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What to eat before and after your workout for the best results.

Posted by Jill Derryberry on Sep 5, 2023 4:20:56 PM
Jill Derryberry
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Maximize your workouts with your nutrition!  What to eat before and after your workout for the best results.   

Exercise has many benefits on its own, but when paired with a healthy balanced diet, the results from your workouts and your overall health will be even better.   By diet, I don’t mean a prescribed way of eating temporarily to lose weight.  Wikipedia sums up the two meanings of the word diet nicely, “In nutrition, diet is the sum of food consumed by a person or other organism. The word diet often implies the use of specific intake of nutrition for health or weight-management reasons.”  In this post, when I use the word diet, I mean the kinds of foods a person usually eats, not the second definition of a restricted or specific diet plan.  Those restrictive and/or temporary diet plans tend to become an unhealthy on and off pattern where you may lose weight but then gain it all back plus some when it is over.  Plus, you are usually miserable while doing it.  (Read our post on nutrition, exercise and weight loss for more information on what to focus on in your diet if you would like to lose weight.)  Learning to always have an overall healthy diet is best for your health and helps to get the most out of your strength training and cardio workouts.   


Overall Diet 


Our bodies need the three macronutrients – carbohydrates (carbs), protein, and fat.  To feel our best, we should ensure that most of the time we are focusing on quality carbs like whole grains and vegetables, lean proteins like chicken, turkey, fish, or soy products and heart-healthy unsaturated fats like those found in olive oil and avocados.  We also need fluids, mostly water, to perform at our best.     


Our muscles rely primarily on carbs for energy and rely on protein to help repair and build our muscles after a workout.   


The Mayo Clinic reminds us, “Not getting enough vitamins, minerals and other nutrients can compromise your health and your performance. 

Yet fueling up for activity is as easy as following the well-established rules of a healthy diet: Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, consume lean proteins, eat healthy fats, get your whole-grain carbohydrates, and drink plenty of fluids, especially water.” 

Before Your Workout 


Fueling your body properly before a workout will keep your energy levels up and allow you to perform to the best of your ability.  It’s important to think about what you are consuming before your workout, what you shouldn’t eat before you work out and how long before you exercise should you be consuming these foods.   


It may take some trial and error to figure out the right foods and the right timing for eating before you exercise.  If you eat too much right before your workout, you may feel sluggish or even nauseous.  If you eat too little or haven’t eaten in the past 4 to 5 hours (or more), you may not have the energy you need to push through or do your best.  An empty stomach could also cause you to feel lightheaded.   


In general, if you are having a larger meal, make sure it is at least three to four hours before exercising.  If it is closer to your workout time, a small meal or snack is a better idea and could be eaten about one to three hours before you get moving.  When eating something small within an hour or two of your workouts, focus on easily digestible carbohydrates (low in fiber) for energy, to ease hunger pangs and to minimize stomach digestion during exercise.  Something around 200 calories, mostly carbs and some protein usually works best.  Stay away from any new food you haven’t tried before or anything greasy or fried.   


If you exercise early in the morning, before breakfast, usually a short brisk walk is fine on an empty stomach.  Just be sure to drink some water.  For more intense exercise, eat a small amount of easy to digest carbs before you start.   


Some examples of a pre-workout snack: 

  • a banana 
  • slice of whole grain toast with peanut butter 
  • a fruit smoothie 


Stay Hydrated 


It’s best to start your workout hydrated.  Drink plenty of fluids (especially water) with meals and two hours before exercise.  Water is usually enough to keep you hydrated during your workouts.  However, if you're exercising for more than 60 minutes in hot, humid conditions, sports drinks may help. They give you carbs and sodium, as well as fluids. 


After Your Workout 


During your exercise, your body used its stored energy and broke down some muscle fibers.  Restoring those nutrients is important.  Eat a meal that is high in protein and contains some carbs within one to two hours of your exercise session if possible. Consider a smaller snack that includes carbs and protein if your meal is more than two hours away. 


A few post workout meals and snacks examples: 


  • chicken breast with brown rice and broccoli 
  • sweet potato with seasoned black beans 
  • Greek yogurt with fruit (use frozen fruit and blend into a smoothie if preferred) 
  • scrambled eggs with chopped veggies 



Protein is an important macronutrient that is involved in nearly all bodily functions and processes.  It plays a key role in exercise recovery because it provides essential amino acids that build and repair muscles.  The amount of protein you should consume each day depends on a few factors including your weight, your overall health, and how long and what types of workouts you are doing.  In general, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that the average individual should consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram or 0.35 grams per pound of body weight per day for general health. That means a person that weighs 75 kg (165 pounds) should consume an average of 60 grams of protein per day. Someone who is very active would most likely benefit from more protein each day.  You can calculate your minimum protein requirement by multiplying your weight in pounds by 0.36 or use this online protein calculator. 

Ideally, protein requirements should come from whole foods, but supplemental protein, in the form of protein powders, readymade drinks or bars, can be convenient and okay for you if they do not artificial sweeteners, colors or fillers or sugar alcohols.  Check the ingredient list for ingredients you recognize.  There is some debate about negative effects of artificial sweeteners on the gut microbiome, potentially causing some chronic conditions and negatively effecting the hormone that regulates our feeling of fullness.  The results of studies on this are varied, but excessive consumption of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols does seem to impact the bacteria within the gut and both sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners can cause upset stomach symptoms for some individuals.  It isn’t a good practice to rely on protein supplements to meet your daily protein requirements, but they can be quick and convenient when you need them.  For some peace of mind about the quality of protein powders, check that they are NSF Certified for Sportor Informed Choice Certified. These third-party tests confirm that a powder’s label accurately reflects its ingredients, and that it doesn’t contain banned or dangerous substances. 


Not every activity requires a special snack before or meal high in protein right after.  An overall healthy diet where you are getting enough healthy carbs and protein, will support most activities like a walk around the block or leisurely bike ride in the neighborhood for example.   Fueling for exercise will look different for a marathon runner, a bodybuilder, and an average gym goer.  Have more questions about your nutrition?  Consider asking a registered dietitian or your doctor.   


There is no perfect meal to eat before and after exercise that works for everyone. Pay attention to how you feel during your workout and to your overall performance. Consider keeping a journal to monitor how your body reacts to meals and snacks so that you can adjust your diet for optimal performance.  Follow the general guidelines given here and experiment to find what foods and what timing works best for you. 


What and when you eat can affect your performance and how you feel while you're exercising. Learning how to fuel your body properly can help you make the most of your exercise routine.