The Best Foods to Eat Before and After a Workout
With spring in the air, you may be eager to hit your exercise goals. Make sure your food gives your body what it needs.
You’re back at the gym (albeit with a mask), 45 minutes into a 1-hour workout, when it happens: Your energy suddenly stalls. You step back, take a sip of water, and try to resume, but no luck. What’s going on? Odds are, you didn’t fuel your body properly before the workout.
We all know food is fuel. But the specific kinds of nutrients, how much of each, and when you eat can all make a difference in the results you see from your fitness routine. While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here — the specifics depend on factors like your age, sex, how fit you are, how intensely you’re exercising, and more — some basics apply. You should try to eat a complete meal with complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and some healthy fat at least 1 hour before exercising, and ideally, more like 2 to 4 hours before.
Your body will break down those carbs into glucose (yup, sugar), which gives you the energy you need. The protein supports your muscles, which exercising puts a lot of strain on. Before and during your workout, drink plenty of water, and afterwards, give your body nutrients to help it rehydrate, refuel, and repair.
These guidelines suit most people who exercise regularly for an hour or less to maintain their overall health or for weight loss. If you’re a competitive athlete or training for an endurance event like a marathon, you may want to consult a dietitian about your specific needs.
No matter how hard you plan to work out, the most effective way to make sure your body has what it needs is to eat a healthy diet overall, not just in your pre- and post-workout meals.
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Best pre-workout foods
The goal here is to set yourself up with the nutrients your body needs to power through a workout. Drink plenty of water before (and during) exercising to keep yourself hydrated. Carbohydrates provide the basic fuel, which your body turns into glucose. It stores the excess in your muscles as glycogen — that’s what you’ll burn during the workout. Choose complex carbs paired with lean protein if you’re eating hours before exercising because they take time to digest. Complex carbs include:
Whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice
Veggies like broccoli, green beans, and carrots
Whole-wheat toast with peanut or almond butter
Whole-grain cereal with milk and fruit
If you’ll be sweating within an hour, those slow-digesting foods could make it harder for your body to devote the necessary energy to your workout. Instead, opt for easier-to-digest carbs for a quick boost:
Best post-workout foods
To help your body recover from an intense workout, eat post-workout meals and snacks known to promote the three Rs (there’s a fourth R, rest, but that’s not about food):
Rehydrate. You'll get hydration from drinking plenty of water, of course, but you can also rehydrate with foods.
100% fruit juice
Refuel. Carbohydrates will replenish your body's glycogen stores.
Potatoes (sweet and regular potatoes)
Dark, leafy greens
Repair. Exercising creates small tears in your muscles. Protein helps build and repair them.
Lean animal proteins like chicken and fish
Nuts and nut butters
What to eat pre and post-workout
The recipes below provide the right mix of nutrients to support your fitness efforts. You’ll have the energy you need to get through a tough workout and the nutrients to help your body recover and build muscle after.
Hours before your workout
Aim to eat a full pre-workout meal — one with complex carbs, protein, and healthy fats — 2 to 4 hours before you hit the gym or the hiking trail. That gives your body plenty of time to digest the food and convert it to fuel.
Veggie-stuffed omelets are excellent pre-workout fare, with plenty of protein, carbs, and healthy fat. This one features spinach, kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, crumbled feta, and other Greek-accented ingredients. Add a slice or two of whole-grain toast for a boost of slow-burning carbohydrates.
Here’s the thing about a great pre-exercise food: It doesn’t have to feel like you’re fueling a workout. It can be every bit as enticing and delicious as any other meal, as long as it’s got complex carbs, lean protein, and healthy fat. Like this gorgeous bowl — easy homemade hummus, a protein boost from quinoa, and tons of fresh vegetables. Tear off a piece of pita and enjoy.
Tossed with a creamy and nutritious dressing made from almond butter, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, and other lively flavors, this fun chopped salad is a rainbow of crunchy vegetables, grilled chicken breasts, and buttery avocado.
This is definitely not your run-of-the-mill tuna salad sandwich. Red onion, fresh parsley, lemon, olive oil, and plenty of freshly ground black pepper make the salad itself, and it’s served on rye bread with more red onion and zingy arugula.
Put a layer of cilantro-lime rice in your bowl and pile on the good stuff: chunks of seasoned, roasted sweet potatoes, onions, and peppers, plus corn, avocado, and chili-spiced black beans. Drizzle some spicy tahini dressing on top and grab a fork.
Less than an hour before your workout
You don’t always have hours to digest a pre-workout meal. Sometimes, you want to roll out of bed and start exercising. On those days, reach for one of these pre-workout snacks.
You’ll never guess the secret ingredient here. Canned white beans! Puree them with juicy, ripe strawberries, pour into molds (or ice cube trays), and freeze. Keep a stash on hand for days when you want to exercise on the early side. These treats are a great combo of carbs and protein, but not so heavy you’ll have trouble digesting. (There’s a chocolate version, too!)
Dates provide tons of quick energy (not to mention natural sweetness). Here, they’re processed with shredded coconut, crystallized ginger, and a little coconut oil to help bind the bars together. Wrap them individually and grab one as you head out the door.
You can tell just by looking how easy these are — the recipe is nothing more than apple slices topped with a schmear of peanut butter, then sprinkled with chopped nuts, shredded coconut, and a few chocolate chips. This’ll give you more than enough energy to power through a tough training session.
Toast up some French or Italian bread and slather it with creamy Boursin or goat cheese. Top with slices of juicy, ripe tomato, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and dig in. You just fueled your workout.
When you’re feeling sluggish but you’re due to work out in 20 minutes, reach for fresh juice. The carbs are easy to digest, so you’ll have that energy available to you exactly when your body needs it. The juice will provide plenty of hydration, too. This recipe doesn’t even call for a special juicer — just a good, strong blender.
Within an hour after exercise
The goal post-workout is to hit those three Rs: rehydrate, refuel, repair. Aim for a combination of easy-to-digest carbs and protein, heavier on the carbs, with liquid. Use the “within an hour” framework as a guideline, not a strict rule.
With 30 grams of carbs and almost 10 grams of protein per serving, this easy mixture of chocolate protein powder, peanut butter, rolled oats, and other simple ingredients will give your body exactly what it needs. Pack some in your gym bag or knapsack to munch on your way home.
While you shouldn’t eat just any old brownie after all your hard work, these nutrient-rich treats make a fine choice. Sweet potato, zucchini, and quinoa flour (or another high-protein flour such as ground oats) provide the complex carbs, while eggs add protein. Honey and cocoa powder will make it feel like you’re enjoying dessert, not just replenishing.
You read that right: ice cream. Frozen bananas become positively creamy when you process them. Add almond butter and chocolate protein powder, and you’ve got just the right nutrients to hit those three Rs.
Smoothies are among the easiest ways to give your body the three Rs. This one has lots of protein from nonfat Greek yogurt; carbs from banana, pineapple, and cherries; and hydration from coconut water, which helps your body replenish electrolytes, too.
Eating carbs post-exercise isn’t the only way your body restores its supply of glycogen. Caffeine helps, too. So, this smoothie, with its two shots of espresso, ticks multiple boxes (in addition to being delicious, of course). The banana provides a boost of carbs, while hydrating milk plus chia seeds give you some protein. The avocado makes everything lusciously creamy while also providing healthy fats.
Explore healthy lifestyles and better nutrition
When it comes to helpful information about your well-being, we set the bar high (are you also thinking of granola?). Whether you’re a meal planning buff, a health nut on the hunt for recipes, or just a good sport about doctors’ orders to eat sensibly and exercise, we’ve done the heavy lifting for you. Check out these articles to gain more knowledge you can put to use and flex.