How to Fuel Your Workout: What to Eat (and When) for Exercise

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Whether your goal is weight loss, muscle gain, or getting in shape, what you eat before exercise can make the difference between an energetic (perhaps even peppy) workout and a tired, looking-at-your-watch-every-five-minutes workout.

Follow these basic guidelines for what to eat to fuel your exercise, depending on when you prefer to work out.

Early Morning

If you like morning workouts (before your body has a chance to protest), try to nibble on something first. Despite rumors, exercising on an empty stomach does not mean you'll burn more fat—especially if you're too hungry and dizzy for a workout.

Make sure you allow enough time for your snack to digest. This will help you avoid a side-stitch or nausea. Here are a few other pointers to keep in mind:

  • Avoid too much fat or protein. Foods dense in these nutrients take longer to digest. While simple sugars (such as juice) are absorbed the fastest, they can cause a quick rise and fall in blood sugar, which could make you tired.
  • Combine nutrients. Think whole-grain bagels, raisins, a banana, or a liquid meal such as a sports drink or a high-carb beverage.
    • Have a low-fat granola bar with a little peanut butter 30 minutes before your morning run. You might think peanut butter is fattening, but your body needs healthy monounsaturated fat for fuel. It also helps keep you full, which can aid weight loss.
  • Keep it light. If you're exercising within an hour after you wake up, aim to eat around 100 to 300 calories. For example, a smoothie, yogurt-granola parfait, or oatmeal. If you can't stomach much in the morning, try to have at least a glass of orange juice or a sports drink.


By lunchtime, breakfast is probably a faint memory. Here are some tips to avoid hunger pains and fatigue during your afternoon workout.

  • Avoid high fat and/or high protein foods, and stick with something that has around 60% carbs, 20% protein, and 20% fat.
  • Get the timing right. One or two hours before your workout, eat a balanced meal that's around 300 to 400 calories.
    For midday fuel, try having a meal replacement shake or bar, yogurt, fruit (fresh or dried), oatmeal, or a turkey and cheese sandwich. You could also try yogurt mixed with fresh fruit and topped with granola.
  • Remember to refuel. If you're having a snack before your workout, make sure you eat a balanced meal after you cool down. You need nutrition to repair your body and restore your energy.

After Work

You're on the way to the gym and you're hungry. Does your steering wheel mysteriously turn your car in the direction of the nearest Burger King? That's because lunch was a long time ago and your body is out of gas.

Here's a plan for avoiding an after-work slump before you hit the gym:

  • Have a work snack. About 2 to 3 hours before you leave work, eat a small, balanced meal that's between 400 and 500 calories.
    • Cheese and crackers, cottage cheese and veggies, fruit with a whole grain muffin. String cheese with low-fat Triscuits and a small can of mandarin oranges make a good snack. You could even throw in a snack-size Snicker's bar from the office candy jar as a pick-me-up on your way out the door.


Once you're done exercising, you'll need to replace the fluids and nutrients that your body needs to recover from your workout. The scientific studies on exactly what to eat can be confusing, but the research generally suggests that eating a balance of carbs, protein, and fat for your post-workout meal is best for your recovery.

1 Source
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ormsbee MJ, Bach CW, Baur DA. Pre-exercise nutrition: the role of macronutrients, modified starches and supplements on metabolism and endurance performanceNutrients. 2014;6(5):1782–1808. doi:10.3390/nu6051782

Additional Reading
  • American Council on Exercise. ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 3rd Edition. San Diego: American Council on Exercise, 2003.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."