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A Person Working Out Outside and Doing a Plank Next to a Protein Shake

What to Eat Before a Workout (and After), According to Experts

Have you ever started your workout feeling fine, then you bust out a set of squats, rack your weight, and start seeing stars? Or maybe you’re five minutes into your long run, and your stomach starts cramping, making you feel awful? More than likely, these issues are related to your nutrition, despite how out of shape you may feel.

Knowing what to eat before a workout is critical to performing your best and getting the most benefits from every workout. Equally as important are the foods to eat after a workout.

You might have heard that fitness results are built in the gym but revealed in the kitchen. Usually, people are talking about losing weight and showing off their six-pack abs. However, your nutrition is critical to your fitness results for more reasons than just visible abs. Let’s talk about pre-workout meals and foods to eat after a workout.

What to Eat Before a Workout and Why it Matters

Carbs Protein and Fats over Greens on a Plate

Three macronutrients make up our food: 

Infographic on Pre and Post Workout Foods
  1. Carbohydrates
  2. Proteins
  3. Fats

These macronutrients provide the fuel your body needs for proper internal functions and movement. When we begin to exercise, our body works through three main energy systems fueled by carbohydrates and fats.

While your body can burn fat to fuel your workout, you don’t need to include very much fat in a pre-workout meal. Your body uses stored fat, and too much dietary fat in a pre-workout meal can lead to an upset stomach and other digestive issues. This leaves carbs. Carbohydrates—more specifically complex carbohydrates—are the best thing to start with when considering what to eat before a workout.

Your body doesn’t typically use protein for fuel but including a little in your pre-workout meal can ensure your body has what it needs to recover best and build muscle as soon as the workout is over.

Pre-Workout Meals: Timing it Right

Alarm Block on plate with fork and knife next to it

Ideally, you won’t eat a huge meal and jump right into your workout. That’s an easy way of seeing your meal again. Aim for at least thirty minutes between finishing your meal and starting your workout, but no longer than three hours. This time frame ensures you won’t be actively digesting your food, but you also will not have already burned through those useful carbs and calories.

Timing your pre-workout meal gets tricky when you’re working out first thing in the morning, say waking up for a 5:00 am hot yoga class. You know you need some food or you’re going to end up flat on the floor, but if you eat right before going, you’re definitely going to barf. In these cases, your pre-workout meal should be light but packed with carbs, and you should wake up early enough to finish thirty minutes before your class starts. 

What to Eat Before a Workout

When planning what to eat before a workout, consider how much time you have. The closer you are to your workout, the simpler and smaller your pre-workout meal should be. Check out these sample pre-workout meals for different scenarios and time frames:

What to eat before a workout that’s in three hours:

-an omelet with fresh vegetables and whole-grain toast

-a sandwich with lean meat on whole grain bread with a banana

- lean protein with a baked potato and vegetables

What to eat before a workout that’s in one hour:

Healthy Smoothie Bowls for Before a Workout

-a serving of cooked oatmeal with bananas and walnuts

-a smoothie with oats and protein powder

-a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole-wheat bread 

What to eat before a workout that’s in thirty minutes:

-a healthy protein bar that has carbs

-a banana and a small scoop of peanut butter

-a protein shake that has carbs

Is it Okay to Work Out on an Empty Stomach?

Woman squatting with a medicine ball in gym

Some people enjoy working out on an empty stomach. If that’s you, you’re probably less worried about what to eat before a workout and more concerned about whether or not it’s okay to work out without eating.

If you feel you perform well on an empty stomach, then more power to you. There’s nothing inherently wrong with exercising without eating, and some studies prove that fasted cardio helps to burn more fat.

A word of caution—you shouldn’t attempt to work out on an empty stomach if you have blood sugar problems. Regardless of whether you’re eating a pre-workout meal or not, you should ensure you’re hydrating before, during, and after your workout. 

Foods to Eat After a Workout

Raw meat and asparagus with salt on a cooking board

The “food to eat after a workout” conversation is usually neglected or skimmed over. This is because protein shakes are wildly popular and admittedly do an excellent job of providing quick-digesting protein before you even leave the gym. While protein shakes are great and truly benefit people regardless of whether they are trying to lose or gain weight, we also need to talk about whole food to eat after a workout.

After a workout, your body has torn through your muscles and used up your glycogen stores. The tiny tears in your muscles are where protein comes in, but without restored glycogen, your body can’t properly do its job. Many nutritionists will tell you the work isn’t done until you refuel. For this reason, you should have a full meal after your protein shake and within about two hours of your workout.

Not unlike before your workout, your post-workout meal should include both proteins and carbohydrates. Whether or not you include fats is less important, as you don’t have to worry about the potential gastrointestinal upset.

Food to eat after a workout: Protein

Your post-workout meal should include lean protein like:Hard Boiled Egg with Pepper for Protein After a Workout

  • tofu
  • fish
  • chicken
  • beans
  • eggs

Food to eat after a workout: Carbohydrates

It should also include complex carbohydrates to restore your glycogen. Examples include:

  • brown rice
  • whole wheat bread
  • quinoa
  • potatoes 

Food to eat after a workout: Healthy Fats

If you would like to include some healthy fat in your post-workout meal, these things make great additions

Cut in half avocado with no nut
  • olive oil
  • avocados
  • nuts
  • chia seeds

When it comes to your health and fitness, nutrition and exercise are equally important. It makes sense that pre-workout meals and the foods you eat after a workout are equally important as well.  Whether we’re talking about what you eat before or after a workout, include a bit of protein, and don’t be afraid of complex carbs. If you’re one of many who has been convinced that carbs are the enemy, you’ll be amazed at how powerful you feel with the simple addition of carbs in your pre-workout meal!

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