Wondering what to eat before a workout? Jessica Nelson, RDN, CPT, writes the ultimate workout nutrition guide—including what to eat before and after a workout.
If you want to get the most out of your workout, what you eat beforehand can make a serious difference. Fueling your body properly before exercise can help you extend your endurance and give you the energy to increase your overall output. Similarly, what you eat after your workout can influence how well your body recovers—which can affect your workouts down the line. But deciding what exactly to eat before and after a workout can be a challenging feat.
To help, Jessica Nelson, RDN, CPT, put together a comprehensive workout nutrition guide. The biggest takeaway? Carbs are an absolute necessity before a workout. They’ll give your body the energy it needs to get through all that physical activity. Below, Nelson walks through the best carbs to eat before a workout and what other nutrients you need to set yourself up for success.
Why You Should Be Eating Carbs Before A Workout
Why are carbs so important for your pre-workout nutrition? Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for our bodies. As our bodies digest carbs, we convert them into glucose, which is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. That glycogen is then used for energy when blood glucose is depleted (which happens during exercise). Glycogen stores will deplete faster or slower depending on what type of exercise you are doing.
Muscle glycogen is what powers short, high-intensity physical activity. This includes volleyball, basketball, tennis, sprinting, or weight lifting. Similarly, when exercise exceeds 60 to 90 minutes at a moderate intensity level, your glycogen stores will likely be used up.
For that reason, not providing your body with adequate carbs before your workout can affect your energy output and endurance. Workouts that last several hours like hiking, long-distance running, or cycling will use a mix of glucose, glycogen, and fat for fuel. Lower intensity activities with a long duration such as walking will use more body fat for fuel and less stored glycogen.
Just be sure to eat carbohydrates that are easy to digest (also known as quick carbs) before your workout. That means looking for carbohydrate sources that are lower in fiber (which slows down the digestion process). This includes bananas, bread with honey, low-fat granola, or a sports bar.
Other Foods to Eat Before A Workout
While carbohydrates serve as the primary fuel source for your body, eating adequate protein and fat before your workout is just as important. Protein before your workout will give your body energy, slow down carbohydrate digestion, and serve as a secondary source of fuel. Good protein sources to eat before exercise include lean meats, tofu, low-fat yogurt, cheeses, nuts, and peanut butter.
Fats are beneficial to have before exercise because they help you feel satiated, add flavor to the meal, and are fuel for longer workouts. However, eating too much fat–or greasy, fried, or processed foods–may cause an upset stomach during your workout. Generally, fats take longer to digest, so it’s best to have fats with a meal at least a few hours ahead of time.
When To Eat Before A Workout
No matter what type of exercise you are engaging in, fueling beforehand is essential. If you’re planning to work out for more than 60 minutes, a well-rounded meal two to four hours before will provide your muscles with energy, satisfy hunger, and allow for digestion to take place. To maximize your energy stores, you may also want to consider a high-energy snack that is easily digested 30 to 60 minutes before your workout. I also recommend drinking water with the meal or snack to prevent dehydration.
What to Eat Before A Workout
Pre-workout meals should be anywhere from 500 to 600 calories, provide plenty of carbohydrates, a good amount of protein (aim for 15 to 20 grams), and some fat. Be wary of high-sodium or processed sugary foods, which may also cause gut distress if you eat them too soon before a workout. The exactness of your macronutrient needs differs from person to person, but here are a few examples of what to eat before a workout:
- Yogurt smoothie, fresh fruit, and low-fat granola
- Oatmeal with almonds, banana, and a glass of milk (or dairy-free alternative)
- Meat and cheese sandwich with mayo, side of berries, and sports drink
- Stuffed green pepper with lean meat and brown rice, with a side of fruit salad, and an oatmeal raisin cookie
Pre-workout snacks need to offer about 200-300 calories and provide a moderate amount of both carbohydrates (30 to 45 grams) and protein (7 to 14 grams) and very little fat. Remember pre-workout snacks are easy on the stomach and give quick energy. Here are some examples of the best foods to eat before a workout may work for you.
- Banana with 2 tbsp peanut butter
- Sports bar
- Healthy trail mix with dried fruit, seeds, peanuts, coconut chips, and chocolate chips
- Liquid meal supplement
- Greek yogurt with fresh fruit
- Bagel with low-fat cream cheese and hard-boiled egg
When to Eat After A Workout
Wondering when to eat after a workout? This is when we need to focus on refueling energy stores, rehydrating for fluid loss, and repairing and building muscles. Eat your recovery snack within 15 to30 minutes following exercise and a meal within two hours. Again, nutrient timing is essential for the post-recovery process, as it builds your muscles back up after all that stress. Replacing fluid loss is also a priority post-exercise and can be consumed at the same time as your snack or meal. If you find it difficult to eat immediately after exercise, something small like a sports drink and protein bar can be helpful. Either of these can hold you over until you are ready to consume a more complex meal. A shake or smoothie made with protein powder is another option following your workout. For best results, use a protein powder (like HUM Nutrition’s Core Strength) within 30 to 60 minutes following any moderate or high-intensity workout.
What to Eat After A Workout
Recovery snacks require high-quality proteins to aid in the repair of damaged muscle tissues and stimulate new tissue growth. You’ll also need adequate carbohydrates to replace glycogen stores that were used up during the exercise and stabilize your blood sugar. A quick tip for having the right ratio of protein and carbs is to think of a 4:1 ratio. Ideally, we want four grams of carbohydrates for every one gram of protein. A popular example is low-fat chocolate milk. Per serving, it has 27 grams of carbohydrates and 8 grams of protein.
Together, snacks and meals after a workout need to offer around 20 to 40 grams of protein. If you’re planning to eat a meal within an hour of your workout, you will not necessarily need to replenish your body with a recovery snack before. But, opting for an electrolyte sports drink or water can be beneficial.
Here are a few post-workout meals and snacks to consider:
- Scrambled eggs with cheese, toast with avocado, and fruit
- Rice bowl with beans, cheese, avocado, tortilla chips, salsa, and veggies
- Tuna salad sandwich, vegetable bean soup, and crackers
- 4 oz. grilled chicken breast, medium sweet potato, and cooked vegetables
- Snack plate with apple, sliced cheese, crackers, low-fat lunch meat, and nuts
- Low-fat chocolate milk
- Crackers with hummus and a cheese stick
- Smoothie made with Greek yogurt and frozen berries
- Graham crackers with peanut butter
- Cottage cheese and fruit
- Protein energy bite balls
What to Eat Before and After A Workout: A Cheat Sheet
Understanding when and what to eat before and after working out can be a bit overwhelming. To help, we put together this handy infographic. Pin or print it for your fridge to reference whenever you need.