Problem Solved: Exactly What to Eat Before and After Your Workout

Step into any buzzy fitness studio and you’ll likely see gym-goers scarfing down a handful of almonds before class starts or sipping on a post-workout smoothie. Unless you’re a certified nutritionist, though, it can be tough to know what you should snack on pre- and post-workout, how much food you actually need, and when exactly you should be eating it. Couple those concerns with the fact that sometimes you just don’t feel like eating right before or right after a workout, and it’s easy to see why exercise-related nutrition is confusing. Luckily, once you have all the facts about what your body really needs ahead of and after your sweat sessions, it’s much easier to plan delicious snacks and meals that can help you look and feel your best.

Here, expert sports nutritionists tell us what you should eat to make the most of your workouts.



Why It's Important:

“Pre-workout fuel is just that: fuel,” explains Lauren Ross, RD, and member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition dietetic practice group. “That fuel is used to make energy and ensures that you’re able to push yourself in your workout," she says. "We make training adaptations (meaning we get fitter) when we push toward our limits, and it’s difficult to do that if you’re not adequately fueled.” So if you want to keep making progress every time you do a certain workout, you’re going to need to eat beforehand.

What to Eat:

When it comes to pre-workout fuel, you have two choices, depending on your preferences and what time your workout is: a full meal or a smaller snack. As for what nutrients you need, there’s one really big one: carbs. “Carbohydrates are the most important before exercise, along with hydration of fluids and electrolytes,” says Lindsay Langford, a sports dietitian at St. Vincent Sports Performance, who works with Olympians, professional, and collegiate athletes as well as everyday athletes. “These nutrients are crucial for adequate energy and injury prevention,” she says.

Langford says that ideal pre-workout snacks include combos that are mainly carbs with a little bit of protein, like fresh fruit with nuts, a banana with peanut butter, or a piece of BabyBel cheese with a handful of pretzels. Ross recommends a few bites of overnight oats made with Greek yogurt and Fairlife milk (which is filtered for added protein), which you can finish after your workout. To ensure that you're hydrated, plain old H20 should do just fine, but if you want to boost your electrolytes, try an electrolyte sports drink with little to no sugar.

When to Eat:

If you’re going to eat a full meal before your workout, it should be two to three hours before your sweat session to avoid any stomach discomfort. If you’re opting for a snack, make it one hour to 30 minutes beforehand, Langford recommends. These time frames allow for digestion, she says, because nothing is more distracting than feeling queasy mid-workout.