What to Eat Before and After a Workout

  • Article
  • April 25, 2017

As a registered dietitian, sometimes I’m asked, “What should I eat before and after a workout?”

Carbs or protein? A little or a lot? Right before or hours before? How soon after? The questions run rampant when the topic of what to eat around a workout arises. So let’s dial in on the science and what foods fit to help fuel and refuel your workout!


Before a workout, you need to fuel-up and provide your body with the energy it needs to workout, whether cardio, weight–training or a combo of the two. Ideally, two to four hours before a workout, eat a meal that is rich in complex carbohydrates (think oatmeal or brown rice), moderate in lean protein (think chicken or low-fat and fat-free dairy foods), lower in fat (think nuts and oils) and fiber (think broccoli and cauliflower) and includes plenty of fluids (think water or low-calorie beverage). Nutrient-rich examples of pre-workout meals include:

  • Oatmeal with berries, a few nuts, low-fat Greek yogurt and water
  • Grilled chicken, brown rice, green beans and unsweetened-tea
  • Turkey and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread with lettuce, tomato and avocado, a fruit and water

If you workout early in the morning and don’t have time to eat hours before, try a granola bar, banana or even dry cereal or crackers 30 minutes before you get moving. If the workout will be intense or extra long, pump the snack up to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, protein bar or even a smoothie with whey protein, fruit and water.


After a workout, you need to focus on refueling and recovery. Think these three Rs:

  • Replenish your muscles with carbohydrate to replace what was burned off in exercise. Simple carbohydrates are ideal immediately post-workout because they break down quickly.
  • Rebuild your muscles with protein. Exercise can cause muscle breakdown and high-quality protein, like milk, yogurt, eggs, cheese and lean meats can help rebuild and repair muscle fibers. Whey protein is a good choice after a workout as your body can digest it quickly and it contains the highest content of leucine, an amino acid that has been shown to help build and repair muscles after a workout.
  • Rehydrate with fluid and electrolytes you sweated out during exercise.

The goal is to eat within 45 minutes post-workout. If you can do it sooner, then great! Because many people are not hungry immediately after they workout, shakes and smoothies can be a nutrient-rich option to start recovery – plus, they can count toward rehydration. Here are some post-workout recovery snacks:

  • Low-fat chocolate milk
  • Vanilla yogurt with fruit and honey
  • Smoothie made with low-fat milk, whey protein and fruit

Get a quick snack right after a workout, then follow it up with a meal of complex carbohydrate, lean protein, veggies and fluid, like beef stir fry or a veggie omelet with whole wheat toast.