What to eat before and after a workout
Guest post by Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, founder of kellyjonesnutrition.com
Kelly Jones is a media and consulting dietitian based in greater Philadelphia. As a board certified specialist in sports dietetics, her expertise lies in performance nutrition for collegiate and professional athletes as well as busy, active women. As a new mom who loves fitness, she offers recipes and tips to fuel an active lifestyle. Learn more at KellyJonesNutrition.com or follow her on Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest.
As a sports dietitian, the most common questions I get revolve around pre and post-workout intake. Should you eat? When should you eat? How much should you eat? What should you be eating?
There’s a lot of misinformation about nutrition out there, so when it comes to fitness nutrition, it’s important to understand why I give certain recommendations. Here I’ll briefly cover how we fuel activity, why everyone’s needs for exercise vary, and main goals of food intake before and after. Then, I’ll provide actual suggestions for what to eat!
How Do We Fuel Activity?
If you’re engaging in a high intensity and short duration movement (lifting heavy weights, sprinting, exhaustive spurts during group exercise classes) you’re using mainly carbohydrate for fuel. The higher the intensity, the more your muscles prefer carbs since they’re the most efficient energy for quick, powerful movement. However, you can’t stay at super high intensity levels for more than 1-2 minutes. So, to keep moving, you’re body won’t rely on just carbs.
That’s where fat comes in. For moderate intensity activities that most people engage in, the body uses a good mix of carbohydrate and fat to fuel muscles. (Note: If you’re exercising over an hour, you’ll need more carbohydrate during exercise. Fluids should also be considered more at this point. These topics won’t be covered in this post.) I didn’t mention protein yet, as it’s more a structural nutrient necessary for recovery, not a significant source of energy. Even if you’re not eating adequate amounts of carbohydrate, protein will only provide 1-2% of the energy used for exercise. But, as I’m sure you know, it is important for recovery.
Energy Needs for Activity Vary
It’s SO important that you don’t mimic exactly what someone else is eating, even if their activity seems similar to yours. Listening to your body is key, so use trial and error to determine what works best for you.
The following are reasons energy needs for activity vary, and why I don’t advocate for trying to hit specific calorie goals before and after exercise:
Fitness level, type of activity and tolerance to that activity
Body type and body composition
True intensity (versus perceived), duration, frequency of exercise
Gender, age, and genetics
Adequate carbohydrate to fuel activity: If you’ve had a normal meal within 2-3 hours of exercise, your workout won’t be over an hour, and hunger is nowhere in site, you may be fine without a snack. Still, it’s best to plan so that you’re eating something 45 minutes - 2 hours before exercise. Since everyone is different, if your schedule works to have a full meal a few hours ahead, top off energy stores with something small. The suggestions below are great 45 min-2 hours before exercise with a few meant for when you have less time.
Adequate Food to Prevent Hunger: If you find yourself hungry during exercise or starving afterwards, you aren’t eating enough before. Try something new or more food than usual.
Low-moderate fat, fiber and protein: All of these should be eaten at all meals and snacks during the day, but since excess can slow digestion for most people, it’s best to keep intake lower a couple hours before your sweat session.
Adequate quality protein to repair: Animal proteins are considered “high quality” based on the fact that they give you enough of the essential building blocks for muscle repair. Eggs, milk, and fish are go-to’s based on this and other nutrients provided. Soy protein also falls into the high quality category. If you’re reaching for plant proteins, pair a couple of sources. For example, whole grain bread with peanut butter provides protein from a whole grain and legume, building a high quality protein. Pro tip: don’t think too much about this unless you grab just a handful of nuts after exercise, and just see the list below for pairing ideas.
Adequate carbohydrate to refuel and recover: After exercise, your muscle carb stores are down. Don’t want to wait until your next pre-workout snack to put them back in! Your brain’s preferred fuel is carbohydrate too, and you don't want to compromise it’s function because you didn’t fuel well after activity. Some research also shows protein is better used for recovery when consumed with carbs. See this You Tube video for more info.
Adequate fluid & electrolytes: I said I wouldn’t cover fluid, but here’s an exception. If you’re dehydrated, you won’t be able to listen to your body’s hunger and fullness cues later and you’ll compromise recovery.
Timely intake: Research shows eating within 2 hours of exercise supports proper recovery. Still, this may be too long for many people as it only considers muscle recovery, not eating patterns the rest of the day. I recommend a snack is eaten within an hour of activity, with a meal eaten within the next 3 hours (listen to your body in terms of when). You may not feel too hungry after exercise, but muscles are depleted and blood sugar is now a bigger source of energy. As that dips, it increases the chance of overeating later and having a harder time listening to your fullness cues, since you’re overcompensating for what you didn’t have earlier.
Pre-Workout Snack Ideas (45 minutes- 2 hours before)
banana and nut butter
oats & fruit
applesauce & almonds
brown rice cake & nut butter
wheat pita & hummus
sprouted grain bread & fruit preserve
small sweet potato & nut butter
wheat toaster waffle w/ fruit
avocado toast (or other toppings)
homemade energy bites or bars
whole food energy bar (Bobo’s Oat Bites, Health Warrior Chia Bars, Clif nut butter filled bar, clif kids zbar, Larabar, 88 acres bars, KIND granola)
If exercising within 30-45 minutes of eating:
dates, raisins, dried mango, etc
orange or other citrus
6 oz. real juice
honey packet (if 15 min prior)
Post-Workout Snack Ideas
Low-fat milk or soymilk w/ fruit
Berry & greens smoothie (made with protein rich milk or yogurt)
HB eggs with hummus & pita
sliced turkey and pineapple
half turkey sandwich w/ hummus
sprouted grain bread & PB
small sweet potato & chicken tenderloin
canned tuna or salmon w/ avocado on wheat
turkey or salmon jerky with fruit
dried fruit & low fat cheese
plain yogurt with fruit
cottage cheese and fruit
roasted edamame and dried fruit
Bars: RxBar, Oatmega, Aloha, Square, Perfect Bar, Garden of Life protein, Clif Builder
What to do From Here
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with info, evaluate how you currently fuel for exercise versus the above recommendations and pick one thing to work on. If you’re ready to start trying some new snacks, choose 1-2 from the list you think you’ll like! Then, determine if it’s enough, too much, at the right time, and tweak from there. Remember, your nutrition should be unique to you, and it sometimes takes a little while to determine what options help you feel best. Also remember that every day won’t be the same; you’ll need more or less food day to day. Reach out with general questions!