giving you the java benefits.

Caffeine is a common ingredient in pre-workout supplements, and it not only gives you an energy boost (helpful if your a regular coffee drinker looking to workout in the mornings), but it has been shown to increase endurance and decrease muscle soreness, which will help you push through the inevitable weight training aches and pains.

Try some espresso no more than 15 to 30 minutes prior to starting your workout. Make sure to keep it small and sans sugar.

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If your workout involves any high-altitude training like mountain biking or hiking, you may want to get into beets.

Nitrates, specifically dietary nitrates, can do wonders for exercise performance and cardiovascular health, and beets are packed with them.

“Nitrate acts as a vasodilator and allows more oxygen to flow to tissues,” explains Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics and athletic trainer Andrea Rudser-Rusin of SportsWise Nutrition & Consulting.

By increasing the amount of oxygen available for consumption, nitrates help you exercise harder and longer. For the best results, try consuming beet juice about two and a half hours before your workout.

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Carbs are useful pre-workout because they give your body fuel to burn. Potatoes actually provide more carbs than pasta but also include some great minerals, vitamins, and potassium that is lacking in your linguine.

“Red potatoes are an awesome little snack, you can steam them and put them in a bag with some salt for a yummy treat,” says Rudser-Rusin. “Salt is helpful because it’s an electrolyte and helps maintain fluid balance, so as long as there’s no hypertension or kidney problems present, I recommend athletes add salt to their food.”

What to Eat After Your Workout

Even though you’re done exercising, your body is still hard at work repairing and refueling. What you eat right afterward can either help or hinder your progress, so it’s important to choose wisely.

“Ideally, we want a protein and carbohydrate combination,” says Rudser-Rusin. “These replace glycogen stores, stop muscle breakdown, and help keep the wheels on the wagon when it is time to eat a full meal again.”

By “wheels on the wagon,” she means that when you do go for a full meal later on, you don’t make a beeline for a fast food burger and fries. It’s also best to have a small snack ready so you can help your body when it needs it most.

“What we’re learning is that this window of opportunity is a shorter window for women than it is for men due to hormones,” Rudser-Rusin explains. “For women, it’s as soon as possible and not longer than 30 minutes. For men, it can expand up to 90 minutes.”

McCarthy adds most people “overestimate the amount of calories they burn during a workout and underestimate calorie intake of what they feel they are entitled to eat afterward.” So to make sure you’re not undoing all the effort you just put in, strive to pre-portion out some healthy options to help resist the urge to splurge. “Eat to fuel your workout and perform your best,” he advises, “not to give yourself an excuse to overindulge.”

Greek Yogurt

If you’re looking for an easy snack post-gym, you can’t beat plain, low-fat Greek yogurt. It has twice as much protein as regular yogurt — about 20 grams in 6 ounces. Plus, it’s got some carbs, making it “pretty much perfect” for a post workout snack according to Rudser-Rusin.

Stick with plain to avoid added chemicals and flavor it with your own fruit for an added boost of carbs and vitamins

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Almonds & Oranges

Schecter recommends this portable fruit and nut combo after a sweat session, which hits your protein-carb goal and then some.

“Almonds take the edge of being too hungry so you don’t overeat later. They are full of healthy fats and give you a quick dose of protein. Oranges deliver your body carbs, immune-boosting and skin revitalizing vitamin C, and overall hydration.”

So many perks in such simple foods? We’ll take it!

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Chicken Breast

By now, you’re getting the hint that protein is essential for rebuilding muscle after a workout. But not all proteins are created equal!

You’re going to want to look for a “complete” protein like chicken, which means they contain all nine essential amino acids humans need in their diet. The white meat of chicken breast more protein than the dark meat, and when you remove the skin it has a lot less saturated fat than other meat sources. Chicken also boasts a big dose of vitamin B-6, which helps your metabolism (along with your central nervous system and immune system) function properly.

For best results, try it grilled or poached (basically, not fried!), and pair it with a sweet potato for a carb source that will also give you a healthy dose of vitamin C.

Flickr / Lance Holley

Apple & Nut Butter

Nut butters, like peanut and almond, are another great and easy protein source. By using apple slices as your delivery vehicle, you’re getting that carb plus some helpful antioxidants.

“Any time you grab a fruit or vegetable, you’re putting antioxidants in your body and phytochemicals, which are not a vitamin or mineral, but a chemical in those foods that go above and beyond what a vitamin or mineral might do,” explains Rudser-Rusin. “It starts the healing process.”

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Low-Fat Chocolate Milk

There’s nothing better than finishing a tough workout and reaching for a refreshing swig of — chocolate milk?

According to the American Council on Exercise, you want to refuel with something that has a balance of protein and carbs. The drink you loved as a kid has this balance (chocolate milk has more carbs than regular, which is good in this situation!). Plus, you’ll get the added bonus of significant amounts of complex B, which helps convert food into energy, and vitamin D, which helps build strong bones.

It also happens to be a lot less expensive than many protein shakes that are on the market — and it tastes delicious.

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When you’re putting in the effort at the gym, it only makes sense to eat foods that work as hard as you do. Whether you add it to a smoothie or smash it onto a piece of whole wheat toast with a few slices of turkey, an avocado after your workout will do wonders for your body.

“A very easy to digest food, avocado helps relieve inflammation that can cause muscle soreness,” explains Schecter. “Also they are very high in the healthy fats, which research shows helps burn more fat in your body.” Bonus!

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Chia Seeds

Resist the urge to stuff your face after a workout and try chia seeds instead!

These little guys are a post-workout powerhouse with Omega-3s for your anti-inflammatory needs and loads of fiber to keep you regular and suppress hunger. They also have the protein-carb combo you’re looking for.

You can toss them into a smoothie or make a chia seed pudding by soaking them for a few hours in milk (bonus protein points if it’s almond milk!) and sweeten with some fresh fruit.

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