What to Eat Before and After Your Workout
By Gale Cohen, RD, CDCES, Registered Dietitian
Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist
Virtua Nutrition & Diabetes Care
You go into your workout with the right clothes, sneakers, and attitude. But are you going into it with the right fuel to help you power through pushups or push the calorie burn of your cardio?
To get the most benefit from your workout, you need to eat the right kinds of food before exercise and refuel well afterward. Knowing how to nourish your body before, during, and after exercise will help you crush your workout goals.
What and when to eat before a workout
Healthy carbohydrates (carbs) from whole grains like oatmeal or cold cereals, rice, pasta, beans or starchy vegetables provide long-lasting energy that will help you to get the most from your workouts. Lean protein like chicken, low-fat dairy products, and eggs also are good sources of pre-workout fuel.
The amount and type of food to eat before workouts depends on your exercise goals. For example, if you’re exercising for leisure—like taking a stroll with a friend—you’ll have different nutritional needs than if you’re training for a marathon. The greater the physical endurance of your chosen activity, the more you’ll need to increase the amount of carbs and protein in your daily diet.
Avoid eating sugary or salty snack foods to boost your energy before a workout—they just add unnecessary calories that could delay your ability to achieve your exercise goals. Instead, utilize the meals you’re already eating to get the workout fuel you need. Also, stick with healthy food for nutrients since dietary supplements aren’t as beneficial as good nutrition.
Be mindful of the timing and frequency of your meals and snacks to make sure you’re not feeling too full or too hungry during your workouts. Eat a small, well-balanced meal every 3 to 4 hours throughout the day to keep your energy levels high. Also, keep your energy up by staying hydrated and drinking plenty of plain water throughout the day.
Should I eat during a workout?
If your workout is shorter than 60 minutes, you don’t need to eat during it. Just drink water to stay hydrated.
If you’re doing an intense workout that’s longer than 60 minutes, drink a sports drink to replace lost electrolytes. During a long run, for example, try boosting your energy by eating something that your body can process quickly, such as:
- Energy gels
- Fruit leather
- Swedish Fish
For moderate to intense workouts that go beyond 60 minutes, refuel with 30-60 grams of carbs every hour after the first hour.
And you can’t say it enough—drinking water to stay hydrated is key in EVERY workout, but especially important during long workouts. If you’re wondering how much water to drink, weigh yourself before and after workouts. For every pound you lose right after a workout, drink 16 ounces of water to replace the lost fluids.
What and when to eat after a workout
Eating protein and carbs 30-60 minutes after a workout allows your body to use nutrients effectively to build and repair muscle. Nutritious post-workout options include:
- A banana with peanut butter (or another nut butter) on whole-grain toast
- A fruit smoothie made with fresh or frozen fruit, protein powder, and low-fat yogurt
- Chocolate milk
High-antioxidant foods also help repair muscles damaged during exercise and help build a strong immune system. These include:
- Colorful fruits and vegetables
- Dark-colored foods such as kale, red beans, and blackberries
To reduce muscle soreness, eat foods with anti-inflammatory properties, such as:
- Green tea
- Healthy fats like avocado or olive oil
- Salmon (wild-caught)
- Tart cherry juice
If you’re looking to add some different flavors to your daily diet and boost your post-workout recovery, try salmon with cilantro pesto, skinny guacamole, or quinoa with watercress, pears, and pomegranates. Each of these healthy recipes contains foods that are high in antioxidants or have anti-inflammatory benefits.
Although it may be tempting to reward yourself with a sweet treat or an extra snack after your workout, adding empty calories could be counterproductive to your performance goals, especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
A registered dietitian can help you achieve your fitness goals by customizing your diet to provide the best possible fuel for your workouts.
Schedule an appointment today
Call 888-847-8823 to schedule an in-person or telehealth appointment with a Virtua Health registered dietitian who can help you with sports nutrition and weight loss or work with you to develop a healthy, well-balanced eating plan.
Updated April 20, 2021