You’ve got your leggings, your sports bra, your sneakers, and a hair tie. You’re ready to work out, right? Actually, you’re missing one crucial ingredient: food. What you eat before a workout 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 did you know that what you eat after a workout is really important, too? Indeed, re-fueling after exercise gives your body what it needs to recover from the exertion and 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.
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 happens, skipping food can negatively impact your performance and reduce your gains.
But I know that realistically everyone 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 to not eat breakfast every day, despite all that most important meal of the day talk.) The truth is, for most people it’s OK to workout on an empty stomach (I would not recommend doing that 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 to fuel up right.
1. Carbs are good.
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. 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, tired, and tempted to call it quits and take a nap. Before a workout, it’s good to eat simple carbohydrates, because they are digested fast and provide quick energy.
- a granola bar
- a piece of fruit
- Greek yogurt (this contains carbs and protein)
- dried fruit
- a rice cake
- a piece of toast
2. And don’t forget about 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, like lifting weights, we create small tears in our muscle fibers. When you rest, your body repairs those microtears, building up your muscles bigger and stronger than they were before—and it needs protein to do it. But that doesn’t mean you want to pound a burger before a workout. Instead, go for sources of protein that are easily digestible, and don’t eat too much, so you don’t get an upset stomach halfway through your 5-mile run.
Examples of good sources of protein to eat before a workout include:
- Greek yogurt
- a slice of turkey
- a hardboiled egg
- milk or soy milk
3. Timing is everything.
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 timeframe 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 100- to 150-calorie snack 30 minutes to an hour before your workout, or working out 2-3 hours after a well-balanced meal.
4. Drink up.
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 is no one-size-fits-all method to determining fluid needs during exercise, a good place to start is drinking about 2 cups of water 2 to 3 hours before exercise and 1 cup of water 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. You should try to also stay hydrated throughout your workout. Consider drinking 1 cup of water for every 15-30 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.
Here are a few pre-workout snack and meal ideas I recommend:
Snack: A smoothie with 1 cup of fruit and 2 cups of vegetables or this protein-packed green smoothie recipe (drink half before the workout and half after)
Snack: An apple or pear with 1 tablespoon of nut butter
Snack: ¾ cup of Greek yogurt with 1 tablespoon granola and ½ cup of berries
Snack: 2 tablespoons of dried fruit and 1 tablespoon of raw, unsalted nuts
Snack: 100-calorie granola bar
Snack: 1-2 rice cakes topped with 1 tablespoon of nut butter
Meal: Oatmeal with a tablespoon of peanut butter and ½ cup of fruit
Meal: 4 ounces of baked salmon, ¾ cup of brown rice, with 1 cup of 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. Secondly, eating protein after a workout is a must for a 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.
1. 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. Ideally, you want to refuel within about 30 minutes of working out to get those energy stores back up. If you aren’t able to eat a full meal right away, have a snack within 20 minutes of your training, then a full meal 3 to 4 hours later.
2. 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 (you don’t need them to break down fast like you did beforehand) and loaded with healthy protein.
Complex carbohydrates include:
- brown rice
- whole wheat bread
Healthy proteins include:
3. Athletes: Your protein needs may be increased.
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 this simple formula:
Divide your weight by 2.2 to get kilograms
Multiply that number multiplying by 0.4 and 0.5. to get a range of recommended protein intake
Okay so let’s do the math. If you weigh 130 pounds, divide that by 2.2 and you’ll get 59 kilograms. Then multiply that number by 0.4 and 0.5 to get a protein range. In this case, it’s 24 to 30 grams. Keep in mind that 4 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 determine protein needs for athletes doing intense resistance training for long periods of time. For those of us who do a cute (but equally tough!) 25 minutes on the treadmill and 20 minutes in the weight room, our protein needs may not be as high, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Here are some dinners perfectly suited for after a not-so-hard workout.
4. Don’t overcompensate.
Here’s the thing, it’s really easy to overdo it with your post-workout snacks, and end up eating or drinking more calories than you actually burned. That’s fine if you are trying to gain weight, but for folks who want to lose or maintain their weight, this is counterproductive. Skip the energy drinks, bars, sugary smoothies, and smoothie bowls at the gym juice bar. You don’t need ’em. Try to keep your post-workout snack around 150 calories and your post-workout meal under 500.
5. 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. Again, do what feels right for your body. And as mentioned above, use your pee as a guideline for your overall hydration status.
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 hardboiled 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: Veggie omelet with avocado and ½ cup of roasted potatoes
Meal: 4 ounces of steamed trout with a baked sweet potato and sautéed spinach
And remember that these are only guidelines.
The beauty of it all 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. Happy training!