As the saying goes: Abs are made in the kitchen. Of course, time in the gym helps, too. “I think nutrition for optimal performance and recovery has gained recent attention because some high-profile athletes have been public about their nutrition strategies. But the science behind this has been around for years,” says Cynthia Sass, MPH, a board-certified sports dietitian who has been a consultant to five professional teams and counsels professional athletes in her private practice.
Chef Lindsey Becker founded Tone House FUEL, a clean-eating program designed to help maximize recovery and boost results for people who work out at Tone House, an athletic-based group fitness studio in New York City. “A balanced, healthy diet with the right key nutrients can help your body become more efficient and enhance your athletic performance [in and out of the gym],” she says. “Consuming the necessary nutrients before and after exerting your body can help replenish energy stores, build muscle, decrease soreness, burn fat and repair damage or inflammation.”
Below Becker shares her tips for eating to get the most out of your workouts, with additional expert insights from Sass. Use their advice to ensure what you’re eating is supporting your exercise.
We often focus on calories, but nutrients also matter, Sass says. “Certain nutrients help your brain and muscles perform more efficiently, and others are crucial for recovering from the wear and tear exercise puts on your body,” she explains. The best macronutrients pre- and post-workout depend on the type of workout you’re doing, as well as the length and intensity.
“Eating the right foods will prevent you from crashing, boost your performance and help your muscles recover and grow stronger,” Becker says. “On the other hand, choosing the wrong foods could cause cramping, nausea, lack of energy and improper muscle recovery.”
Becker recommends beets, sweet potatoes, oats, spinach and eggs for their varied benefits. “Beets increase blood flow to working muscles, which can improve your workout and boost stamina, and are rich in antioxidants, which help fight the oxidative stress that can come with intense workouts,” she says.
She likes sweet potatoes for carbs, antioxidants and potassium; oats for steady energy and B vitamins, which help convert carbohydrates into energy; and spinach because a study found that it may help muscles use less oxygen, which improves muscle performance. And of course the incredible edible egg is a source of easily digestible protein to help rebuild muscles.
Aim to eat something that’s high in carbs, moderate in protein and low in fat, sugar and fiber 2–4 hours before a workout. Some macros aren’t ideal before the gym. “Eating too much protein or fat close to the start of a workout can lead to cramps or a brick sitting in your stomach because protein and fat take longer to digest,” Sass says. “Also, the goal of a pre-workout snack is to fuel the workout. If the food is trapped in the digestive system, it’s not available to working muscles when they need it.”
That’s why carbs are great — they’re generally easy to digest and provide readily available, easily burned fuel. Becker recommends oatmeal with a sprinkling of hemp seeds (for protein) and sliced banana or a smoothie.
Sass recommends eating 30–60 minutes after a particularly tough workout. However, although improper recovery can make you go into your next workout weaker and increase the risk of injury, you only need to refuel within an hour after hard-core workouts. This isn’t so crucial after a walk or moderate-intensity group fitness class, particularly if you’ll be eating a meal soon after, Sass says.
“Consuming the necessary nutrients after exerting your body can help replenish energy stores, build muscle, decrease soreness, burn fat and repair any damage or inflammation,” Becker says.
Good advice for anyone, this is even more important for active people because “nutrients are key to performance and recovery, and unprocessed foods are naturally nutrient-rich,” Sass says.
Becker and Sass agree that refined sugars have zero nutritional benefit and fried and greasy foods can be difficult to digest and cause cramping during a workout. So skip that leftover pizza before your morning indoor cycling class.
Great as they are, you shouldn’t only consume these five foods. “Eat them strategically,” Sass recommends. For example, fuel up with oatmeal, sweet potato, beets or green juices pre-workout, and enjoy eggs with veggies and avocado after a morning workout.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT WORKOUT