Fit fuel: what to eat before and after a workout

Fueling your workouts with good nutrition is an essential factor of fitness performance, recovery, and muscle building. Here's why.

Woman eating protein bar during workout
Woman eating protein bar

What is it about workouts? Sometimes that sweat sesh leaves you feeling pumped and ready to take on the world, while other times it leaves you wanting to snuggle up for some serious Netflix time. 

Fueling your workouts with good nutrition is an essential factor of fitness performance, recovery, and muscle building. Learn the best foods to eat before and after a workout. 

Fit fuel

Ideal pre- and post-nutrition will vary according to how intense your workout is, how long you’ll be exercising, and how well your stomach handles food before getting going. Eating the right stuff at the right times can help boost energy levels, build muscle and prevent breakdown, and aid in recovery (1). 

In general, eating specific nutrients at specific times is not as important as making sure that you eat enough calories, balanced macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) and good quality foods throughout the day.

Eat more for endurance 

If you’re exercising at a low to moderate level (brisk walk, light bike, easy tennis), for less than an hour or two, focus on an overall healthy diet with regular meal times with the help of tools and tips from the Lifesum app.

If you’re hitting it hard with intense (running, high-intensity interval training, spin) or long workouts, it’s more important to focus on the right foods. If you plan to exercise for more than 60 to 90 minutes, eating pre-exercise food will enhance stamina and endurance (2). 

Prevent tummy troubles  

When you’re working out, the blood is flowing to your hard working muscles and away from your stomach. If you eat right before a workout, you may experience unpleasant digestive troubles -- not fun when you’re on the run!

Dietary fats (oil, nuts, olives, avocado) take the longest to digest. Next up is protein (eggs, soy, meat). Then the quickest macronutrient to get broken down and used is carbohydrates, such as bread, crackers, and potato (2). So aim for the quicker digesting macronutrients if you’re eating soon before you sweat. 

The trick is quick carbs

Fiber-rich whole grains (whole grain bread, brown rice, oats, beans, and lentils), protein, and fat are important for an overall healthy diet. But since these take longer to digest, they are not ideal right before being active. It’s best to eat them at least two hours before, or after, a workout. 

Quick carbs are those that cause a rapid increase in blood glucose which can be helpful for workout energy. Examples include corn or rice crackers, bananas, applesauce, and potatoes.

What to eat before a workout

Depending on how much time you have before getting your fit on, will determine the best type of pre-workout meal or snack to have. 

Two to four hours 

When you have a couple hours prior to powertime, enjoy a main meal including a balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat). 

Try this delectable shrimp and rice noodle dish or tofu bean bowl for those of you who prefer a plant-based meal.

One to two hours 

If your workout is coming up quick, but you’re able to sneak in a meal before you hit your commute, focus on eating carbohydrates and protein.

Snack on a yogurt bowl or pita with a bit of hummus.  

Less than 30 minutes to one hour 

The trick here is to eat quick fuel that will be quickly digested -- think about the foods that don’t require much chewing. Focus on those simple carbohydrates that come from foods such as fruit and dairy. 

Drink up a mixed berry smoothie or grab a banana.  

Best post-workout meals and snacks 

The need for a post-workout snack depends on how intense your workout was, as well as what your nutrition and fitness goal is. 

If you ate close to when you worked out (about one to two hours previous), did not have an intense workout, and are trying to maintain or lose weight, then you most likely don’t need a post-workout snack -- of course if you’re hungry you should go ahead and eat something.

If you worked it hard, you’ll need to re-fuel. Once you wipe the sweat off, aim to have easily digested carbs such as fruit, milk, or homemade smoothies. 

Studies show that the ideal post workout macronutrient ratio after a workout is 3:1, carbohydrates to protein. (3). Carbohydrates provide glucose to restore your energy (glycogen) stores while protein can help repair and rebuild muscle. 

Try rice cakes and eggs or a delicious no bake energy bar.

Don’t forget fluids 

Mild dehydration can decrease fitness performance and cause fatigue. Extreme dehydration is dangerous and could potentially lead to cramps, heat exhaustion, and even organ failure. 

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that women drink about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) and men about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of water per day (4). 

When it comes to working out, your fluid needs increase. The National Association of Sports Medicine suggests drinking two to three cups (0.5-0.7 liters) of water or sports drink for every pound (2.2 kg) lost during exercise (5). An easy way to test this is to weigh yourself before and after a workout. 

If the duration of your activity lasts longer than an hour, it’s also important to consider replacing electrolytes in the form of sports drinks or gels

Fitness fuel fit for you 

Everybody is different and has a unique response to fueling a workout. Maybe your workout buddy feels great munching on yogurt before a bootcamp class, while it makes your stomach bloat. Experiment with different foods and find what (and when) eating works best for you.

Focusing on the right foods before and after a workout can help improve your energy and performance. Whether you’re a professional athlete or new to the fitness world, eating well will energize and motivate you to move more.

Craving more pre- and post-workout ideas? You wish is our command: 6 pre/post workout recipes that will help you improve your performance.

5 references (hide)

All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice. If you have or think you are at risk of developing an eating disorder, do not use the Lifesum app and seek immediate medical help.