What to Eat Before and After a Workout

We’ve all heard that runners need to carb-load before a big race. Eating carbohydrates (carbs) in the days leading up to a marathon is one of the best ways to increase endurance. But carb-loading isn’t appropriate for your everyday exercise routine. What should you eat before and after a typical workout?

Path to improved health

Much research has been done on the correlation between food and exercise. Nutritionists agree that what you eat before and after exercising can impact the results of your fitness program.

Despite this, there often are misconceptions about the link between exercise and nutrition. You may hear people say that proteins are more important than carbohydrates. Some people will argue that you should exercise on an empty stomach. Others will insist that you should eat before exercising. Who is right?

Eating for energy

When you think of pre-workout food, think energy. Your pre-workout food should provide energy for your workout. For most people, this means it should provide energy for a workout that lasts from 30 minutes to 1 hour. Whether your exercise is high-impact or low-key, your pre-workout food should reflect that.

In nutrition, carbohydrates equal energy. Your body uses carbs as fuel. As soon as you eat carbs, your body begins to break them down into single sugars (ultimately, glucose) so that it can use them as energy. Any leftover glucose (that you haven’t used as energy) is stored in your muscles and in your liver as glycogen.

Glycogen is especially important when you need long-lasting energy. You deplete muscle glycogen when you workout for long periods of time. High carbs can increase glycogen so that your muscles don’t run out of energy.

Understanding carbohydrates

Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Carbs can be divided into two categories: simple carbs and complex carbs. The difference between the two is how quickly your body can break them down and convert them to energy.

Complex carbs are harder for your body to break down. So your body absorbs them more slowly. Because of this, these carbs offer steady supply of energy. They offer endurance. You can find complex carbs in vegetables and in whole grains. When you think complex carbs, think of foods that are not processed and are not refined.

Examples of foods that offer complex carbs include bagels, rice, pasta, whole grain breads, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and oatmeal.

Simple carbs are easier for your body to break down. This means your body can absorb them quicker. Because of this, these carbs can provide you a quick boost of energy. But this energy does not last long. And once it’s gone, you may be left feeling even more tired than before. Some people refer to this as a “crash.” Simple carbs are found in refined foods, high-sugar foods, and processed foods.

Examples of foods that offer simple carbs include cookies, sugary cereals, baked goods, candy, fruits, table sugar, soft drinks, and jelly.

The power of protein

Protein is another important category of food. Protein is essential for muscle growth and repair. When you work out, you damage muscle fibers. You need protein to help them recover. This is how you build muscle tissue. Protein can also offer your body energy once carbs are depleted.

Foods that offer protein include meats, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, milk, peanut butter, Greek yogurt, beans, and tofu.

What to eat before you work out

Ideally, you should eat a few hours before exercising. Your meal or snack should include a complex carbohydrate and a protein. Some ideas include:

Snacks

  • Oatmeal with berries.
  • Apple slices with peanut butter.
  • Triscuits with hard-boiled eggs.
  • Greek yogurt with granola.
  • Cottage cheese and strawberries.
  • A handful of nuts and light tuna in water pouch.
  • Protein shake with fruit mixed in.

Meals

  • Quinoa with black beans.
  • Hearty vegetable and bean soup.
  • Wild salmon and brown rice.
  • Baked chicken breast and steamed broccoli.
  • Scrambled eggs with whole grain toast.
  • Peanut butter and banana on whole grain toast.
  • Whole grain pasta topped with shrimp.

Even if you work out right after rolling out of bed, try to grab a small, healthy snack first. Grab a piece of fruit or a carb that is easily digestible. An apple or banana should do the trick. This will give you some energy and keep you from feeling sluggish. Plus, your body is less likely to build muscle when you work out without eating.

What to eat after you work out

The right kinds of foods can also help your body recover from a workout. After working out, you need to replenish your body’s carbohydrates. You also need to put some protein in your body for muscle repair. You should consume both within an hour of exercising.

Ideas for post workout nutrition include:

  • Chocolate milk.
  • Hard-boiled egg on whole-wheat toast.
  • Hummus and carrots.
  • Celery and peanut butter.
  • Apple cheese crackers.
  • Half a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread.

Water works

It is also important to stay hydrated before, during, and after working out. Drinking water is the best way to stay hydrated. If you work out for longer than an hour at high intensity, or in a hot/humid environment, you may need a drink that contains electrolytes. Choose a low-calorie sports drink.

Things to consider

If you are trying to lose weight, don’t skip meals and try to sustain a vigorous exercise program. Working out but not eating right isn’t as good for your body. In fact, it can do more harm that good.

Working out without eating can cause you to lose muscle instead of build muscle. Increasing muscle increases your metabolism. So eating a combination of carbs and protein are best for your body and can help you lose weight.

Also, you can’t eat whatever you want and not gain weight just because you are exercising. It is very difficult to exercise enough to burn away hundreds of extra calories each day. Your best method is to eat sensibly and exercise regularly.

When to see a doctor

Pay attention to your body. Stop exercising if you feel very out of breath, dizzy, faint, nauseous or if you feel pain. Talk with your family doctor if you have questions or think you have injured yourself seriously.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Am I healthy enough to begin an exercise program?
  • Are there any exercises I should avoid?
  • Do I have any health condition that would affect my ability to exercise?
  • Am I taking any medication that would interfere with exercise?
  • How does my diabetes affect what I eat before and after working out?
  • Does my age affect what I should eat before and after working out?
  • Are there any vitamins or supplements I should add to my diet?

Resources

National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus: Nutrition and Athletic Performance

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, eatright.org