From Start to Finish: Fueling Your Workout

by Anisha Chandra

You’re lifting a dumbbell above your head when you feel the gut-wrenching effects of the cheesy tacos you had for lunch. Or even worse, you’re running, getting dizzy, and losing the pep in your step when you realize you have to run back for food. Luckily, you can prevent these annoying situations and ensure you get the most out of your sweat by planning to fuel yourself properly before and after your workout.

Here are some basic pre- and post-workout nutrition tips to start with as you experiment with new training plans and habits. 

Pre-Workout Nutrition

Whether you work out in the morning or evening, having some food in your system can be the difference between feeling sluggish and feeling like a superhero. To achieve that superhero feeling we’d all like from a workout, paying attention to the timing of macronutrient combos can transform performance, optimize the effect on our muscles, and boost recovery. That’s where pre-workout fuel comes in. 

How to Time It 

The goal of pre-workout nutrition is certainly not to induce stomach discomfort, so time it well. Eating a full meal immediately before a workout can confuse your body as it simultaneously supports your muscles and digests your food. [1] To avoid upsetting your stomach, the general rule of thumb is to eat 30 minutes to 3 hours beforehand, with smaller, more easily-digestible portions the closer your workout gets. And if you prefer to exercise on an empty stomach, make sure your workout is relatively short to prevent muscle loss. [2]

What To Eat

What you should eat depends on several factors, from the time of day to the type of training to the duration of the workout. Regardless, carbohydrates and proteins are probably the most important macronutrients of any pre-workout snack or meal. 

Whether you are biking or lifting, your body breaks down glycogen–its storage for glucose–to support your muscles. The carbs you eat are converted to glucose, making it key to include carbs in your pre-workout fuel. [3] When combined with carbs, proteins kickstart recovery by increasing muscle synthesis, giving you the energy to reach your full potential. [4]

During a particularly intense or long endurance session, you use more glycogen and should consider getting that bread—aka more carbs. [5] When you strength train, you create small tears in your muscles, so make sure to eat some good old muscle-repairing proteins. [6]

pre-workout fuel to try

If you’re in a pinch (under 15 minutes), grab a small snack 

  • Fresh fruit (bananas, apples, berries, etc.) or dried fruit (apricots, dates, figs, etc.)

  • Toast

  • Rice cake

  • Granola

  • Coconut water

If you have an hour, have a larger snack 

  • Instant oatmeal with seeds and berries

  • Peanut butter-banana toast (top with chia seeds, coconut flakes, or cinnamon)

  • No-bake energy balls or dates with nut/seed butter

  • Sweet potato with crunchy chickpeas

  • Crackers with tuna

If you have 2-4 hours, eat a balanced meal 

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal with toppings (berries, bananas, granola, nuts, seeds, nut butter)

  • Lunch/dinner: Whole wheat pasta in pesto or marinara sauce with veggies (spinach, bellpepper, broccoli, etc.)

What NOT to Eat 

In addition to not taking excessive advantage of buffet-style dining halls, you may want to avoid food that ignite battles between your stomach and muscles, such as saturated fats, heavy protein, and high fiber foods (e.g. avocados, dairy, red meat, beans). These foods are often found to cause stomach discomfort when eaten before exercise. If you are consuming foods in these categories, make sure you do so at a limit and several hours before your workout to give yourself time for digestion. 


Post-Workout Nutrition 

After every heavy training session, there are two types of people: those who eat everything in sight and those who feel like puking at the thought of food. Nonetheless, no matter who you are or what your workout included, you will eventually need to eat a nourishing post-workout snack or meal to restore your energy, reduce fatigue, and repair your muscles.

How to Time It 

The exact window of time that maximizes recovery and nutrient replenishment is widely contested and often depends on exercise intensity and the timing of your pre-workout snack or meal. 

For example, if you ate a snack loaded with carbs and proteins an hour before, your body likely has the nutrients necessary to initiate post-workout muscle recovery, so you can eat later if necessary. On the other hand, if you exercised without eating for a while, plan to at least have a snack, if not a meal within an hour. Studies suggest eating within an hour as your muscles are particularly receptive to nutrients after exercise. Ideally, pre- and post-exercise meals should not be over 3-4 hours apart to best develop training-related muscular adaptations. [7]

What To Eat

Basic guidelines for post-workout nutrition are similar to pre-workout: focus on carbohydrates (for glycogen replenishment) and protein (for muscle synthesis and recovery). [8] After exercise, fats have a neutral effect on recovery, so adding some healthy fats to your post-workout meal could be a good idea. [9]

As a starting point, studies suggest aiming for a 3:1 carbs to protein ratio to maximize recovery. [10] If you participate in endurance sports or workout frequently, increase the carbs. If you did resistance training, increase the protein.


Post-Workout Fuel to Try

If you’re looking for a snack

  • Greek yogurt, granola, and berries

  • Fruit and veggie smoothie with a clean protein powder

  • Sweet potato - in a variety of forms

  • Apple slices with nut butter

  • Whole grain toast topped with hummus, nut butter, tahini, pesto, an egg, cottage cheese, or yogurt

If you’re looking for a meal 

  • Breakfast:

    • Oatmeal, fruit, and boiled eggs

    • Pancakes or waffles

  • Lunch/dinner:

    • Bowl with grains (quinoa, rice, farro, barley, etc.), sauteed or roasted veggies, protein (salmon, chicken, tofu, chickpeas, etc.), and fat (avocado, nuts, etc.)

    • Pita sandwich with hummus, veggies, and protein (falafel, crunchy chickpeas, chicken, etc.)

What NOT to Eat 

Some aisles of the supermarket look like kingdoms of protein and convenience, but proceed carefully or you may fall into the hands of clever marketing. Although discussion of pre- and post-workout nutrition is often condensed to macronutrients, don’t forget to account for other elements, like additives in the ingredients list. 

Avoid fried foods, sugary protein bars, low-carb meals, and salty snacks, as these foods slow digestion or do not have the nutrients essential for recovery. [11] Check out this Total Wellness article for some supermarket tips!

Bottom Line 

Hopefully you’re feeling eager to discover what works best for your digestion and muscles. Remember that these are basic guidelines, and how you choose to fuel yourself could depend on your participation in a niche activity, intensity and frequency of exercise, energy needs, age, body composition, and several other factors. Finally, remember that eating well before and after a workout is only part of the larger picture; staying hydrated and meeting your daily nutrition needs is just as important! 


  1. “Timing Your Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition.” (2019).

  2. “Effect of Overnight Fasted Exercise on Weight Loss and Body Composition: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” J. Funct. Morphol. Kinesiol. (2017).

  3. “The Myths Surrounding Pre-Exercise Carbohydrate Feeding.” Ann Nutr Metab. (2010).

  4. “Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes.” Nutr Rev. (2018).

  5. “Pre-Exercise Nutrition: The Role of Macronutrients, Modified Starches and Supplements on Metabolism and Endurance Performance.” Nutrients. (2014).

  6. “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2016).

  7. “Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?” J Int Soc Sports Nutr. (2013).

  8. “International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing.” J Int Soc Sports Nutr. (2017).

  9. “Adding fat calories to meals after exercise does not alter glucose tolerance.” J Appl Physiol. (2004).

  10. “Carbohydrate-protein complex increases the rate of muscle glycogen storage after exercise.” (1992).

  11. “The Worst Foods to Eat After a Workout.” (2015).

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