When it comes to a nutritious diet, it can seem like there’s a lot to keep track of. You’re probably already paying attention to what and how much you eat. 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 30-40 grams of carbs.1
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. “Protein bars are ideal for post-workout snacking to replenish tired muscles, but you’re better off munching on an ‘energy’ bar before a long sweat, as they’re typically higher in calories and carbs,” according to registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo.1
Don’t Work Out Without Eating
No matter what you eat, anything is better than working out with an empty 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.
Certified nutritionist Liz Wyosnick explained: “Exercising on empty doesn’t equate to getting leaner. With a properly fueled body, you will be able to exercise harder, burn more calories and potentially burn more body fat during and after your exercise.”2 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.3
Here are a few snacks and small meals to help you power through your workout:
- Smoothie made with fruit, yogurt, and milk or almond milk
- Cooked freekeh with fruit
- Fruit and nut bar
- Greek yogurt topped with granola
- Fresh beet and peach or nectarine salad
- ½ cup dried oats, cooked, with almond butter
- 1 slice whole-wheat toast with jam
Caffeine May Also Boost Fat Burn
A 2021 study found that taking caffeine or drinking coffee half an hour before exercise can help with burning fat. “The results of our study showed that acute caffeine ingestion 30 minutes before performing an aerobic exercise test increased maximum fat oxidation during exercise regardless of the time of day,” said lead study author Francisco J. Amaro.4
Don’t Forget Your Water
Make sure to drink plenty of water so that you’re properly hydrated before you begin. Drink at least a few cups of fluids before exercising.
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.
“Electrolytes are essential for muscle functioning and keeping you performing your best,” said Lipsa Shah, a certified personal trainer and yoga teacher. “It has all the electrolytes your body needs without any of the artificial ingredients…Not only is coconut water hydrating, it helps your muscles and reduces soreness.”5
For Longer Workouts, Consider Carbs
If you’re exercising for 60 minutes or less, you probably don’t need to worry about consuming carbs mid-workout. However, if your session is 90 minutes or longer, carbs may help.
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. If you go with a protein powder drink, select 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.
You can get 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. 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. “Your muscles are depleted of amino acids after a workout, so you need an adequate supply of protein to help build them up,” according to sports nutritionist Kristin Reisinger, M.S., R.D.6 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. It’s recommended that you consume carbs as well.
Here are a few suggestions for your post-workout snack or meal:
- Turmeric smoothie
- Sunbutter and dates
- Greek yogurt with berries
- Chocolate milk
- Apple with almond or peanut butter
- Sweet potatoes
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 tips we’ve outlined here, you can make food nutritious while maximizing your fitness.