Many of my clients, when switching to a plant-based diet, are worried about what they will eat to support their exercise. Most people who make a career out of sports have a registered dietitian to tell them what will best support their training. But what about those of us who just want to know how to feel our best while we’re engaging in joyful movement (whatever that means to you) and get the most out of our sweat sessions? I’m here to break it down for you.
Type of exercise matters
If you’re someone who enjoys lower intensity exercises such as walking, slower-paced yoga, or leisurely cycling, you probably don’t need to worry too much about what you’re eating before, during or after this joyful movement. That doesn’t mean it’s any less beneficial for your mental or physical health! It just means that your body is doing most of the work on its own to build or rebuild those stores of energy (aka glycogen). But if you’re someone who participates in higher intensity movement such as running, cycling, weight lifting, power yoga (basically anything that’s really elevating your heart rate), these tips will be helpful to you!
It’s important to remember that these tips are just guidelines. Every single person is different, and what works for one person may not work for someone else. Like everything we eat, it’s pre-, intra, and post-exercise nutrition is individual and should be based on what feels right for you at that time! These are just some tips to get you started.
Should you exercise ‘fasted’?
The research on fasted exercise isn’t consistent enough to warrant deciding to exercise fasted. Because of this, I always recommend clients to do whatever feels best for them. Some choose to exercise fasted because this allows them to get out the door quicker if they exercise in the AM, or beause they don’t like the feeling of food in their stomachs while exercising. Others choose to eat something before exercise if they wake up hungry or are prone to feeling lightheaded. If you are exercising longer than 1 hour, I recommend eating something beforehand. Otherwise, do whatever feels best for you!
Carbohydrates are your best friend before exercise since they give you the energy to help sustain the workout. If you’re eating something about an hour before working out, we want to focus on ‘quick releasing’ carbohydrate sources- aka simple carbs. Simple carbs allow our body to obtain energy from them very quickly, meaning they will help us power through a sweat session. These are found mostly in fruit. If you’re eating something two-plus hours before working out, feel free to have complex carbohydrates as these will provide longer-lasting energy and will be released more steadily in the bloodstream- think whole grains, like whole-wheat toast, brown rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta, or oatmeal.
Pre-exercise, we want to keep fat and protein at a minimum so that we breakdown the food we’re eating quickly and efficiently. The food we eat doesn’t have to be completely devoid of protein or fat, but try to keep it on the lower end and focus on more carbohydrate-rich foods!
Simple carbs (~1 hour before exercise): banana with a bit of peanut butter (or banana on its own), small fruit-based smoothie, fruit, Medjool dates
Complex carbs (~2+ hours before exercise): Oatmeal with banana and peanut butter, toast with peanut butter, whole-grain crackers with hummus,
Eating food during exercise isn’t necessary unless you are doing a higher intensity exercise for seventy-five minutes plus- think, training for a half or full marathon. If you need to eat during exercise, try sticking to simple carbohydrates. This is because they have less fiber, meaning they will give us a quick burst of energy and will minimize cramping, bloating, or gas during exercise. The amount of fiber that can be tolerated during exercise can vary person to person, and largely depends on how much fiber you typically consume outside of exercise. For example, some runners swear by medjool dates for a quick and easy energy boost while on a long training run, whereas other runners will experience bloating and cramping due to the fiber content. The important thing is finding what works best for you.
Either way, we want to keep the food we eat during exercise low in protein and fat, as they will slow the digestion process, which defeats the point of eating during exercise to get an energy boost!
During long periods of exercise (75 minutes plus) I recommend consuming about 25g of carbs every 25 minutes, after 45-60 minutes, to keep glycogen- stored sugar- levels up. It’s important to remember that this will vary from person to person and to reach out to a Registered Dietitian for more personalized advice.
Ideas: Many people who do endurance sports swear by gels or gummies, which are largely made up of simple sugars and are very convenient for on-the-go. These are totally fine if they work for you. Creating homemade ‘energy gels’ has also become increasingly popular by blending 5 medjool dates, 1 tbsp maple syrup, a splash of water and a pinch of salt. Pour into a baggie and bite off a corner of the baggie to consume on the go.
Post-exercise, I encourage clients to eat a relatively balanced meal or snack that has a significant source of plant-based protein. I also encourage trying to eat this within 30 minutes of finishing exercise to help muscles recover and rebuild faster. When we exercise, we break down muscle tissue (don’t worry, this is normal!), but we need to make sure we’re giving our bodies the energy and nutrients it needs to rebuild these muscles, too!
Many people think that protein is the only important thing post-exercise, and while it definitely is important, we actually need a mix of protein, carbs, and fat to help rebuild broken down muscle and replenish our energy stores!
Ideas: A fruit & greens smoothie with soy milk, chia or hemp seeds, and ¼ cup of oats, a tempeh sandwich with tons of veggies and hummus on sprouted bread, chia pudding with fruit on top, my oatmeal cookie energy balls with a glass of soymilk, tofu scramble with a side of avocado toast, or a nourish bowl!
Nutrition and joyful movement doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, if we listen to what our bodies are craving, they very likely will tell us what to eat! I hope these guidelines were helpful for you- please feel free to reach out if you would like more personalized advice!