Many people believe an effective workout is simply means showing up and putting the actual work in. And while that’s a huge part of it, what you do before and after is really important, too.
To make the most of your workout, you need to prepare—and that means fueling your body with proper nutrition beforehand. And after all that physical exertion, your body needs to recover. That’s why refueling is critical.
To find out more about the best pre- and post-workout meals and snacks, we spoke with several registered dietitians for insight. Here’s what they had to say.
Why is it important to eat before a workout?
Beth McCall Miller, MS, RD, LD, CSSD, Director of Sports Nutrition at Duke University, explains that it’s important to eat and hydrate before a workout in order to provide energy for your body to perform strong from start to finish. Food for your body is like gas for your car—you can’t work out on empty!
Many of us get the exercise equation backwards, thinking the reason we exercise is to earn or burn our meals. But really, we should be exercising for all the health-promoting benefits that movement has to offer like improved energy, focus, mental clarity, memory, stress reduction, better sleep, happiness, longevity, Lindsey Kane, MS, RDN, and Director of Nutrition for Sunbasket states.
With the holistic mindset of movement, fueling before a workout becomes a no brainer. Because how we nourish our body has a direct relationship with what we can ask of our body, Kane notes. If you want to get the most out of your workouts, fueling up with proper nutrition is the name of the game.
Timing is everything
All of us digest foods at different rates. It’s uncomfortable and not at all fun to experience cramping during a workout, and this unpleasant feeling can really disrupt the momentum you’ve been building towards making movement a part of your regular routine, Kane explains. If a behavior doesn’t feel good, we are less willing to repeat it. One of the best strategies to avoid this workout buzzkill is to identify how long it takes you to digest a pre-workout meal so that it powers you through rather than dragging you down.
Experiment with different foods
The types of foods and combinations are also an important factor to consider, says Kane. Make it a goal to find between five and seven go-to options that you know your body can comfortably digest. It may take a bit of trial and error, but eventually, you will find your personal “tried and true pre-workout fuel” that you can always count on to carry you through.
What to eat before a workout
Now, the big question: What should you actually eat before a workout?
“Foods that are high in fat and low in carbs can be good keto-friendly pre-workout snacks for promoting endurance potential,” says Dr. Casey Means, MD, co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of metabolic health company Levels, and associate editor of the International Journal of Disease Reversal and Prevention. “Training in a low-carb state can, over time, help the body burn more fat during workouts, therefore reducing our reliance on sugar for our workout and making us more metabolically flexible. Athletes who train in a low-carb state have been shown to preferentially use fat over carbohydrates for long, moderate-intensity workouts (65% VO2 max), in contrast to athletes who consume high carbohydrate diets.”
What to eat before your workout depends on how much time you have, adds Miller. Generally, you want to eat a well-balanced meal two to four hours before an intense training session or competition.
If you plan to work out first thing in the morning, focus just on getting in that quick carb snack and some fluids, Miller adds. Below are some examples of quick carb, pre-workout snacks and hydration options:
- Fruit, applesauce or fruit snacks
- Small granola bar, pretzels, or graham crackers
- Cheribundi Hydrate Tart Cherry Juice (provides quick carbs and hydration)
To be clear, this isn’t for everyone. But according to recent research, exercising in a fasted state—such as first thing in the morning, before consuming any calories—increases acute insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake by muscle fibers, and may induce long-term positive health changes, Dr. Means explains. The idea is that when you work out fasted, it will force the body to be more efficient at taking up sugar from the blood, as well as burning fat for energy.
Another recent study showed that fasted workouts improved the metabolic health in obese men. If you’re used to eating before workouts, take it slow and talk to your doctor before jumping into a fasted regimen, the body takes time to adapt. Also, this working out in a fasted state may not be for you—everyone’s different.
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Olives are high in fat and very low in carbs, which makes them a good keto-friendly pre-workout snack for promoting endurance potential. Training in a low-carb state can, over time, can help the body to burn more fat during workouts, therefore reducing our reliance on sugar for our workout and making us more metabolically flexible. Athletes who train in a low-carb state have been shown to preferentially use fat over carbohydrates for long, moderate-intensity workouts (65% VO2 max), in contrast to athletes who consume high carbohydrate diets.
Sometimes drinking your pre-workout fuel is faster, more convenient and easier to digest than eating them, says Kane.
These Mylk Labs single-serving oatmeal cups are great for on-the-go pre-workout fuel: just add water, heat and eat (I love the Blueberry and Vermont Maple flavor), Kane explains. Even better, Mush makes ready-to-eat vanilla bean overnight oats that are just as tasty cold as they are warmed up. No microwave, no problem.
Here are a few additional snack ideas Kane recommends:
- Banana with peanut butter/almond butter
- Dates stuffed with almonds.
- Hard-boiled egg, or mini frittata, or keep these convenient Spinach and Feta Egg Bites on hand (from Les Trois Petits Cochons)
- Whole food bars
- Hummus + whole-grain crackers
Why is it important to eat after a workout?
In order to get the most out of your workout, recover immediately with proper nutrition, Miller states. Recovery nutrition will help restore the energy that was used during the workout, repair any muscle tissue damage, reduce soreness from your workout, and get you ready to do it all over again the next day.
The purpose of a post-workout snack is to replenish glycogen stores (aka energy stores) used during the workout and to give your body the protein it needs to repair existing muscle as well as build new muscle, Registered Dietitian and Daily Burn trainerNora Minno, explains.
Within half an hour of finishing your workout, you want to focus on eating a snack that contains carbohydrates (for replenishing glycogen stores) and about 10-20 grams of protein (for repairing muscle). Refueling after a workout is crucial because if your body doesn’t get the carbohydrates and protein it needs to produce energy and repair muscle, it will start breaking down proteins in the body which can lead to loss of muscle—the exact opposite of what you want from a workout.
What to eat after a workout
Right after the workout ends, Miller says you should focus on the 4 R’s for Recovery:
- Refuel with carbohydrate
- Rebuild with protein
- Rehydrate with fluids and electrolytes
- Reduce inflammation with antioxidants
Minno shares these easy-to-make post-workout snacks:
Banana with 1 1/2 tablespoons of almond butter
This snack is about 240 calories. It’s a great post-workout option for vegans. The banana will provide the body with potassium, an important electrolyte for muscle function, as well as carbohydrates. The almond butter contains leucine and amino acid, which is important in muscle recovery.
1 cup plain, non-fat Greek yogurt with 1 tsp honey, and ½ cup fresh pineapple
This snack is about 170 calories. Greek yogurt is a great source of protein. The honey is a natural source of dextrose, which is good for quick recovery after intense exercise. The pineapple is not only a good source of carbohydrates, but it contains bromelain, a natural anti-inflammatory.
A good old-fashioned smoothie
Mix ½ cup of fruit, with 4oz unsweetened soy milk, 1 tsp honey, and 1 scoop of protein powder. This snack is about 195 calories. Smoothies are easy to drink on the go and allow you to combine a variety of different ingredients to get the nutrition you need.
½ turkey sandwich
Place three to four slices of turkey breast deli meat (nitrate-free) on 1 slice of bread (gluten-free or whole grain). This snack is about 220 calories. Top with 1 slice of cheese, 1 slice of tomato, and a dab of mustard. The turkey packs in a whopping 18 grams of protein for only 100 calories and the cheese adds in some flavor and extra protein.
- Beth McCall (Miller), MS, RD, LD, CSSD, Director of Sports Nutrition at Duke University
- Lindsey Kane MS, RDN, Director of Nutrition for Sunbasket
- Casey Means, MD, co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of metabolic health company Levels, and associate editor of the International Journal of Disease Reversal and Prevention
- The FASEB Journal: “Effect of a Very Low Carbohydrate Diet Followed by Incremental Increases in Carbohydrate on Respiratory Exchange Ratio”
- Metabolism: “Metabolic Characteristics of Keto-Adapted Ultra Endurance Runners”
- The Journal of Physiology: “Impact of Pre-Exercise Feeding Status on Metabolic Adaptations to Endurance-Type Exercise Training”
- The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism: “Lipid Metabolism Links Nutrient-Exercise Timing to Insulin Sensitivity in Men Classified as Overweight or Obese”
- Nora Minno, Registered Dietitian and Daily Burn trainer