When and What to Eat Before (and After) Your Workout

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You're doing all the right things—exercising regularly and making fitness a priority. But while working out is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, not fueling up properly before, and then not re-fueling after, can make it difficult to reach your goals. Pre-and post-workout nutrition is a crucial part of any successful fitness plan.

"Fueling [the body] around one’s workout can not only help improve performance, but it can also help improve recovery and body composition," says Erik Bustillo, MS, RD, CISSN, CSC, CPT, a registered dietitian and strength coach at train8nine.com. "Feeling good before, during, and after your workout is important for performance, too, and nutrition can greatly impact this."

While there are a number options on how to fuel up properly, it is important to choose sustainable habits because if you don't like them, you're less likely to do them. Here's what you need to know about what to eat before—and after—your workout as well as tips on how to time your food intake.

Before You Workout

Any kind of movement on top of what's required to perform regular daily tasks requires energy. That means you need additional calories over your baseline needs to fuel your workouts. Working out without eating beforehand can seriously impact the quality of your workout and put you at greater risk of getting injured.

Working out on an empty stomach also can leave you feeling sluggish, weak, and light-headed—all of which can lead you to skimp out on exercises or worse, cut your workout short altogether. While it's important to listen to your body, eating something ahead of time can prevent this from happening altogether. This doesn't mean you have to eat an entire meal, though. In fact, you probably shouldn't.

"Something to be mindful of is eating too much before a workout and eating too close to it as well," says Bustillo.

Doing so can leave you feeling too full and uncomfortable and may impede your workout performance. A small snack comprised of the necessities is perfect.

Food

Technically you could eat anything you want before. However, a pre-workout snack consisting of carbs and protein is best on the performance front.

Erik Bustillo, MS, RD, FISSN, CISSN, CSC, CPT

Carbs can help improve performance in higher intensity bouts of exercise.

— Erik Bustillo, MS, RD, FISSN, CISSN, CSC, CPT

"Carbs can help improve performance in higher intensity bouts of exercise such as sprinting, CrossFit, and sports performance that requires bursts of energy and/or strength," Bustillo notes.

Carbohydrates are the body's preferred fuel source during workouts. Consuming carbs in the hours leading up to a workout helps ensure you have enough stored to provide energy during your sweat session.

Including protein in your pre-workout snack along with carbs is a successful method for maximizing performance while protecting your hard-earned muscle from being used as energy. Bustillo indicates that the International Society of Sports Nutrition's position on nutrient timing as the following: pre-exercise and/or post-exercise nutritional interventions—such as carbohydrates and protein or protein alone—may support increases in strength and improvements in body composition.

Some examples of a pre-workout snack that fits the bill could be as simple as Greek yogurt with berries or a DIY protein smoothie made with frozen fruit. The options are endless and really come down to your food preferences. Just make sure you include a carb and a protein.

"My go-to pre-workout snack is often simple—a banana with a tablespoon of peanut butter or 2 to 3 waffles with sugar-free syrup," Bustillo says. "My go-to may be different than yours, find what works best for you."

Hydration

Drinking water is essential for preventing dehydration, especially because exercise puts you at a greater risk if you're not rehydrating properly. Sweating at excessive rates during vigorous workouts also can lead to hypohydration, or not replacing the water lost through sweat. Most people don't drink enough water, to begin with, even when working out, when it may be most important.

Drinking plenty of water beforehand can help prevent too much fluid lost through sweat. This is called hyperhydration.

Weighing yourself before and after a workout can give you a good indicator of just how dehydrated you are. If you lost even a few ounces of weight, you'll want to replace that with water as soon as possible. In fact, a beverage that also contains electrolytes and carbs can help shuttle water to the intestines. Plus, because it tastes good you may be more likely to drink it.

Hydration Before, During and After Workouts

The International Society of Sports Nutrition offers these general recommendations for hydrating before, during, and after a workout:

  • Drink enough fluids to maintain your weight.
  • Drink 500 milliliters (2 1/4 cups) of water or sports drink the night before exercise.
  • Drink another 500 milliliters (2 1/4 cups) of water or sports drink upon waking.
  • Drink another 400 to 600 milliliters (2 1/4 to 2 1/2 cups) before a workout.
  • Include 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates in a 6% to 8% carbohydrate-electrolyte solution (6 to 12 ounces) every 10 to 15 minutes for exercises longer than 60 minutes.

Pre-Workout

Some people consider adding a pre-workout powder or supplement in order to meet their fueling needs. This can sometimes be helpful for people who feel like they are stuck in a rut or have hit a plateau.

"Pre-workout powders are popular, in my opinion, because they help some users feel like they have more energy because they often contain caffeine, which has been proven to be one of the most effective and most studied ergogenic aids," notes Bustillo.

But if you're trying to steer clear of caffeine, you may want to opt for one that's caffeine-free or make your own DIY protein shake. The other ingredients in pre-workout supplements—namely beta-alanine, creatine, betaine, l-arginine, taurine, and other essential amino acids—play a role in buffering lactic acid production. They also help to delay the onset of fatigue and increase strength and power by enhancing blood flow and optimizing the amount of energy produced in the muscle.

But are these powders and supplements too good to be true? It's important to review the pros and cons of pre-workout supplements before diving in. For instance, supplements can cause paraesthesia, or a tingling sensation on the skin, caused by beta-alanine.

What's more, it is important to note that supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so there is no way to know for sure how pure the supplement is, if it is safe for you, or how it will interact with your current medications. If you are considering using pre-workout powders or supplements it is important to discuss your plans with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian nutritionist first.

Pros of Pre-Workout Supplements
  • More energy (due to caffeine)

  • Reduced perception of fatigue

  • Adds fuel for the body

  • Convenient

Cons of Pre-Workout Supplements
  • Contains caffeine and beta-alanine

  • May cause jitters

  • May cause tingling sensation

  • Not regulated by FDA

After Your Workout

The window of opportunity after a workout to refuel isn't as detrimental as it was once believed to be.

"Nutrient timing is important in speeding up the recovery process, but this does not mean a workout is wasted if a meal/protein shake is not consumed immediately after," says Bustillo.

Food

According to Bustillo, the most important nutrient post-workout is protein. And, depending on the training length and intensity, carbohydrates as well.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition finds it optimal to include 20 to 40 grams of protein every 3 to 4 hours—including essential amino acids—after a workout. Researchers have found that this range maximizes muscle building potential and repair. Including carbs in your post-workout meal is a great way to replenish energy stores and hydration.

Post-Workout Meal Ideas

  • Chocolate milk
  • Scrambled eggs with toast
  • Fruit protein smoothie
  • Greek yogurt with berries and granola
  • Chicken breast and rice

Hydration

If you didn't hydrate before and during your workout enough—or you are exercising at altitude or in a hot and humid environment—you'll want to rehydrate within 2 hours after a workout. Keep in mind, thirst is not a good indicator of hydration status; it's better to be safe than sorry.

Also, because electrolytes, including sodium and carbs help rehydrate faster, a sports drink or coconut water may be helpful. Monitoring your urine color is another easy way to determine if you're hydrated enough.

If your urine has a light tint or is pale yellow, you've rehydrated well. On the other hand, if your urine is a dark yellow or amber color, continue drinking.

Rest Day Nutrition

Taking a day or two off from exercise is vital to your progress. On rest days the body has time to repair and recover from vigorous workouts. A menu that supports optimal recovery is important on rest days too.

Bustillo notes that unless there is a vast difference in caloric expenditure there is not much need to change the diet much on rest days. That means you can and should continue your diet as usual. Some people eat less on rest days in fear they're going to overeat. This can be tricky because restricting after a tough workout can lead to disordered eating behaviors.

"Rest days are an opportunity to recover and eating enough is an important part of this recovery process," Bustillo says.

A balanced diet of lean protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables is enough to support your exercise and fitness goals.

A Word From Verywell

Fueling up before and after a workout is essential for your health and fitness goals regardless of your fitness level. Nourishing your body with plenty of nutrient-dense calories is part of prioritizing nutritional wellness.

Skimping out on any one nutrient or food group can leave you feeling sluggish and will not support your fitness goals. If you're not sure if you're eating enough for your goals, talk to a registered dietitian. They can evaluate your diet and help you map out a plan for success.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do I crave carbs after a workout?

    The body craves carbs when energy levels are low, as in after a tough workout. Because carbs replenish glycogen stores, and glycogen provides the body with energy, it's important to refuel with carbohydrates when needed.

  • Do I need carbs after cardio?

    Carbs are the preferred fuel source during short duration workouts. When performing cardio, the body first uses carbs and then moves to fat as fuel—or a mix depending upon intensity and duration. Regardless, you're still using energy stores from carbohydrates for the cardio workout. For that reason, it's important to refuel with carbs after a cardio session to replenish glycogen stores.

  • What happens if you don't eat protein after a workout?

    If you're not eating enough protein throughout the day and don't eat any protein after a workout, you're limiting your ability to build and maintain muscle. Consuming 20 to 40 grams of protein after a workout helps promote and maximize muscle protein synthesis.

  • Should I eat protein on rest days?

    Dietary protein is essential for many physiological processes and helps promote lean body weight and muscle mass, even on days you're not working out. Protein should make up about 25% to 30% of your daily calorie intake. To determine how many grams of protein you need each day, multiply your calorie goals by 0.25 and then divide by 4. For example, a 2,000 calorie diet would allot 125 grams of protein per day (2000 x 0.25 = 500/4 = 125).

  • Can I drink protein shakes every day?

    Yes, you can drink protein shakes every day. Protein shakes are a convenient way to increase daily protein intake, especially if your daily needs are high. Some people have adverse reactions to certain ingredients in protein shakes. If this is the case for you, try a different brand, flavor, or type of protein.

    It's important to note that protein shakes are not intended to be meal replacements and should not be used as such. The body works harder to digest solid foods versus. shakes, and it is possible to reach your daily protein needs through whole foods alone. Plus, whole food sources of protein also contain additional nutrient benefits not found in protein shakes.

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