Figuring out what to eat before and after a workout can be such a struggle but it’s worth it. When it comes to a pre-workout snack, what you choose to put in your mouth is important. If you’re going to put the machine that is your body through the paces you want to fuel it first with proper nutrition. And no, I’m not talking about pre-workout supplements. I’m talking about real, delicious meals and snacks. The kind of foods you would enjoy anyway—and will enjoy even more when you know they’re helping you reach your fitness goals.
Of course what you eat after a workout is really important too. Indeed refueling after exercise gives your body what it needs to recover from the exertion and helps you build bigger, stronger muscles.
That means being thoughtful about what you eat before and after exercising will help you maximize the benefits of all your hard work at the gym. So what’s the best pre-workout snack? And what’s best to eat after a workout? As a registered dietitian, I recommend the meals and snacks below. Consider them a critical part of your training plan.
What to eat before a workout:
I counsel my patients to eat before exercise because I think it will give them the best chance to get the most out of their workouts. Not eating enough before a workout can make you dizzy, lightheaded, nauseated, or lethargic. It can also make you more likely to injure yourself. And even if none of these things happen, skipping food can negatively impact your performance and reduce your gains.
But I know that realistically you won’t always have the time (or desire) to eat before a workout. On nights when you’re scrambling to get from the office to your favorite studio for that 6:00 p.m. class it might feel impossible to squeeze in a snack on the way. And what do you do if you’re a morning workout person who doesn’t like to eat breakfast? (Psst: It’s fine not to eat breakfast despite all that most-important-meal-of-the-day talk.)
The truth is that for most people it’s OK to work out on an empty stomach (though I would not recommend doing so if you have blood sugar issues). So if you can’t even grab a protein bar or the idea of forcing down a bite makes you want to gag, that’s all right. But ideally you should fuel up before you work up a sweat—and definitely, definitely drink water before, during, and after. Here’s how and what to eat before a workout.
1. Time your pre-workout snack right.
The ideal time to eat is between 30 minutes to three hours before your workout. That way you’re not still digesting when you hit the gym floor, but you haven’t gone and used up all those helpful calories yet. Having said that, this can be customized. You may have to experiment to see which time frame does your body good. If you’re working out first thing in the morning you probably won’t be able to eat a whole meal before you hit the gym. A small snack or mini-breakfast should suffice.
I like to start sipping on this protein-packed green smoothie 30 minutes to an hour before I hit the gym and finish the other half when I’m done. If you are exercising later in the day, I recommend having a snack 30 minutes to an hour before your workout or working out two to three hours after a well-balanced meal.
2. Drink plenty of water.
It’s best to get your body hydrated before you even think about heading to the gym. One way to determine your overall hydration status is to check out the color of your urine first thing in the morning. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, lemonade-colored urine is a sign of appropriate hydration, while dark-colored urine (think apple juice) indicates a deficit in H20.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all method to determining fluid needs during exercise, a good place to start is drinking about two cups of water around two to three hours before exercise and one cup of water about 10 to 20 minutes before working out. The goal here is to minimize dehydration—which can cause low energy and muscle cramps or spasms—without drinking too much water, which isn’t easy to do but can be dangerous.
You should also try to stay hydrated throughout your workout. Consider drinking one cup of water for every 15 to 30 minutes of intense physical activity, especially if you are sweating profusely or are training in a heated environment. Again this may take a bit of experimentation until you find what works best for your body.
3. Go for a pre-workout snack with carbs.
Carbs = energy. When we eat them, they break down into glucose, enter our muscle cells, and give us fuel to exercise at our maximum capacity. Your muscles store glucose in the form of glycogen and dip into these reserves when you’re putting them to work. When it comes to what to eat before a workout, eating carbs before you exercise ensures that you’ll have extra glucose on hand if you need it to replenish those glycogen stores. If you’re strapped for glucose during your workout you’ll likely feel weak and tired, and will be tempted to call it quits and take a nap.
Some carbs I recommend eating before a workout for quick energy include a granola bar, a piece of fruit, oatmeal, crackers, a rice cake, or a piece of toast.
4. Make sure your pre-workout snack has protein.
In addition to carbs it’s a good idea to consume a little bit of protein before your workout—especially if you are doing weight training. When we do strength-training exercises such as lifting weights, we create small tears in our muscle fibers. When you rest, your body repairs those micro-tears, building up your muscles bigger and stronger than they were before—and it needs protein to do it.
Go for sources of protein that are easy to digest like nuts, Greek yogurt, a slice of turkey, a hard-boiled egg, or a glass of regular or soy milk. And be sure not to eat too much so you don’t get an upset stomach halfway through your workout.
Here are a few pre-workout snacks I recommend:
Snack: A smoothie with one cup of fruit and two cups of vegetables, or this protein-packed green smoothie recipe (drink half before the workout and half after)
Snack: An apple or pear with nut butter
Snack: Greek yogurt with granola and berries
Snack: Dried fruit with mixed nuts
Snack: A granola bar
Snack: Rice cakes topped with nut butter
Snack: Oatmeal with peanut butter and fruit
Snack: Baked salmon, brown rice, and roasted veggies
What to eat after a workout:
You need to eat after a workout. Period. Eating after a workout is all about replacing the calories you used up. For one, it’s important to replenish the glycogen that has been depleted during your exercise. Second, eating protein after a workout is a must for speedy muscle recovery, particularly after weight training. Plus, food contains electrolytes (which are minerals that your neurons need to fire properly) which you lose when you sweat.
When you don’t eat after a workout you can end up fatigued and battling low blood sugar. You’re also inhibiting your body’s repair process. If you routinely skip eating after a workout it will be harder to reach your fitness goals. Here’s what I recommend after a workout.
1. Rehydrate ASAP.
Replenishing the fluids you lost while sweating as soon as you can is even more important than eating right away. Don’t stop drinking just because you’re done shvitzing. Getting enough water after exercise depends on many factors, namely the length and intensity of the exercise, the environmental conditions, and your individual physiology.
If you want to get all scientific about determining your fluid needs post-workout (trust me, I love to go there) you’ll need to bust out that smartphone calculator. Start by weighing yourself before and after exercise and recording both numbers. After your workout, drink 16 ounces of fluid for every pound you’ve lost. Do what feels right for your body. And as mentioned above, use your pee as a guideline for your overall hydration status.
2. Make sure to eat something soon.
Especially if you just worked out really hard, your body has just used up the energy it needs to function at max capacity. If you aren’t able to eat a full meal right away have a snack after your training, then a full meal a few hours later.
3. Refuel with carbs and protein.
Remember, you’ve blown through that glycogen and torn up your muscles. Therefore your post-workout meal should be high in complex carbohydrates that break down slowly and are loaded with healthy protein.
Complex carbohydrates include:
- Brown rice
- Whole wheat bread
Healthy proteins include:
4. Athletes, your protein needs may be increased.
When it comes to what to eat after a workout for athletes doing intense weight training for long periods of time (45 to 90 minutes), you may require a little bit of extra protein (especially if your goal is to build muscle). You can customize your protein needs using the formula below. (Do some trial and error to see how you feel after tweaking your protein intake while paying attention to how you’re feeling keeping in mind signs that you might need more protein in your diet. As always, when in doubt check with a registered dietitian.)
How to determine your protein needs:
Divide your weight by 2.2 to get kilograms.
Multiply that number by 0.4 and 0.5 to get a range of recommended protein amounts.
Okay, so let’s do the math using a 130-pound person as an example.
- Divide 130 by 2.2 and you’ll get 59 kilograms.
- Then multiply 59 by 0.4 and 0.5 to get a protein range. In this case it’s 24 to 30 grams.
Keep in mind that four ounces of chicken has 30 grams of protein, so these numbers aren’t that hard to achieve if you have a meal immediately after working out. Remember that these protein calculations are used to determine protein needs for athletes doing intense resistance training for long periods of time.
If you’re doing a less intensive workout—for example 25 minutes on the treadmill or 20 minutes in the weight room—your protein needs may not be as high and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Here are a few post-workout snack and meal ideas I recommend:
Snack: 1 cup of chocolate milk
Snack: 1 slice of whole wheat toast with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter and ½ sliced banana
Snack: 2 graham crackers with a tablespoon of peanut butter
Snack: 1 to 2 hard-boiled eggs with a slice of whole wheat toast
Meal: A 7-inch round whole wheat pita stuffed with grilled veggies and 2 tablespoons hummus
Meal: A protein-rich green smoothie
Meal: A veggie omelet with avocado and ½ cup of roasted potatoes
Meal: 4 ounces of steamed trout with a baked sweet potato and sautéed spinach
Remember: These pre- and post-workout snack ideas are only guidelines.
The beauty of food and nutrition is that everyone’s body is different and will have specific needs and preferences. I should also note that it’s probably not a good idea to experiment with any nutritional changes on a game or race day. Limit any diet tweaks to training. Enjoy your workout!