When it comes to a nutritious diet, it can seem like there’s lots to keep track of. You’re probably already paying attention to what and how much you eat of each food. But considering when you eat certain foods in relation to your workout—before, during, and after—can make a big difference, too. With a few simple guidelines, it’s easy to choose food that’s tailored to your exercise routine for the best results.
Before a Workout: Water and Complex Carbohydrates
The bottom line in pre-workout nutrition is to load up on healthy carbohydrates one to four hours before your exercise session. This means choosing whole grains (complex carbohydrates) when you can and selecting foods low in fat that also have low or moderate protein content. If you’ll exercise for longer than an hour, shoot for 1-4 grams of carbs for each 2.2 pounds you weigh. (To find that number, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. Multiply that sum by four to find the high end of the range.)
The details of your optimal pre-fitness snack depend on what works best for your routine. Some people who work out early in the morning may not have time to prepare a complicated meal before heading out the door. In that case, you’ll want something you can grab quickly as you leave to start your day—or at least something you can throw together in a few minutes. “You may have to experiment to see which timeframe does your body good,” registered dietitian Jessica Jones wrote for Self magazine. “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 two to three hours after a well-balanced meal.”
No matter what you eat, anything is better than working out with a hungry, growling stomach. When it’s been a while since your last meal, your metabolism is in fasting mode. Without readily available energy from food, your body ends up breaking down your stored fat in search of sustenance.
Nutrition professor Nancy Cohen from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst explained in a CNN article: “While exercising on an empty stomach may burn fat, it does not seem to be beneficial in the long run. And, if the fatigue means that you are not able to exercise at full performance, then you will also not be able to sustain as effective a workout.” Not only that, but when your body doesn’t have food energy available and turns to fat stores, keto-acid begins to pile up in your blood. This state is called ketosis, and it can cause dizziness, fatigue, and even kidney damage.
Carbs are important to your exercise routine because they’re quite literally the best fuel for your workout. All food that contains calories contains energy your body can use during exercise or while performing basic life functions such as breathing and the beating of your heart. As villainous as some diets make calories sound, a calorie is only a unit of measurement for energy. Even inedible substances that contain energy—coal, for example—also contain calories.
Carbohydrates are the most prevalent form of this energy, a form that’s easy for your body to access when needed: glucose. This glucose digests quickly, offering a quick boost of energy for your workout. “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,” Jones said. That’s why studies have shown that eating carbohydrates before an exercise session improves endurance.
Make sure to drink plenty of water, too, so you’re properly hydrated before you begin. Water is your body’s cooling system, so drink two cups of water two hours before exercising. About 15 minutes before your session, drink another cup. Choose one of the following snacks and small meals to stockpile the carbs you need to power through your workout.
- Cereal and milk
- Cheese pizza (1 slice)
- Fig bar
- Greek yogurt (¾ cup) with granola (1 tablespoon) and berries (½ cup)
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich or an apple, pear, or toast with peanut butter
- Baked salmon (4 ounces), brown rice (¾ cup), and roasted vegetables (1 cup)
- Whole-wheat toast with fruit (You can include peanut butter or fruit—potassium makes bananas a natural choice.)
During Your Fitness Routine: More Water and Carbs
For a workout of less than 45 minutes, the most important thing to give your body is water—no food required. If you’ll exercise for an hour or longer, the humidity will be high, or you sweat a lot, consider a sports drink to get some carbs and replace sodium while you hydrate. Director of nutrition for WebMD Kathleen Zelman wrote, “A good sports drink has 14-15 grams of carbohydrate in 8 ounces. It should also have about 110 milligrams of sodium and 30 milligrams of potassium in the same volume.” Be aware, however, that if your primary fitness goal is weight loss, you may choose to stick with water or “light” sports drinks to reduce the carbs and calories you’ll consume.
Once your session gets to the one-hour mark, it’s time to start fueling with carbohydrates. Your target should be 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour you’re exercising. Energy bars for athletes can be high in calories, so steer clear unless you need some serious sustenance. If you choose an energy bar to power your workout, pick one with about 5 grams of protein, some carbs, and a low amount of fat.
Some people choose to get their mid-session nutrients from liquids because they don’t like the way solid food feels in their stomach during physical activity. In these cases, Cohen said, “juices, sports drinks, granola bars, fruit and other high-carbohydrate foods and drinks can be helpful.”
If you go with a protein powder drink, Zelman advises selecting one based on whey or milk protein. Should you not drink these during your session, use them within half an hour so your muscles get the amino acids they need right then.
We’ve advised getting plenty of carbs before and during your workout, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily need to take part in the carb-loading you may have heard about. Carb-loading is meant for people participating in endurance events, so most of us don’t need to do it. Just make sure you get the recommended 30-60 grams of carbs per hour (after the first hour). If you’ll be exercising strenuously for at least an hour and a half, speak with a dietitian about whether, and how, to carb-load.
After Exercise: Lean Protein
Other than before and during a workout, always consider eating afterward. “You need to eat after a workout. Period. For one, it’s important to replenish the glycogen that has been depleted during your exercise,” Jones said. Protein also helps repair the small tears in muscle fibers that have been damaged during exercise, especially if weight training was part of your fitness routine.
If something keeps you from being able to eat immediately after your workout, eat something small within 20 minutes. Follow that up with a proper meal in three or four hours. And while that lean protein is important, it isn’t the only thing your body needs after an exercise session. Stuart Philips, director of the McMaster University Center for Nutrition, Exercise, and Health Research, explained that “all in all, a post-workout routine should include fluids to rehydrate, carbohydrates to refuel, and protein to repair.”
Cohen advised eating different amounts after a session depending on how long (and how hard) you worked out. After light exercise sessions, get plenty of water, and eat a nutritious meal within the next two to three hours. If you work out for a long time or exercise vigorously, eat 15-25 grams of protein (under 150 calories) within an hour of ending your session. Follow that with carbohydrates (under 500 calories) four to six hours later. This strategy helps replace the muscle glycogen you’ve used and helps rebuild muscle tissue, too.
Here are a few suggestions for your post-workout snack or meal.
- Snack: a hardboiled egg or two and a slice of whole-wheat toast
- Snack: a cup of chocolate milk
- Snack: Greek yogurt
- Meal: chicken with vegetables
- Meal: vegetarian omelet with avocado
- Meal: salmon and a baked or roasted sweet potato
No matter what specific foods you select, following these simple guidelines will help make it easier than ever to reach your fitness goals. Armed with the easy plans we’ve outlined here, you’ve got everything you need to make food nutritious while maximizing your fitness.