With all the diets out there, it’s hard to know how to fuel yourself properly before and after a workout. Here are 30 examples of balanced snacks and meal ideas to make the most of your pre- and post- workout nutrition!
Importance of nutrition for exercise, performance, and recovery:
Pre and post- workout nutrition is a factor you should not overlook when exercising. Learning what kind of food to eat before and after you workout can not only help improve your performance, but also aid in faster recovery. Aside from just fueling your body, nutrient timing and adequate hydration can further help improve your athletic performance and recovery time. If you’re an athlete, or just someone wanting to learn how to eat in order to get the most out of your workouts, keep reading.
Food is fuel for the body. Our bodies break down the food we eat into three main macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
Best Foods for Pre and Post- Workout Nutrition: Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates, also known as carbs, are the body’s main source of energy. Carbs are broken down into simple sugars, known as glucose, within the body. Glucose is then stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. When we exercise for short periods of time at a high intensity, the body uses the glycogen stored in our muscles as our main source of energy. 3 Examples of carbohydrate-rich foods include fruit, whole grains, dairy products, sports drinks, and starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet-potatoes. For someone who exercises regularly, carbohydrates should make up about 55-60% of your daily caloric intake. 5 This would look like about 5-10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight depending on your training needs. 3
30 Best Foods for Pre and Post- Workout Nutrition: Protein
Protein is a macronutrient used to help rebuild the damage done to your muscles during exercise. Proteins are broken down in the body into smaller molecules, known as amino acids. There are 9 essential amino acids that we must consume from our diets and are vital in building muscle and recovering from exercise. Protein is essential in both pre and post- workout nutrition but consuming high quality protein after your workout can help quickly rebuild muscle. Whey protein contains a high amount of leucine, an essential amino acid shown to help with muscle anabolism/synthesis. 3
To get the most benefits from protein, eating 30 g of protein per meal spread throughout the day is a current recommendation. 5 A good rule of thumb is to try and consume a source of protein at each meal and/or snack. The current RDA for protein in 0.8-1.0 g/kg a day. However, if you actively exercise and participate in endurance or resistance training, recommendations are to eat up to 2.0 g/kg a day. 5
Best Foods for Pre and Post- Workout Nutrition: Fat
Fat is a macronutrient that the body requires in smaller amounts than protein or carbohydrates. It is more calorically dense per gram and can includes three types – unsaturated fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Consuming a high amount of saturated fat can cause health problems like high cholesterol, can lead to weight gain, and increase body fat storage. However, consuming healthy fats, specifically those rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, can be beneficial in improving your physical performance. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids can aid in improving endurance, building muscle, and reducing inflammation in athletes. 7 Examples of foods rich in omega-3’s include nuts, nut butters, avocado, olive oil, flaxseed oil, and oily fish like salmon.
Antioxidants are nutrients such as Vitamin C and Vitamin E that are responsible for combatting harmful molecules within the body. These molecules are known as free radicals which can cause damage to cells and impact your immune system. 6 Studies have shown that during exercise, increased oxidative stress can lead to more free radicals within the body. 6 An increased amount of these harmful substances in the body can cause fatigue, muscle damage, and slow down recovery time in athletes. By consuming more foods that contain high amounts of antioxidants, such as drinking tart cherry juice and eating more dark leafy green vegetables, inflammation caused by free radicals could be reduced and muscle strength could be maintained. 3
Hydration is another very important factor in nutrition. It goes beyond just drinking water, it also entails replacing electrolyte stores lost through sweat and urine. Electrolytes include minerals such as sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, and calcium that have an electrical charge when they dissolve in water. 2 Proper hydration and intake of electrolytes is vital for regulating body temperature, transporting nutrients and getting rid of waste. 8 Staying hydrated is also important in lubricating joints and reducing inflammation and fatigue. 3 The amount of fluid a person needs to ensure that they are appropriately hydrated varies from person to person. Factors to take into consideration for hydration include, total time and intensity of exercise, weather conditions, and fluid losses. 5 However, here are some basic guidelines to follow when trying to stay properly hydrated:
- Drink 16-20 oz of fluid 2-3 hours before exercising 9
- Drink 8-12 oz of fluid 10-15 min before exercise (water before workouts) 9
- Drink 5-10 oz of fluid for every 15-20 minutes of exercise 9
- Consider drinking a sports drink for exercise lasting longer than 90 min or when exercising in very hot conditions to replenish electrolytes and energy 9
- Drink 16-24 oz of fluid for every lb lost during exercise 9
Pre- and Post- Workout Nutrition: Nutrient Timing
Generally, it is recommended that you eat before participating in exercise to ensure your body has enough energy to perform its best. However, recently there has been a lot of interest in the benefits of working out in a fasted state. Common questions about fasting prior to workouts include if it is better for fat loss. One study showed that exercising during a fasted state increased adipose tissue lipolysis and also increased fat oxidation in comparison to exercising post-prandially. 1 However, the same study found that working out in a fasted state may actually decrease physical performance and increase dehydration. 1 If you are an athlete looking to perform your best during a game or competition, working out in a fasted state may not be the best option for you.
Exercising in a fasted state may have other benefits besides fat loss. Studies have shown that fasting can increase your gut health by altering the composition of the gut microbiome. 1 Working out in a fasted state can help increase the diversity of your gut microbiome. 1
Pre-Workout Nutrition Goals:
The main goal of a pre-workout meal is to fuel your body for exercise. For this reason, your pre-workout meal should contain a mixture of carbohydrates and protein. By eating foods like oatmeal with berries and Greek yogurt or a bagel with scrambled eggs and veggie before doing exercise, you’re providing your body with the sustained energy it need to make it through your workout. 5
Pre-Exercise Snack Ideas (30-60 grams of quick digesting carbohydrates with protein, 30-60 minutes before exercise):
- Banana with peanut butter
- Avocado toast with a boiled egg
- Greek yogurt parfait
- Dry cereal with milk and fruit
- Protein smoothie (Try my high protein smoothie here!)
- Protein bar with fruit and nuts
Pre-Exercise Meal Ideas (2-3 hours before training):
- Scrambled eggs and turkey sausage with whole grain toast topped with fruit and jelly
- Bagel breakfast sandwich with eggs and cheese
- Grilled chicken with pasta and vegetables
- Turkey and avocado wrap
Post- Workout Nutrition Goals
The goal of post-workout nutrition is to refuel the carbohydrates burned during exercise, rebuild the damage done to your muscles during exercise by consuming high-quality protein, and rehydrate by consuming enough fluid and electrolytes to replenish what you lost as sweat. 5
Eating within 2 hours after you finish exercising is essential for recovery. 5 During this time period, carbohydrates and protein are absorbed at a faster rate to aid in recovery. 3 Blood flow to the muscles is also greater during this time and muscle cells are more likely to uptake glucose. 3
Within 45 min after your workout, you should consume a simple carbohydrate and 15-25 g of a high-quality protein (see examples below). 5 After training, protein intake is most important in order to rebuild muscle.
Within 45 min to 2 hours after your workout, you should consume a meal that includes complex carbohydrates, high-quality protein, healthy fats, and vegetables (see examples below). 5
Post- Workout Meal Ideas
Within 45 min after exercise- Simple carbohydrates with high quality protein
- Banana and a protein shake
- Pita bread, hummus and sliced chicken
- Tuna with crackers
- Cereal with dairy or plant-based milk
45 min- 2 hrs after workout- Complex carbohydrates with high quality protein and healthy fats
- Quinoa with grilled salmon and asparagus
- Whole grain pasta with grilled shrimp , vegetables, and olive oil
- Steak, broccoli, and potatoes
- Whole Grain Turkey Sandwich, with avocado, lettuce tomato, and fruit
Workout Nutrition During Intense Workouts
If you are participating in exercise for a prolonged period of time, it may be beneficial to consider eating a snack during your workout. As previously discussed, during exercise carbohydrates are our main source of energy. However, once our glycogen levels are depleted, our bodies begin using protein as fuel. 3 To prevent this, consuming an intra-workout snack rich in carbohydrates- such as a banana, granola bar, or peanut butter crackers may be a good idea. It may also be beneficial to consume a sport’s drink to help replenish electrolyte stores lost as a result of intense exercise.
- <45 min, none needed
- 45-75 min, Sport’s Drink or intra-workout snack if needed
- >90 min (endurance training), 30-60 g per hour
It’s important to consider the food you eat before and after exercise in order to help you perform your best and recover quickly. Your body’s needs for pre and post- workout nutrition should be considered and may vary depending on the type of exercise you participate in. Pre-workout nutrition should consist of carbohydrates and protein to provide you with sustained energy to fuel your body while exercising. During intense exercise or when exercising for prolonged periods of time, consuming a snack rich in carbohydrates may help replenish some of the glycogen stores used while exercising. Goals for post-workout nutrition include replenishing glycogen stores, rebuilding damage done to muscles during exercise, and rehydrating to account for fluid lost as sweat. Focusing on the kinds of foods you eat as pre- and post-workout nutrition could make all the difference in trying to reach your fitness goals.
1 .Biohm. (2023). How Can Intermittent Fasting And Working Out Help Improve Gut Health? Retrieved from BIOHM: https://www.biohmhealth.com/blogs/health/how-can-intermittent-fasting-and-working-out-help-improve-gut-health
2. Cleveland Clinic. (2023). Electrolytes. Retrieved from Cleveland Clinic : https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diagnostics/21790-electrolytes
3. Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association. (2017). Performane Nutrition Infographics: Tips for Athletic Trainers and Coaches .
4. DiNuzzo, E. (2023, March 24). What effect does fasted exercise have on metabolism? Retrieved from Levels: https://www.levelshealth.com/blog/what-effect-does-fasted-exercise-have-on-metabolism
5. Goodson, A. (2020). The Sports Nutrition Playbook.
6. Higgins, M. R., Izadi, A., & Kaviani, M. (2020, November 15). Antioxidants and Exercise Performance: With a Focus on Vitamin E and C Supplementation. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7697466/
7. Jouris, K. B., McDaniel, J. L., & Weiss, E. P. (2011, September 1). The Effect of Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation on the Inflammatory Response to eccentric strength exercise. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3737804/
8. Judge, L. W., Bellar, D. M., Popp, J. K., Craig, B. W., Schoeff, M. A., Hoover, D. L., . . . Al-Nawaiseh, A. M. (2021, July 28). Hydration to Maximize Performance and Recovery: Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behaviors Among Collegiate Track and Field Throwers. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8336541/
9. The University of Kansas Health System. (2023). Sports Performance: Staying Hydrated. Retrieved from The University of Kansas Health System: https://www.kansashealthsystem.com/news-room/blog/0001/01/hydration-for-sports-performance
10. Zouhal, H., Saeidi, A., Salhi, A., Li, H., Essop, M., Laher, I., . . . Abderrahman, A. B. (2020, January 21). Exercise Training and Fasting: Current Insights. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6983467/