What you put on your plate can have a powerful impact on your exercise results. "The right foods and drinks can give you the energy you need for exercise," says dietitian Jess Cording. "They can also help your body build muscle and recover faster." Ready to make the most of your sweat session? Start by fueling up with the following seven pre- and post-workout staples:
Go ahead, pour yourself a mug before hitting the gym. Along with helping you wake up, that cup of joe can help make your workout feel more fun. According to Australian researchers, people who downed the caffeine equivalent of about two cups of coffee prior to exercise reported that their workouts felt easier—and were more enjoyable—than those who went caffeine-free. What's more, the caffeinated group ate 18% less at lunchtime.
Experts say that a pre-workout coffee can help boost your exercise motivation and help you stick with your routine. But don't overdo it—it's not an excuse to order a venti latte or double espresso before spin class. "Stick with your usual amount," says dietitian Linzy Unger. If you're not a coffee or tea drinker, the caffeine can lead to a racing heart or upset stomach.
Your body turns these slowly digested carbs into glucose, its main source of fuel. "The fiber in whole oats provides a steady supply of energy," says Unger. The result: You're able to work out longer and stronger. Unger suggests pairing carbs with protein, such as oatmeal with fruit and nuts or a piece of whole wheat toast with nut butter, about an hour beforehand. Exercising within 30 minutes? Your may need to swap in easier-to-digest refined carbs, such as white toast, says Unger.
"Nuts contain protein, which your body uses to build muscle," says Unger. Almonds also deliver healthy fats and the amino acid arginine, which may improve blood flow throughout the body during your workout. In fact, a study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition showed that cyclists who snacked on almonds biked farther—and burned more kJs—than those who ate an equivalent amount of biscuits.
"If you're active for more than 1 hour, you should refuel during your workout," says Unger. Bananas provide a quick hit of carbs and nutrients; plus, you'll get about 9% of your daily potassium needs. "Not having enough potassium can lead to muscle cramps," says Unger. For that reason, foods high in the mineral, such as bananas and coconut water, are key to finishing a strenuous workout kink-free.
During a tough workout, you create tiny tears in your muscles. For the hour post-exercise, your muscles are primed to use protein to rebuild the tissue, says Cording. But it's tough to snack on a steak or chicken breast after a run. With 22 grams of protein per cup, Greek yogurt is an ideal treat: Toss a container in your gym bag or scoop some of the creamy stuff into a smoothie.
For the perfect post-workout snack, top that Greek yogurt with berries. "After exercise, your body needs protein for your muscles and carbs to replenish your energy stores," says Cording. Carb-rich berries are also packed with antioxidants, which may ease some of your post-workout soreness. According to a study from New Zealand's Massey University, athletes who sipped on a blueberry smoothie before and after a tough leg workout recovered more quickly than those who didn't.
Here's a treat that's convenient, delicious, and a nutrient powerhouse. This childhood favorite contains an excellent balance of carbs and protein—and research reveals that it can help your muscles recover faster. In fact, scientists from the University of Texas at Austin found that cyclists who sipped chocolate milk after their rides tended to burn more fat and build more muscle than those who had a regular sports drink or no-calorie beverage.