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

Updated 05/25/17

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.

a woman stretching
@fakander

Pre-Workout

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.

Post-Workout

Why It's Important:

Your body burns fuel when you exercise, so afterward you need to top up your energy stores to aid in recovery. “Post-workout food is meant to replenish what you’ve lost,” says Ross. “It can refill the carbohydrate that is stored in your muscles for quick energy during exercise, help you rehydrate and replenish electrolytes, and help you repair muscle damage so that you come away from the workout stronger rather than just breaking yourself down.” Essentially, your fitness gains depend, in part, on making up for what you’ve burned off.

What to Eat:

Most importantly, you need protein and carbs after a workout, our experts say. If you’re working out in the morning, Ross says a one-egg or two-egg scramble with an extra egg white and veggies added is the perfect post-workout breakfast. Other options include a cup of Greek yogurt or a smoothie with fruit and whey protein. Of course, if your workout backs up against a meal, you can improvise and whip up something protein and carb-rich and use that as your recovery fuel.

It’s also important to note that the type of workout you’re doing changes how you need to refuel. “The difference matters,” says Langford. When you think about it, it makes sense that your body would need different amounts of food to recover from a 45-minute Soulcycle class and a two-and-a-half-hour training run. To put it simply, “more endurance training requires more carbs post-workout,” Langford explains. She generally recommends a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein for a shorter workout (like HIIT) and a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio for endurance exercise. Essentially, the longer your exercise, the more carbs your body needs to replenish.

When to Eat:

According to Ross, you want to consume the nutrients your body needs to recover ASAP, but not necessarily immediately. “Twenty minutes after your workout ends is a good goal,” she says. If that’s not possible for you, don’t worry. Technically, up to an hour after your workout is fine,” says Langford.

Is It Ever Okay to Skip Food?

Constantly planning what you're going to eat before and after every workout can get exhausting, especially if you’re the kind of person who likes variety in their meals. It’s natural to wonder if you really need to eat both before and after a workout. “Refueling post-workout doesn’t need to be as deliberate if you are exercising for a short period of time at low intensity and don’t plan to exercise again until the next day or later,” says Ross. On the other hand, “If you’re an athlete who is doing a morning and evening workout, refueling after those sessions is especially important,” she says.

There’s also the concept of doing “fasted cardio” in the morning, which has recently become more popular. “There is a lot of research about the way the body adapts to either exercising without fueling or exercising and waiting to refuel,” Ross notes. “What we are seeing is that some exercise without food can help your body get better at utilizing stored fat for fuel, though it likely does not have an impact on overall body composition,” she says. In other words, skipping your pre-workout snack in the morning before a light cardio session is probably fine. But if you’re going to be upping the intensity, you do need to eat before you hit the gym because your body will need the carbohydrates to use as fuel, according to Ross.

One word of caution: Consistently skipping pre- and post-workout fueling can potentially result in a chronic caloric deficit (you’re burning more calories than you’re eating), and at a certain point, “your body will struggle to recover from exercise and you’ll cause more harm than good,” Ross says. Lastly, it’s important to remember that the food that fuels and helps you recover from your workouts isn’t just what you eat directly before and after. “Everything you eat matters,” says Ross. Having an overall healthy diet with the right amounts of fat, protein, and carbohydrates will help you meet your goals and see results.

What is your go-to pre- or post-workout snack?

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