A comprehensive guide of what to eat before and after a workout
Let’s discuss how to best optimize your nutrition to support your body in your workouts.
If you’ve ever wondered:
…How much protein to eat after a workout
…If it’s okay to workout in a fasted state (aka without eating)
…The best foods to eat before a workout
…or the role of carbs in your performance
Then keep reading to get your questions answered and don’t forget to grab your FREE protein guide + webinar at the bottom of the page to get all your protein questions answered.
When considering pre and post workout nutrition, the first thing you need to consider is your workout length and intensity, because the guidelines will change depending on these factors.
Pre and Post Nutrition Recommendations for Easy to Moderate Intensity Workouts Less Than 1 Hour
What to eat before your workout.
If your workout is less than an hour, you don’t need to do anything special regarding meal timing or strategy prior to your workout.
However, here are some best practices and considerations to prevent feeling overly full and give your body easy access to energy:
- Give yourself an hour between a larger meal and working out.
- If you’re eating less than an hour before your workout, consider a smaller meal or snack that’s lower fiber.
- Simple carb sources, such as crackers, fruit, or dairy can work well as part of a snack because they’re easily digestible to allow for quick energy availability and you won’t feel like you’re exercising on a full stomach.
- If you’re prone to GI distress, you may find it helpful to limit fat intake before your workout – roughly less than 10 grams of fat.
- Drink some water. No you don’t need to chug it, but most adults benefit from drinking around 2 liters of water a day – take or give – so factor that into things.
Do you need to eat before your workout?
If your workout is less than an hour and not particularly intense, it’s probably fine to go into it in a fasted state or without eating, BUT it’s worth noting that working out on an empty stomach causes your body to use the glycogen stores (aka stored energy that can be converted to glucose to fuel your cells) from your liver, which can affect your performance and cause you to feel worn down.
If you don’t like to workout with a full stomach or eating before exercise upsets your stomach, keep in mind that you don’t need to eat much. There’s evidence that even swishing some Gatorade in your mouth can help! Just make sure you eat afterwards. More about that below.
Summary: If you want to perform well #duh consider eating beforehand, but if you prefer to workout on an empty stomach and you feel fine doing it, then it’s probably not a problem. 😉
What to eat after your workout.
You’ve probably heard that it’s helpful to eat protein after a workout and while this is true, there’s some nuance here. The long short is that if you’re eating in regular intervals – aka every 3 to 5 hours – then you probably don’t need to do anything special regarding protein.
Here’s some more specific guidelines:
For protein: If you have your nutrition foundations in place, then you are probably eating protein regularly every 3 to 5 hours, so you may not need to do anything different. That being said, if you’ve gone more than 4 hours since your last serving of protein after your workout, then try to eat a snack or meal with at least 20 grams of protein shortly after your workout.
A post workout protein shake is more effective than a pre workout shake, because of how our body digests and absorbs nutrients, so the general recommendation of “carbs before” and “protein after” a workout holds true here.
If you performed your workout on an empty stomach / a very small meal, then you’ll want to eat 20 to 40 grams of protein with some carbs after your workout is over – you don’t need to over complicate this!
It can be anything from a turkey sandwich to cottage cheese or yogurt with fruit and granola…or really any meal that has some combo of the macronutrients (protein / fat / carbs) with an emphasis on carbs and protein. Eating carbs will help you replenish the glycogen stores that you used up during your workout. Remember, glycogen = energy. It’s helpful to have some in reserve if you don’t want to feel spacey and run down. Eating protein = recovery and muscle synthesis.
Hydrate. I know. I know, but one of the reasons why people often don’t feel great after a workout is that they aren’t well hydrated.
Hopefully that seems pretty straight forward. Those are the basic guidelines for workouts less than an hour, which aren’t super intense.
If your workouts are high intensity, you’re doing two a day workouts, or your workouts are longer than 1 hour, then you will want to consider a few additional nutrition strategies.
Pre and Post Nutrition Recs for High Intensity Workouts, Two a Day Workouts, or Workouts Over 1 hour
What to eat before your workout.
I would not recommend going into long or intense workouts fasted unless you want your performance to suck and you want to be exhausted. Do you need to eat a massive meal? No, but at a minimum take in some simple carbs an hour beforehand. See above the section above for more pre-workout tips.
What to eat after your workout.
Everything I said about protein in the section above still applies. However, this is where you might find that you will benefit from eating an extra serving of carbs – aka a simple carb with a complex carb in addition to protein.
Simpler carbs = crackers / cereal / lower fiber breads, fruit, and dairy
More complex carbs = whole grains (think oatmeal or the “grainier” / more fiber rich breads), starchy or root veggies (sweet potatoes or carrots), beans / lentils, quinoa, and rice. There’s more BTW. My point is You. Have. Options.
This is NOT rocket science.
Most meals have a mix of these things. It could be anything from chicken + sweet potatoes + green vegetables to pizza with some sort of protein and vegetable topping. I’m not going to tell you what to eat here, because as long as you have a mix of your basic macronutrients (protein / carbs / fat) it’s probably fine.
Workout supplements…Are they worth the money?
Real talk. Supplements may be beneficial for some folks, but they won’t replace good nutrition habits, so if you don’t have your general day to day nutrition in place (e.g. getting enough protein, eating in regular intervals, eating your fruits / vegetables / fiber), then focus on that before wasting any brain space on supplements.
General thoughts and resources for supplement related questions
Yes, it’s okay to supplement protein with protein powder if you struggle to get enough during the day.
A lot of people ask about creatine. This is not my area of expertise. If you want to learn more about it, this podcast with Steph Gaudrea and X, who does research on creatine, is excellent.
I have low blood pressure, so I’ve found electrolytes to be helpful for managing dizzy spells – particularly when strength training.
I don’t drink it pre workout. I just take it in the morning at the same time every day. There is literally no best electrolyte brand. Just find one that doesn’t make you gag. Here’s the one I am currently using. It’s not an affiliate link. It’s just what I have on hand.
Final thoughts on pre and post workout nutrition
Don’t make this harder than it needs to be. If you’re looking at pre workout nutrition specifically, you want some carbs and maybe a little protein. Post workout, carbs and protein are still helpful, but fat and fiber are fine too if you just want to eat a meal.
Truly, as long as you’re eating a mix of protein, fat, carbs, and fiber throughout the day and you’re well hydrated, you’ll probably be more than fine without worrying too much about this stuff.
If you are considering carb “timing,” you may find it helpful to eat simple carbs before your workout and a mix of protein and carbs post workout with perhaps a bit of fat and fiber for satiety.
Fuel for your workouts. There’s no point in feeling like shit and performing poorly when the simple act of eating will support you in your physical endeavors. Did I mention carbs give you energy? 😉
Freaking hydrate. Hydration plays a role in lubricating your joints, temperature regulation, nutrient transfer, and more. If you’re not well hydrated, you may experience everything from poor performance to headaches and nausea, so drink your water.