- Should you eat before a workout?
- When to eat before a workout
- What foods to eat before a workout
- Foods to avoid before a workout
- Tips to maximize your workout
- What to eat after a workout
- Foods to avoid after a workout
- How long after your workout should you eat?
- Supplements to help with workouts
Nutrition plays an important role in your athletic performance.
Fueling your body with the right types of nutrients can achieve things like improved muscle mass, better endurance, and more.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all nutrition plan for athletes, but there are some basic guidelines on what to eat before and after a workout that can help you improve your performance!
Keep reading to learn more.
Should you eat before a workout?
Whether or not you eat before a workout will depend on what type of exercise you’re doing, as well as how long it’s been since you’ve eaten.
If you plan to exercise and it’s been a while since your last meal, it’s a good idea to have a snack before you begin your activity.
If you exercise on an empty stomach, you may be prone to poor exercise performance, an upset stomach, or low blood sugar issues.
Eating before long-duration exercises is essential. When you exercise for prolonged periods (e.g., long-distance running, participating in sports where games last over an hour, etc.), your body burns up stored sugar to provide energy.
If you use up all of your glycogen stores during exercise, your body will switch to burning fat for energy.
Burning fat for energy isn’t as efficient metabolically, so making sure you’re eating well before exercise can help ensure you have enough energy to perform during your workout.
It’s not ideal to eat a full, regular meal less than 1-2 hours before you exercise. If you eat a large meal and then exercise, the blood flow will be diverted away from your digestive tract to your lungs and muscles during your workout.
This can lead to poor digestion and an upset stomach. Try to give yourself at least 1-2 hours after eating a regular meal before you start your workout.
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When to eat before a workout
If you want to eat a small, pre-workout snack, aim to eat it 30-60 minutes before your workout. If you’re eating a regular meal, try to give yourself 1-2 hours before you begin your workout to allow your body time to digest.
What foods to eat before a workout
Good foods to eat before a workout include complex carbs, lean protein, and simple carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are the primary energy currency your body uses to fuel workouts and should be the backbone of pre- and post-workout meals and snacks.
Complex carbohydrates (also called complex carbs) are carbohydrates that take longer to break down into usable energy.
Complex carbs contain more fiber than refined or “simple” carbs. The higher fiber content means complex carbs take longer to digest, so they break down into glucose (blood sugar) more slowly.
Complex carbs are ideal for workouts because they provide more sustainable energy. However, if you eat too much fiber before a workout, it may lead to diarrhea or stomach bloating.
You’ll need to experiment to find what level of complex carbs/fiber you eat before working out to find what level of fiber sits well before a workout.
Some examples of higher-fiber/complex carbohydrates:
- Fruits (berries, bananas, apples, etc.)
- Whole grains (oatmeal, whole grain bread/pasta/bagels, quinoa, barley, etc.)
- Vegetables including potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams (provide more complex carbs than some other veggies)
- Beans and lentils
Protein helps support healthy muscle growth and is essential for repairing damaged muscle tissue after exercise.
Protein provides amino acids that support muscle development, as well as boost satiety and promote sustainable, slow-burning energy for your workout.
While eating enough fat is important for your health and fitness routine, try not to overdo it on fat right before you work out.
If you eat a high-fat meal before exercising, you might experience GI issues like stomach cramping or diarrhea.
Lean protein is lower in fat, which is ideal for preventing stomach upset during your workout.
(Eating enough fat in your overall diet helps provide the fuel for long-duration exercise when your body starts to tap into fat reserves for energy.)
You might want to limit fat to five grams or less before your workout and aim to get most of your dietary fat throughout the rest of the day.
Some lean protein sources to consider before your workout include:
- Skinless chicken breast or turkey
- Lean beef
- Pork loin
- Lean white fish (tilapia, tuna, cod)
- Beans and lentils
- Low-fat or reduced-fat dairy (mozzarella cheese, low-fat cottage cheese/Greek yogurt)
Simple carbs (for certain activities)
While complex carbohydrates are usually the preferred type, there are times when simple carbs can be beneficial.
Simple carbs are broken down into energy more quickly than complex carbs, which has advantages.
If you need to build up glycogen (stored sugar in your liver that your body uses for energy during exercise) stores before a long-duration activity like long-distance running, then simple carbs can be a good idea to eat in advance of your event (ideally several hours to even the day before).
If you choose to eat simple carbohydrates before you exercise, try to avoid those with added sugars.
The best type of simple carb to consider are refined grains like white bread/muffins. These aren’t high in added sugar but provide your body with more readily-available energy and can help increase glycogen stores.
For during a workout (especially long-duration exercises), simple carbs like sports gels/chews are a great option because they’re easily digested and can quickly replenish lost glycogen and provide more fuel for your sustained workout.
RELATED: Simple vs Complex Carbs.
Foods to avoid before a workout
Eating greasy/fried or otherwise very high-fat meals before a workout can cause stomach upset.
In addition, fat takes a long time to digest, so the energy from the fat might not be available to you because it’s still being digested.
Some examples of high-fat foods to avoid before a workout:
- Non-lean cuts of beef
- Non-lean cuts of pork
- High-fat processed meats like salami, pepperoni, etc.
- Poultry with the skin on
- Lard and cream
- Ice cream
- Coconut (including coconut oil)
- Palm oil and palm kernel oil
- Some baked and fried foods
Some pre-workout supplements contain caffeine to help boost performance. However, if you’re sensitive to caffeine or consume too much caffeine before a workout, it can cause you to feel jittery and nauseous and may cause diarrhea because of its stimulant effect.
Avoid caffeinated beverages immediately before a workout, like coffee, caffeinated sodas, and energy drinks.
Sugary foods and drinks won’t benefit your workout routine or your health in any instance.
Foods and drinks with added sugar can cause spikes in your blood sugar levels, and they don’t provide the sustainable, slow-burning energy that complex carbs, protein, and healthy fats do.
Added sugar is found in processed foods. In fact, the majority of processed foods contain added sugar in some form.
Some examples of foods and drinks with added sugar to avoid before a workout include:
- Sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, sweetened teas, energy drinks, flavored coffee drinks, etc.
- Sweetened cereals
- Some nutrition and snack bars
- Desserts and candy
- Dried fruit with added sugar
Tips to maximize your workout
It’s easy to put all the focus on what to eat before and after a workout, but hydration is just as important.
Water is necessary for muscle contraction and helps combat dehydration from water loss (sweat) during a workout.
Mix it up
Doing the same type of workout day in and day out likely means you’re not getting the diversity needed to maximize your fitness.
If you only work the same muscle groups during workouts, other muscles can become weak, and it can create an imbalance.
These imbalances can cause issues like back pain when certain muscles needed to support your back aren’t strengthened.
Don’t ignore your stretching routine
Stretching muscles helps keep them relaxed and prevents tightness which can cause pain and reduce mobility and flexibility.
Stretching your muscles after they’ve been warmed up a bit is ideal since stretching “cold” muscles won’t stretch the muscle fibers as well and can lead to muscle strains.
What to eat after a workout
Foods that are good to eat after a workout are similar to those that are good before a workout, such as complex carbohydrates and lean protein.
Since you don’t have to worry about fat interfering with digestion as much after a workout, it can be helpful to add moderate amounts of healthy fats into your post-workout meals and snacks.
Some sources of healthy fats include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Nut butter
- Fatty fish like salmon
Foods to avoid after a workout
The foods to avoid after a workout are similar to those to avoid before a workout, such as high-fat/greasy foods and foods and drinks high in added sugar.
After a workout, blood flow will still be prioritized by your lungs and muscles, so you should wait a couple of hours before eating a particularly high-fat meal.
How long after your workout should you eat?
You can eat as soon as around 15 minutes after a workout, especially if you want to replenish depleted glycogen stores.
If you had a strenuous workout, make sure you don’t wait too long (several hours) before you eat because this can slow muscle growth if you aren’t providing your body the nutrients it needs to rebuild damaged muscle tissue.
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Supplements to help with workouts
Not all workout supplements are proven to be beneficial. A few supplements that have proven benefits for workouts include:
- Creatine: helps support muscle growth (supported by studies)
- Nitrate supplements: help boost nitric oxide, a vasodilator that increases blood flow and can help increase athletic performance
- Caffeine: can help boost performance during prolonged exercise
Good foods to eat before a workout generally include complex (high-fiber) carbohydrates and lean protein.
Avoid eating greasy, very high-fat meals before a workout, as well as foods and drinks high in added sugar.
In addition to eating lean protein and complex carbs, you should eat moderate amounts of healthy fats after your workouts to support your nutrition needs.