What to Eat Before and After a Workout

Eating to fuel exercise and aid recovery
food for workout, exercise, fuel for exercise, carbohydrates, healthy food, pre-workout meal

It’s the age old fitness question that many people often ask – what should you eat before and after a workout?

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Despite all of the information and opinions out there, the answer to this question is actually pretty simple: Eat the right foods at the right time. Second to that answer is finding out what is right for you. Like most things with health and fitness, an individualized approach always works best, and fueling and recovery are no exception.

Registered dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD, offers these pro tips on what to eat before your sweat sesh and what to eat afterwards for optimal results.

Why it’s important to eat before a workout

Research shows that eating (or drinking) carbohydrates before exercise can improve your performance and may allow you to work out for longer periods of time at more intense levels. (Raise your hand if you’re ever bonked during a spin class because you were hungry!)

So for most people, eating before a workout is going to help set them up for success. Still, it’s important to let experience be your guide when it comes to pre-workout foods. Anytime you try a new food or drink before a workout, you risk your body reacting negatively, which could result in an upset stomach, gas, heartburn or something similar.

Timing your pre-workout meal or snack

Timing your pre-workout snack or meal is going to come down to the time of day you’re exercising.

Early morning exercise

“If you’re a morning exerciser, you don’t have to eat anything if you don’t need to, but some people find eating something small gets their blood sugar up and helps them have a better workout,” says Patton.

For this reason, it’s important to know what you can or cannot tolerate in the morning. For some people, fasted cardio can be beneficial for weight loss and can get you into the fat-burning zone. But for others, having a small breakfast will help fuel them through a tough workout.

If you’re looking to fuel a workout first thing in the morning and you’re someone who needs something to eat, aim for quickly digesting carbohydrates like:

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  • Bananas.
  • Toast.
  • Dry cereal.
  • A glass of orange juice.
  • Apple sauce.
  • Graham crackers.

Some people are even able to tolerate a glass of dairy milk or even almond milk before an early workout. If you normally have coffee in the morning, a small cup before you work out is probably OK too.

Later morning exercise

If you’re working out later in the morning for longer than an hour, breakfast will likely be your main meal to fuel your workout.

Aim for:

  • Oatmeal with nuts.
  • Cereal.
  • Toast or bagel with peanut butter.

Mid-day or evening exercise

Make sure you have a decent meal 3 to 4 hours before a lunch or evening workout, or a quick snack 30 to 60 minutes before. These foods should be mostly complex carbs and moderate protein. But be sure to keep fat and fiber low.

Choose foods like:

  • Turkey or PB&J sandwich.
  • Low-fat chocolate milk.
  • Crackers and fruit.
  • Greek yogurt with berries.
  • Bananas.
  • Grapes.
  • Apple with peanut butter.
  • Granola bar or trail mix (just be careful as nuts can take longer to digest).
  • Homemade smoothie.
  • Pretzels.
  • Salad with chicken (if you can tolerate the veggies, but watch the portion size of your dressing).
  • Meal replacement bars that focus on more carbohydrates than proteins.

Consuming coffee or other forms of caffeine (like a pre-workout supplement) before a workout will depend on the person. Because caffeine is a stimulant, it can cause you to feel jittery or speed up your digestive system – and no one wants to be sprinting to the bathroom in the middle of their work out!

What foods should you avoid before a workout?

There are certain foods you should skip before hitting the gym. These foods can leave you feeling heavy, bloated, unmotivated and at your worst, gassy! And remember, knowing what you can or cannot tolerate goes a long way in determining your truly off-limits pre-workout foods.

Avoid these foods:

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  • Anything greasy.
  • Anything super high in fat.
  • Alcohol.
  • Too much caffeine.
  • Creamy (or too much) pasta.
  • Soda or other carbonated drinks.
  • Baked goods, added sugar or artificial sweeteners.
  • Too much fiber (read food labels and steer clear of loading up on veggies too close to your workout).
  • Dairy (if you are lactose intolerant).
  • Foods containing sugar alcohols (high protein bars, low carb snack foods).

Timing your post-workout meal or snack

Your type of exercise is going to determine what kinds of food you should focus on consuming afterwards:

  • For cardio or endurance exercise, the key priority is to refuel your muscles with carbs. If you’ve just ran or biked for an hour or longer, you’ve likely tapped into your stored carbs and need to replenish those. Your carbs-to-protein ratio should be 3 to 4 grams of carbs to 1 gram of protein.
  • For strength training, your priority is to repair those muscles you just exhausted. Aim for 2 grams of carbs to 1 gram of protein with an emphasis on high quality, complete protein. The quickest digesting, highest bio available protein is whey protein, followed by eggs and dairy and then animal protein.

You should be eating a full meal within an hour of finishing a workout so you’re most efficient at digesting carbs and protein and getting them back into your muscles. For harder and longer workouts, this window is even more important.

If you don’t have time within the hour to eat, have a quick snack 15 to 20 minutes after. In this case, try chocolate milk, string cheese, an apple, peanut butter or pretzels.

For a full meal after a workout, try:

  • Scrambled eggs on a whole wheat tortilla.
  • Chicken breast, veggies and brown rice.
  • Whole grain turkey wrap.
  • Salmon with a sweet potato.
  • Toast with eggs.
  • Tuna and rice.
  • Rice crackers and peanut butter.
  • Cottage cheese (or yogurt) and fruit.

Don’t forget to drink

It’s always important to drink plenty of water before, during and after your workout. Plain water is good for exercise lasting for 60 minutes or less, but consider a sports or electrolyte drink when you start heading into that 90 minute mark.

It’s also important to know if you’re a heavy sweater of if you’re exercising somewhere very hot and humid. Both of these factors can affect your water consumption.

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