Nutrition can be confusing at the best of times; it seems like it's a constant struggle as to know whether you should actually eat carbs or not, whether low-fat is really that bad for you, and even how to figure out simply when you should eat your meals (some swear by six small meals a day, others by just two big platefuls); It's hard to keep up with all the information out there.

And then you've got to think about your workouts, and what to eat around them that's going to be best for your goals, whether that's to lose weight, get fit or simply tone that tummy ready for summer.

As a personal trainer, this is one of the questions I get asked the most - what should I really be eating before and after exercise?

Before Your Workout

It can be super tempting to skip eating before you work out; I know that I'm sometimes guilty of dashing to the gym first thing before I've even had time to gulp down a coffee. And doing this every now and then won't do you any harm.

However, research has shown that you won't burn any more calories if you work out on an empty stomach (despite some proclaiming that 'fasted' exercise is a must for fat burn. Trust me, it's not essential.), and you'll be lacking in energy so probably won't be able to put 100% into the session.

You're better off fuelling your body for a better, more intense (and therefore more calorie-burning) workout.

In my opinion, carbohydrates are key pre-workout. Carbs mean energy; they break down into glucose and power your muscles AND your brain. Simple carbs are good because they are fast-digesting and so are absorbed relatively quickly by your body for fuel.

A piece of fruit is ideal (a banana or apple are great for grabbing on the go), or porridge or toast for a mixture of simple and complex carbohydrates. The complex carbs take a little longer to digest, so will ensure the release of energy is steady.

However, make sure you don't have too much. Too many carbs can make you feel sluggish, which you definitely don't want before exercise!

It's important to have protein pre-workout too, especially if you're doing weights. When you're working out, the effort makes small tears in your muscle fibres (it's a good thing; these tears are then repaired to make your muscles stronger and bigger, if that's your aim).

Protein is essential to repair these tears, so it makes sense to have it before you exercise. Protein will also keep you fuller for longer as it takes longer to digest, so will help with that slow and steady release of energy. A protein shake, egg, milk or Greek yoghurt are great sources of protein.

So, a small amount of simple and complex carbs will give you energy for your upcoming workout, whilst making sure you're not bloated or too full, and a small portion of protein will keep that energy release slow and steady and get those muscles prepped for repair! In terms of timing, ideally you want to eat 30 minutes - two hours before training.

Obviously this depends on you; I know that I can't eat less than 90 minutes before a workout or I can feel a bit sick. You need to experiment and see what works for you. You want to feel energised by the food, but not weighed down by it. What works for me is either a hard-boiled egg and couple of rice cakes before the gym, or a protein smoothie (with protein powder (fast digesting), a banana and some spinach, milk) about an hour and a half before. If I have a larger meal, I personally need to wait at least three hours before exercising.

Ideas for pre-workout nutrition

  • -Protein smoothie (with fruit, veg, milk and of course added protein)
  • -Sliced apple or banana with peanut butter
  • -Rice cakes and an egg
  • -Greek yoghurt with mixed berries
  • -Small portion of porridge with some fruit
  • Protein shake or smoothie (and we've got some inspiration for you here.)
  • -Scrambled or poached eggs on wholemeal toast
  • -Chicken or prawn salad with brown rice and avocado
  • -Quinoa with chickpeas, roasted vegetables and olive oil
  • -Steak with lots of green vegetables

After Your Workout

First and foremost, DON'T skip your post-workout meal. It's crucial for helping your muscles recover, and to replenish the glycogen (sugar) in your body that has been used up and burnt from the exercise.

You've got to go for protein after a workout, to aid with muscle repair and recovery. If you skip the protein, you're likely to feel sore in the days following your session, particularly if you've been training with weights. Carbs are good as the glucose gets shuttled back into those hungry muscles! What's ideal is to have a balanced meal, full of lean protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats soon after the exercise. If it's not possible to get such a meal in soon after the workout, your focus needs to be protein to help with good muscle recovery. Try having a protein shake straight after, a hard-boiled egg, or even some chocolate milk if that's all you can get your hands on (it's absolutely full of protein from all the milk and of course simple carbs too - but just watch the sugar levels as they can be high. Choose better brands with less sugar whenever possible).

Of course it depends on your goals, but if you're not on a super strict weight loss plan and you're looking to have a little treat, it's best to do it on your workout days. After exercise (particularly weight training), your body will still be working at a high level and your metabolism will be boosted, meaning you'll probably be less likely to store excess calories as fat. So if you're going out for lunch, try to get a workout in beforehand and you don't have to feel so guilty about having a few chips! Don't go mad though; it's still important to stay primarily on track to get the most out of your training and nutrition.

Credit: Pixabay

Ideas for pre-workout nutrition

  • Protein shake or smoothie (and we've got some inspiration for you here.)
  • -Scrambled or poached eggs on wholemeal toast
  • -Chicken or prawn salad with brown rice and avocado
  • -Quinoa with chickpeas, roasted vegetables and olive oil
  • -Steak with lots of green vegetables

Words by Samantha Neades

Personal Trainer/Cheltenham Women's Fitness

Featured Image Credit: PA Images

Mel Ramsay

Mel Ramsay is an NCTJ trained Trending Journalist at LADbible and has worked here since 2015. She launched the 'LAD of the Week' feature in 2016 and has run it single-handedly ever since. She started her career writing obituaries and funeral guides online. Since then, her work has been published in a wide variety of national and local news sites. She is part of the BBC's Generation project and has spoken about young people, politics and mental health on television, radio and online.

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