Fitness Question: Should You Be Eating Before or After You Work Out?

You’re planning to go for a run in a couple of hours. Should you eat before you hit the pavement? What about after you get home? The short answer is, both. Here’s everything you need to know about eating pre- and post-workout, including what you should be munching on.

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eat before after workout
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Why You Should Eat Before Working Out

Experts recommend eating a meal or snack that’s in carbs and protein and low in fat roughly three hours before you exercise. Why? Carbohydrates supply your body with the glycogen it needs for a workout, while eating complete proteins like chicken or lean beef before exercise can improve your body’s muscle recovery.

This review of studies from the University of Limerick in Ireland notes that when people exercise longer than one hour, those who ate beforehand reported better performance.

This isn’t to say that you should sweat it too much if you can’t squeeze in a snack before getting your sweat on. When exercise lasts less than one hour, the same Irish review of studies noticed little difference in performance between those who ate and those who didn’t.

Why You Should Eat After Working Out

While skipping a pre-workout meal or snack isn’t the end of the world, eating after exercising is super important. In order to help your body recover faster, as well as repair and build new muscle tissue, you’ll want to refuel soon after working out with a small amount of carbohydrates and protein. How soon? Personal trainer Lisa Reed suggests that having a post-exercise meal immediately after working out (i.e., within 15 minutes) is better than eating an hour afterward.

What About Fasted Cardio?

This one’s a whole other beast, honestly. “Fasted cardio is exercise done in a fasted state, in which your body is no longer processing or digesting food," says Denise Pate, M.D., doctor of internal medicine at Medical Offices of Manhattan. "Benefits include increased lipolysis, fat oxidation and decreased insulin levels." Not to get too science-y, but increased lipolysis is when the body breaks down fatty cells to use them as energy, and fat oxidation is when the body burns the energy from fat cells when the body's glycogen (the body's storage form of energy) is low. "When the body is resting, especially during sleep, blood insulin levels begin to drop," Dr. Pate says. "This means the body turns to using fat as energy instead of carbohydrates. These benefits all stem from increased body fat loss.”

OK, but is it safe? Per Dr. Pate, yes—if it’s done correctly. “Exercising or doing cardio during a fasted state can cause low blood sugar, which could lead to feelings of lightheadedness or lethargy. Because our body derives energy from a different source when we do fasted cardio, this energy can come from muscle. Some may experience muscle loss, especially the elderly. If you have other metabolic diseases or health concerns such as diabetes, it is best to contact your doctor prior to doing fasted cardio to prevent low blood sugar.” Learn more about fasted cardio here.

pb toast
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What to Eat Before Working Out

Here are six snacks the pros recommend eating about an hour before you lace up your sneakers.

1. Peanut Butter on Whole Wheat Toast

“Have a slice of whole-wheat bread or a banana with a spoonful of peanut or almond butter for an excellent combination of both carbs and protein before your workout,” says sports dietitian Angie Asche. The carbohydrates will give you energy while protein helps muscle growth. Top tip: Go for nut butters that list only “peanuts” or “almonds” on the jar to avoid unnecessary sugars and oils.

2. Grapes with Cheese

“Fruit contains energy-boosting carbohydrates that are easy to digest and enjoy,” nutritionist Lindsey Joe explains. “They’re also full of satiating fiber and phytochemicals.” (Hey, it’s hard to focus on doing one more lap when your stomach is rumbling like a lawn mower.) Her go-to pre-workout snack is a handful of grapes with some low-fat string cheese, or clementine oranges with a few unsalted nuts.

3. Dates

“A couple of dates pre-workout offers an excellent source of carbohydrates,” Asche says. These fiber-rich fruits will help keep blood sugar and energy levels stable. “You can eat them on their own or in an energy bar like Lärabar.”

4. Protein Shakes

If you find it difficult to eat solids before a workout, try a liquid energy boost instead. Protein shakes offer a good carbs-to-protein ratio and are easy to prep in advance and drink on your way to the gym. Reed’s favorite smoothie requires just three ingredients: ½ cup almond milk, one scoop of protein powder and ½ cup strawberries. Yummy.

5. Bananas

“Bananas are loaded with carbohydrates and potassium, and make excellent snacks before a workout,” Asche tells us. Like protein shakes, they're also an excellent way to fuel up on-the-go. Just make sure to eat the banana strings too.

6. Sweet Potatoes

“Sweet potatoes are rich in potassium, vitamin A and carbohydrates, and make a great source of fuel pre- or post-workout,” Asche says. But they’re also pretty filling, so this one’s best enjoyed one to two hours before a workout. (And you know, maybe save the sour cream and cheese for a post-workout reward.)

hard boiled eggs
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What to Eat After Working Out

Here are six of the best foods to munch on right after working out to help your body and muscles recover and repair.

1. Yogurt

Or cottage cheese. “Both offer an excellent source of protein post-workout,” says sports dietitian Angie Asche. For an extra antioxidant and carbohydrate boost, she recommends adding fresh berries or diced vegetables. Extra bonus? “Calcium and vitamin D-rich foods help strengthen bones and prevent fractures.”

2. Hummus and Whole Grain Crackers

“After a workout, your body likes carbohydrate-containing foods because it's burned through all its energy stores,” nutritionist Lindsey Joe explains. To replenish these stores (aka glycogen), top a couple of whole grain crackers with protein-rich (and totally delicious) hummus.

3. Eggs

And not just the whites. “Egg yolks contain several vital nutrients for brain and bone health,” says Asche. She suggests packing a few hard-boiled eggs into your gym bag for a quick and easy source of protein, teamed with a slice of whole wheat toast for additional carbs post-workout.

4. Protein Shakes

Yes, again. “Liquid nutrition is a great choice for a post-workout meal because it absorbs [more easily than solids] and can therefore be used faster by your body,” says Reed.

5. Smoked Salmon

Fatty fish are known for their inflammation busting abilities, and research published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that omega-3 fatty acids can also help ease delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after exercise. Try spreading a whole-grain wrap with a thin layer of cream cheese and topping it with smoked salmon for a delicious and portable snack.

6. Low-Fat Chocolate Milk

If you find it hard to eat right after exercising, the American Council on Exercise suggests trying liquid foods instead of solids. And chocolate milk is a great choice, thanks to its tasty mix of carbs, protein and water. (Just go easy on the sugar.)

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...