What to Eat Before and After a Workout

Wondering when and what to eat before and after working out? Elisa Zied, registered dietitian, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips, provides some helpful tips.

Q: Should we eat before working out? Right after working out?

A: I think everyone’s body is different. I cannot work out unless I’ve eaten beforehand; but some athletes and recreational exercisers workout on an empty stomach and that works for them. It’s definitely a good idea to eat a meal or snack a few hours before you exercise; some can have a snack right before they exercise and that works for them, while others may prefer to eat an hour or two before they exercise. Know your body and do what feels best for you. I personally have breakfast at 7 and exercise around 8:30 or 9 am and that works for me (I have energy, don’t feel sluggish or bloated, and don’t feel hungry). Find what works for you and do that.

More tips…

It’s always a good idea to have a balanced meal or snack within two hours of exercising; a healthful, nutrient-rich meal with carbohydrate- and protein-rich foods can help muscles recover and replace muscles’ glycogen stores. (Glycogen is glucose, a simple sugar that’s stored in muscles and is used to perform exercise.) An example of a good pre-workout snack is whole wheat crackers, topped with almond butter and a cup of skim milk; 1 banana and a string cheese; or one apple and a tablespoon or two of almonds.

Q: What kinds of foods are best before working out?

A: There’s no hard and fast rule about what you should eat before engaging in exercise. A small carbohydrate-rich snack an hour or two before you exercise can supply you with energy and prevent hunger. You have to go by your body and what works for you, since no two people are the same.

In general, consuming a diet that’s rich in carbohydrates, and moderate in fat and protein — eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy foods, nuts and seeds (and beans) and lean meats, poultry and fish is a great way to ensure you’re getting enough nutrients to meet your needs, as well as enough calories and nutrients to support exercise and all you do, both mentally and physically. Choosing nutrient-dense, nutrient-rich foods is the best way to ensure you get quality calories to support exercise and all the physical and mental activities you engage in all day, every day!

Q: What kinds of foods are best to recover from an intense workout? A light workout?

A: Carbohydrate-rich foods provide the primary fuel needed by the body, whether you exercise intensely, lightly, or not at all. For those who do exercise, carbohydrates are especially important because they provide the main source of energy for muscles. Carbohydrate-rich foods provide immediate energy; some of the carbohydrates you consume are also stored in your muscles as glycogen and act as a reserve of carbohydrates that may be needed during activity.

After exercise (within 2 hours), eating carbohydrate- and protein-rich foods — for example, having a peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole wheat bread — can replenish muscle glycogen stores and provide you with key nutrients and calories to be and stay energized. The more intense the exercise, the more food you may need (and the sooner you may need it). For light exercise, it’s just as important to eat balanced meals rich in carbohydrates (and with moderate amounts of protein and fat) every few hours. If you are an intense exerciser or endurance athlete, you’ll need a lot more calories (and therefore more nutrients) than someone who is a more casual, less intense exerciser — something to keep in mind when planning meals!

Q: How much liquid should you consume before and after working out? What types of liquids are best?

A: It’s important to stay adequately hydrated, especially when you are physically active. If you’re adequately hydrated, your urine will be pale in color. To meet their basic fluid needs, women need the equivalent of about 11 cups of fluids each day; men need about 16 cups. Water, 100% fruit juice, milk, coffee, tea and other beverages can meet most of those needs. Consuming several daily servings of fruits, vegetables, soups and cooked grains (like oatmeal), can also supply the equivalent of a few cups of fluids each day. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to drink fluids with each meal. Also, have a cup or two of fluids 15 minutes prior to the activity, and ½ to 2 cups every 15 minutes during the activity (about 2 to 4 cups per hour).

I typically recommend water as the best first drink to replenish fluid losses from exercise. But for those who engage in activities for more than an hour, sports drinks may be a better way to rehydrate; they can provide calories or fuel for the muscles and can replenish some of the electrolytes lost during physical activity.