What you eat before a workout gives you the power to complete your training and defines your performance. However, what you eat after your workout is no less important. A proper post-workout meal helps your body recover, build muscle, and replenish its energy levels.
Understanding how exercising affects your body is crucial if you want to achieve desired results. That’s why figuring out the best pre- and post-workout meals might be challenging. But once you find what works better for your body, you’ll be able to get the most out of your workout regimen.
So, what food should you eat before and after a workout? And what is the best time to do that? Here’s your ultimate guide to healthy pre- and post-workout nutrition.
What to Eat Before a Workout
Like most fitness enthusiasts, you want to train harder, reach the set goals faster, and perform better every time you hit the gym.
Not eating enough prior to your workout might make you feel dizzy, while overeating might make you feel bloated. Yet, fueling your body with the right amount of nutrients at the right time will provide your body with the energy and strength it requires for each workout session.
Here are a few tips to help you choose and time your pre-workout meals properly:
Do Not Forget to Hydrate
Although it’s vital to consume enough water during the day, it becomes even more critical if you exercise regularly. Start drinking water a few hours before your workout. It’ll help you reduce dehydration, maintain your energy levels, and eliminate muscle cramps.
Suppose you're not sure of your hydration status. In that case, you can follow the advice from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, - light-coloured urine indicates proper hydration, while dark-coloured urine is a sign of dehydration.
In short, drink plenty of water before your workout and keep on hydrating while exercising. And most importantly, listen to your body. It might take some time to figure out the right amount of water your body needs. So, don’t be afraid to experiment until you find the perfect ratio.
Time Your Pre-Workout Meal Properly
The right timing of your pre-exercise meal or snack is the key to maximizing your fitness efforts and results.
“Ideally, an exerciser will properly fuel their workout by eating before activity and aid in recovery by eating after also. However, it is important to be smart; A heavy meal right before a workout may cause GI distress. About three hours before a workout is the best time to consume a pre-workout meal. If you are short on time, however, such as an early morning workout, a small meal of rapidly-digesting carbohydrates about 30 minutes prior will fuel your workout and should be gentle on your stomach.
If you are participating in a long race or tournament, or will otherwise be highly active for over an hour, it is important to fuel mid-workout as well. Typically, solid foods could be problematic, but a small snack of carbohydrates will give you the energy you need to continue. Additionally, proper hydration will aid in digestion, but consuming a large amount of liquid all at once may cause gas or bloat. Consuming small amounts of fluid every 15-20 minutes will keep your hydrated while keeping your digestion moving.”
Lisa Patten, Fitness Expert at Sport Fitness Advisor
Try getting your pre-workout meal 2-3 hours before going to the gym. This way, your body won’t be digesting food while you’re exercising but still have many useful calories left to help you enhance your performance.
If you don’t have enough time for a full meal a few hours before your workout, get a small snack 30-45 minutes before your gym session. And remember: the sooner the physical activity, the simpler and smaller your meal should be.
Best Pre-Workout Food
You should choose your pre-workout meals based on the duration, intensity, and type of your workout. Eating a mixture of protein and carbs is generally a good rule to follow. If you decide to include fat into your meal, eat it at least a few hours before training.
“Before a workout, you want to eat something that will give you the energy to train but not be hard to digest so it weighs you down or makes you feel sluggish or bloated. After a workout, you want protein to help rebuild muscle, recharge the glycogen that was burned, and rehydrate. I personally, take whey protein in water an hour before. This gives me energy and hydration but does not weigh me down. Afterwards, I drink either whey mixed with fruit in a drink within a half an hour or have a full meal consisting of protein, carbs, and good fats.”
Robert Herbst, Weight Loss & Wellness Expert and Powerlifting Champion
Carbs break down into glucose, penetrate your muscle cells, and give you the energy to work out at your maximum capacity. Your muscles store glucose in the form of glycogen. During exercise, they use these reserves. That’s why eating carbs before you hit the gym floor ensures there’s enough glucose available in case your body needs to replenish glycogen stores.
Do not forget to add protein to your pre-workout meal or snack, especially if you’re going for a weight training or weight-lifting session. Protein helps your body to repair your muscle after the workout and at the same time, build bigger ones. Go for proteins that are easy to digest but don’t overdo it to avoid having an upset stomach while exercising.
Having a dietary supplement that includes amino acids will increase the availability of amino acids to the muscle. GelPro Australia supplements, for example, contain essential amino acids glycine, lysine, and proline in higher concentrations than proteins in the food you eat.
Here are a few examples of healthy and balanced pre-workout meals:
If your workout starts in an hour or less:
- A fruit like banana or apple
- Greek yogurt with berries
- Protein bar
- Rice cake
- Mixed nuts and dried fruit
If your workout starts in 2 hours or less:
- A protein shake (things to consider when buying collagen protein)
- A protein banana and berry smoothie
- Oatmeal with fruit or peanut butter
- Whole-grain cereal with milk
- Peanut or almond butter sandwich
- Brown rice and roasted veggies
- Baked salmon
- Lean protein and fruit
- Egg omelette with toast and avocado
- Whole-grain sandwich with a side salad
What to Eat After a Workout
Eating after working out is a must for a few reasons:
- Replace used calories and energy
- Restore glycogen reserves
- Promote muscle recovery and buildup
- Avoid getting fatigued
- Prevent low blood sugar
Here are a few tips to help you choose and time your pre-workout meals properly:
Rehydrate Shortly After a Workout
We’ve already mentioned how crucial it is to hydrate before and during workouts, and it’s no less essential to do so after you finish exercising. You lose a lot of fluid with sweat, and that’s why you should make sure to restore your body with a sufficient amount of water.
If you want to be precise, you can try weighing yourself before and after the workout. Once you have the numbers, drink around 500 ml of fluid for every half a pound you've lost. Or you can check your overall hydration level by checking your urine.
Have a Snack or Meal Soon
After a hard workout, you need to restore the energy your body lost as soon as possible. If you can’t prepare and eat the whole meal within 45 minutes of exercising, get a snack, and eat a bigger meal in a few hours.
Try including a mix of carbs, protein, and fat into your post-workout meals to boost the recovery process and accelerate muscle growth.
Protein will help you repair and build muscle after the post-workout protein breakdown. Some of the healthy protein foods include beans, fish, and tofu.
Carbs will help you recover faster and replenish your body’s glycogen stores. Some of the healthy foods full of carbs include brown rice, nuts, quinoa, and whole-wheat bread.
A moderate amount of fat in your post-workout dish can contribute to reaching your muscle growth goals. This study shows that whole milk was stimulating muscle growth after the workout more than skimmed milk.
Best After-Workout Food
If you strive to maximize your workout efforts, ensure your post-workout meal consists of easily digestible foods with nutrients for better recovery.
“You want to consume very little fat with a 3:1 carb to protein ratio. Foods like chicken and rice, sweet potatoes and your meat or protein of choice, eggs and potatoes, and even a sandwich with sufficient protein between the bread will suffice.”
Dr Rick Richey (DHSc, NASM, LMT), Leading Fitness & Nutrition Expert at Kuudose
Here are a few examples of healthy and balanced post-workout foods:
- Cottage cheese
- Greek yoghurt
- Protein bar
- Salmon or tuna
- Chocolate milk
- Chia seed pudding
- Peanut and almond butter
- Coconut oil
- Dried fruit
- Flax seeds
Is it better to eat before or after the workout?
“The answer depends on your workout goals. If your goal is to lose weight, it is better to eat a protein-rich meal after the workout. If you're working on your strength and stamina, you should have a light meal two to three hours before exercising. Another thing to factor in is your personal stomach sensitivity. For some, one hour before working out is enough to digest most of the food, while for others, even a slight amount of food before a workout can cause heartburn and an upset stomach. Also, whether you prefer or not eating before a workout, eating after the workout is mandatory. Your body will need nutrients to recover the muscles and increase their mass.”
Dr Nikola Djordjevic, MD, Medical Advisor at WhatASleep
If you’re keen on exercising and getting the most out of it, it’s crucial to eat proper pre- and post-workout meals to help your body top up its energy levels. Otherwise, drink plenty of water and listen to your body.
“Depending on the type of workout, it can be beneficial to eat before and after working out. Eating before exercise provides the body with fuel to use during the workout. Carbohydrates are stored in the muscles and liver and the body will tap into these stores during intense exercise to sustain energy and maximize performance. Eating after exercise is essential for adequate recovery.”
Claudia Hleap, MS, RD, LDN, Registered Dietitian
Remember, there’s no one-fits-all guideline for what you should eat and when. Base your food decisions on the environment you’re in, the intensity of your workout schedule, and your individual needs. Try new things and experiment with your pre-and post-workout meals until you find what’s best for you. Enjoy the ride!