As a Registered Dietitian, I am often questioned what to eat before and after a workout. This post outlines everything you need to know about properly fueling your body for athletic performance, and how to replenish after you’ve put in the work.
Nutrition is one piece of the healthy lifestyle puzzle, but so is exercise. No matter what activity you choose to do, it’s important to just move your body in any way that makes you feel good.
The current physical activity guidelines for healthy adults are 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity, or 75 to 150 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity activity (1). At the very least, we should be moving our butts for 30 minutes, five days per week for health benefits!
Proper nutrition is essential to help our bodies reach peak performance during exercise and to replenish afterwards. I recommend choosing real, whole foods over supplements whenever possible, because they are more filling, more satisfying, and taste better! Eating properly before and after a workout will make your workouts more effective, help prevent fatigue and injury, and allow you to continue pushing yourself to reach new fitness goals.
What to Eat Before a Workout
There are a few things to consider regarding pre-workout nutrition. First, we need to think about the macronutrient composition of our meal. It’s also important to consider the timing of our pre-workout meal or snack to prevent cramping or bloating during exercise.
Macronutrients: Carbohydrates are Key
Our bodies do not produce energy on their own. We must obtain all our energy from the food we eat. Carbohydrates are definitely the preferred source of energy! Our bodies quickly break them down into glucose, which feeds our cells as energy. We also store glucose in the form of glycogen in our liver and muscles, which the body will tap into once glucose stores are depleted during activity. (2).
It is important to consume a meal or snack predominately coming from carbohydrates before a workout. But, it is also key to include a small amount of protein, especially for weight lifting!
When we exercise, our muscles experience small microtears. These tears must be repaired by protein in order to create bigger and stronger muscles. So, including some protein in your pre-workout meal or snack gives your muscles a bit of a head start to repair and grow.
Choose easily digestible sources of carbohydrates and protein before a workout. Avoid heavy meals, anything fried or very fatty, or foods that tend to make you bloated or gassy, like beans. That way, your body won’t be tied up in the digestive process and it can focus on the work.
Giving your body the proper fuel means nothing if you don’t time it right. Eating too far away or too close to a workout won’t give you the benefits of the nutrients you consumed.
As a rule of thumb, wait at least 30 minutes after eating before exercising, and don’t go much longer than three hours between eating and working out. Try to have a carbohydrate rich snack if you’re exercising between 30 minutes to one hour. You can also have a meal that includes plenty of carbohydrates two to three hours before working out.
My one exception to this rule is if you can’t stand the thought of eating something before your 6 AM workout. There may even be some benefits to exercising after an overnight fast (3). If this is the case for you, just make sure you are prioritizing your post-workout nutrition! FYI, you still need to have water if you’re exercising on an overnight fast.
Pre-Workout Meal and Snack Ideas
If you are exercising in two to three hours, consider having one of these meals:
One cup of oatmeal with fresh fruit and peanut butter
Two egg veggie omelet with whole wheat toast, sliced avocado, and a side of berries
Granola bar: I like RX bar, Larabar, 88 Acres, KIND bars, and Bob’s Red Mill Oatmeal Bars
What to Eat After a Workout
It is essential to eat after a workout. We need to replenish the glycogen stores we depleted during exercise, and provide our muscles with the protein building blocks to repair themselves and grow stronger.
Refueling properly after a workout helps you avoid fatigue and revs up the recovery process. Then, you can hit the gym again strong to keep meeting your fitness goals!
Macronutrients: Carbohydrates and Protein
We need carbohydrates after a workout because we used up all the energy from the ones we ate before exercise. We also tapped into the glycogen stores in our muscles. Complex carbohydrates are best because they come with fiber and other nutrients that are beneficial for our health. Think whole wheat bread, quinoa, or sweet potatoes versus processed carbohydrates.
You’ll also want to eat a substantial amount of protein after a workout. We want to give our muscles the building blocks to repair themselves while we rest. Try to get at least 10-20 grams of protein after working out. You may need more protein depending on gender, body size, and activity level. For example, strength athletes need 1.2-1.7 grams of protein/kg body weight, compared to 0.8-1.0 grams of protein/kg for the general population.
The timing of when you consume your carbohydrates and protein post-workout matters, but maybe less so than we once thought. White traditional recommendations say to eat within 30 minutes of exercise, the window or opportunity might actually be wider. One study showed that eating protein immediately to three hours after a workout increases muscle protein synthesis. Combining protein with carbohydrates after a workout may lead to even bigger muscular gains (4).
Another study showed that, depending on the timing and composition of a pre-workout meal, the window for ingesting protein after a workout may be several hours long (5). So, if your pre-workout meal contains adequate protein, you may experience similar muscle protein synthesis changes to someone waiting until after their workout to ingest protein.
Eating after a workout goes beyond just stimulating muscle growth, though. It prevents fatigue, gives us back the energy we used up, and replenishes glycogen stores. Because of this, I recommend eating a meal or snack within one hour of exercising.
Post-Workout Meal and Snack Ideas
Salmon, roasted vegetables, and baked sweet potato
Greek yogurt with sliced banana, granola and a handful of nuts
Mexican quinoa bowl with black beans, sautéed veggies, and guacamole
Don’t Forget to Hydrate
Make sure to drink water before, during, and after your workout. The amount of water you need depends on the temperature you’re working out in and the intensity of the exercise. You’d obviously need more water working out in a hot or humid climate. The goal of hydration is to replace the fluid lost when we sweat. Here are general hydration guidelines:
Consume 14-22 oz two hours before exercise
Drink 6-12 oz of water for every 15-20 minutes of exercise
Drink 16-24 oz of water for every pound of body weight lost in sweat after exercise
Water is the best choice, but if you are exercising and sweating a lot for over an hour, a sports drink is a good choice to also replace the electrolytes lost in sweat (2).
Every Body is Different
This post is meant to serve as a general guideline for what to eat before and after a workout. These guidelines may vary individually based on gender, body size, type of exercise, age, and many other variables. Listen to your body to decide what’s best for you!
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