Pre-workout nutrition tips

What to Eat Before and After a Workout, According to a Registered Dietitian

Pre-workout nutrition tips

Figuring out what to eat before and after a workout can be such a struggle but it's worth it. When it comes to a pre-workout snack, what you choose to put in your mouth is important.

If you're going to put the machine that is your body through the paces you want to fuel it first with proper nutrition. And no, I'm not talking about pre-workout supplements. I'm talking about real, delicious meals and snacks.

The kind of foods you would enjoy anyway—and will enjoy even more when you know they're helping you reach your fitness goals.

Of course what you eat after a workout is really important too. Indeed refueling after exercise gives your body what it needs to recover from the exertion and helps you build bigger, stronger muscles.

That means being thoughtful about what you eat before and after exercising will help you maximize the benefits of all your hard work at the gym. So what’s the best pre-workout snack? And what’s best to eat after a workout? As a registered dietitian, I recommend the meals and snacks below. Consider them a critical part of your training plan.

What to eat before a workout:

I counsel my patients to eat before exercise because I think it will give them the best chance to get the most their workouts. Not eating enough before a workout can make you dizzy, lightheaded, nauseated, or lethargic. It can also make you more ly to injure yourself. And even if none of these things happen, skipping food can negatively impact your performance and reduce your gains.

But I know that realistically you won't always have the time (or desire) to eat before a workout. On nights when you're scrambling to get from the office to your favorite studio for that 6:00 p.m.

class it might feel impossible to squeeze in a snack on the way.

And what do you do if you're a morning workout person who doesn't to eat breakfast? (Psst: It's fine not to eat breakfast despite all that most-important-meal-of-the-day talk.)

The truth is that for most people it's OK to work out on an empty stomach (though I would not recommend doing so if you have blood sugar issues).

So if you can't even grab a protein bar or the idea of forcing down a bite makes you want to gag, that's all right.

But ideally you should fuel up before you work up a sweat—and definitely, definitely drink water before, during, and after. Here's how and what to eat before a workout.

1. Time your pre-workout snack right

The ideal time to eat is between 30 minutes to three hours before your workout. That way you're not still digesting when you hit the gym floor, but you haven't gone and used up all those helpful calories yet.

Having said that, this can be customized. You may have to experiment to see which time frame does your body good. If you're working out first thing in the morning you probably won't be able to eat a whole meal before you hit the gym.

A small snack or mini-breakfast should suffice.

I to start sipping on this protein-packed green smoothie 30 minutes to an hour before I hit the gym and finish the other half when I'm done. If you are exercising later in the day, I recommend having a snack 30 minutes to an hour before your workout or working out two to three hours after a well-balanced meal.

2. Drink plenty of water

It's best to get your body hydrated before you even think about heading to the gym.

One way to determine your overall hydration status is to check out the color of your urine first thing in the morning.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, lemonade-colored urine is a sign of appropriate hydration, while dark-colored urine (think apple juice) indicates a deficit in H20.


Exercise Nutrition Tips: What to Eat Before & After a Work Out | UPMC HealthBeat

Pre-workout nutrition tips

Food fuels your body. When you exercise, eating the right food beforehand can be the difference between staying energized and feeling sluggish. Eating the right foods after a workout replenishes lost nutrients and helps your muscles recover.

Exercise nutrition tips vary depending on your athletic level and activity. If you’re a serious athlete, the sports nutrition program at UPMC Sports Medicine can help you zero in on the foods you should eat.

If you just want to get the most from your exercise routine, follow these pre- and post-workout nutrition tips.

Avoid eating right before working out

You don’t want the physical demands of digesting food to interfere with the physical demands of your workout. Eating too close to exercising can cause gastrointestinal issues, such as heartburn, which can keep you from doing your best.

Eat one to three hours before exercising

For optimal performance, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends fueling your body within this time frame. Eating before exercise has been shown to improve performance, according to the Academy.

Focus on healthy carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the body’s major source of energy. Your body converts carbohydrates into glycogen, an energy source stored in your muscles for when you need it.

During exercise, carbohydrates keep muscles functioning properly and prevent them from cramping. Because your body digests carbohydrates faster than protein, they provide immediate fuel for your muscles.

Carbs should make up two-thirds of the food on your plate at every meal, but choose them wisely.

  • Skip sugary and processed carbohydrates. Eating healthy and working out means saying no to cookies, cakes, and candy. During exercise, your body will burn through these quickly. Sweets are empty calories and don’t provide any significant nutrients to keep your body healthy.
  • Eat complex carbs. Say yes to brown rice, potatoes, whole grain breads, whole grain pasta, whole grain cereals, and fruits and vegetables.

Limit protein

Protein isn’t an ideal energy source for exercise. It simply takes your body too long to process protein to be able to use it as fuel during a Zumba class or a cross-training session.

However, protein is an important part of a balanced diet because it helps build and repair muscle. Protein should make up only one-third of the foods on your plate at every meal.

It’s also important to choose the right sources of protein.

  • Skip high-fat proteins. Say no to fatty or fried meats and fast food, such as burgers, fried chicken, and hot dogs.
  • Choose lean proteins. Say yes to lean cuts of chicken, turkey, and pork, as well as fish, shellfish, eggs, low-fat cheese, milk, and yogurt. Beans and legumes, such as pinto and black beans, black- eyed peas, and lentils, are also good sources of pre-workout protein.

Healthy Pre-Workout Snacks

  • A yogurt parfait: granola, yogurt, and berries
  • A peanut butter and banana sandwich; almond or cashew butter with sliced whole fruits such as strawberries or pears
  • Hummus or black beans with whole grain pita bread
  • Oatmeal with berries or nuts and low-fat milk
  • String cheese and apple slices

Eat or drink something immediately after exercising

UMPC Sports Medicine recommends replenishing your body within 15 minutes of working out. Start with a carbohydrate-rich snack, sports drink, or smoothie. To help your muscles recover, eat a more balanced meal within two hours of working out.


If your workout lasts longer than an hour or you are sweating excessively, it’s important to hydrate during exercise, either with water or a sports drink. Otherwise, be sure to hydrate after working out. Water-rich fruits such as melons or oranges can also hydrate you.

Combine complex carbohydrates and lean protein

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, this combination helps rebuild and repair your muscles, replenish the glycogen they lost, and provide essential amino acids.

Healthy Post-Workout Foods

  • A berry smoothie, with low-fat milk or yogurt
  • Low-fat chocolate milk
  • Granola bars
  • Peanut butter crackers
  • A whole grain turkey or chicken wrap

To learn how to optimize both your exercise routine and your overall health through better nutrition, contact Nutrition Services at 412-692-4497. If you’re an athlete, contact our Sports Medicine department at 724-720-3077.


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Timing Your Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition

Pre-workout nutrition tips

Pierre-Luc Bernier /PLB Photo

One of the most common questions for sports dietitians: “What should I eat before and after a workout?”

Sometimes the answer depends more on the athlete and the specific activity, but there are some common truths that apply for pre- and post-workout nutrition, whether you're a weekend warrior or a seasoned veteran.

Don't Skip the Carbs

Carbohydrates are fuel for your “engine” (i.e., your muscles). And, the harder your engine is working, the more carbs you need to keep going.

So you may be asking — how soon before a workout should I eat? It depends.

As a general rule of thumb, it's best not to eat immediately before a workout because while your muscles are trying to do their “thing,” your stomach is trying to simultaneously digest the food in your stomach. These competing demands are a challenge for optimal performance. And, even more of a factor, eating too close to a workout may cause you to experience some GI discomfort while you train or play.

Ideally, you should fuel your body about 1 to 4 hours pre-workout, depending on how your body tolerates food. Experiment and see what time frame works best for your body. If you're a competitive athlete, this is something you need to explore during your training days and not during game day.

Here are some suggestions for pre-workout fuel:

  • A peanut butter and banana or PBJ sandwich
  • Greek yogurt with berries
  • Oatmeal with low-fat milk and fruit
  • Apple and peanut or almond butter
  • Handful of nuts and raisins (two parts raisins: one part nuts)

Notice that each of these suggestions include some protein as well as carbohydrates. Carbs are the fuel. Protein is what rebuilds and repairs, but also “primes the pump” to make the right amino acids available for your muscles. Getting protein and carbs into your system is even more vital post workout.

Post Workout Nutrition

Your body uses stored energy (glycogen) in your muscles to power through your workout or game, but after that workout, you need to replenish the nutrients lost. What to do?

After a competition or workout, focus on getting carbs and protein into your body. This gives your muscles the ability to replenish the glycogen they just lost through training and helps your tired muscles rebuild and repair with the available protein and amino acids. Try to eat within an hour of completing an intense workout.

Post-workout meals include:

  • Post-workout recovery smoothie (or post-workout smoothie made with low-fat milk and fruit)
  • Low-fat chocolate milk
  • Turkey on a whole-grain wrap with veggies
  • Low-fat yogurt with berries

The above offer mainly carbs, some protein and are convenient — with the first two liquid options also helping to rehydrate the body.

Take Home Points

  • Your body needs carbs to fuel your working muscles.
  • Protein is there to help build and repair.
  • Get a combination of the protein and carbs in your body 1 to 4 hours pre-workout and within approximately 60 minutes post-workout.
  • Never try anything new on race or game day — it's always best to experiment during training to learn what works best for your body.


What coaches and athletes should know about pre- and post- workouts and nutrition

Pre-workout nutrition tips

Written by: Laura Hudson, ATC, LAT, CSCS

Mercy Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Center,

As coaches of young athletes, it’s important each athlete get the most benefit they can from a workout, whether the workout is related to strength, power, speed, agility or endurance.  The goal of each workout is to prepare each athlete for upcoming competition in hopes that he or she will end the competition as the victor.

In order for athletes to reap the benefits of each specific workout, it’s imperative that coaches mentor athletes in terms of appropriate nutrition and hydration habits both before and after a workout session.

In addition, it is crucial that coaches also bridge the nutrition and hydration gap when it comes to pre- and post-competition habits in order to contribute to both the performance and recovery process following the competition.

Pre-workout nutrition

In order to have the most energy to complete the desired workout, it is crucial for athletes to practice appropriate and beneficial pre-workout/practice/competition nutrition habits. The pre-exercise meal is important for two reasons.

First, it prevents athletes from feeling hungry and sluggish before and during a workout or competition.  Second, it assists in maintaining optimal levels of energy in the form of blood glucose for exercising muscles during the exercise bout.

  Although the energy produced by food is necessary in order to perform at a high level, it is important to remember that exercise should not be performed on a full stomach. Food that remains in the stomach during an exercise bout may cause indigestion, nausea, or even vomiting.

It is best for the athlete to consume a meal 3-4 hours prior to a practice or competition.

Ideally, the pre-exercise meal should consist of primarily complex carbohydrates, moderate amounts of protein, and very low levels of fat. Carbohydrates digest rapidly within the system; while proteins and fats take longer to digest.

The energy that is produced from consumption of carbohydrates can be readily available at a faster rate for the athlete to use. Consuming meals high in fat before a competition or workout may cause stomach bloating, gas, and indigestion.

Appropriate foods for athletes to consume 3-4 hours before a game or workout:

  • Whole grain cereal with non-fat milk and a piece of fruit
  • Fruit shake made with bananas, strawberries, or mango with 100 percent fruit juice and low fat yogurt
  • Bran muffin and low fat yogurt
  • Whole grain toast with small amounts of peanut butter
  • String cheese, whole grain crackers and grapes
  • Fig Newtons and 16 oz. of non-fat chocolate milk
  • Lean turkey on whole wheat bread with an apple

Tournaments and longer lasting competitions

In order to remain adequately fueled when competing in events that last all day, such as a tournament, it is important to encourage athletes to consume mini-meals and snacks throughout the day.

These meals should be composed of mainly carbohydrates in order for complete digestion of the food substance to occur prior to the competition.

Additionally, the consumption of carbohydrates will allow for the athlete to reap the energy benefits from the food source due to rapid digestion and absorption into the body.

Foods to consume 1-2 hours before a game:

  • Whole wheat toast with jam
  • Banana, apple, or other piece of fruit
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • Dry cereal (non-sweetened)
  • Fat free chocolate milk
  • Energy bar

Post-workout nutrition

Peak performance nutrition does not only apply to pre-workout food consumption, but to post-workout nutrition as well. The appropriate post-workout/competition meal assists in replenishing the athlete’s muscles for the next workout or competition.

Blood flow to muscles increases immediately after exercise, which allows the muscle cells to absorb more glucose which ultimately maximizes glycogen synthesis within the muscle.  Muscles are the most receptive to recovery during the first 30 minutes after a workout or competition.

It is important to encourage athletes to consume protein in addition to a source of carbohydrate after exercise as it provides the athlete with the amino acids required to repair the muscle damage that inevitably occurs following a workout.

If muscle damage is not repaired after an event, muscle glucose uptake and muscle glycogen storage may be at risk for impairment, thus limiting an athlete’s performance during the next workout or competition. Athletes should be encouraged to consume 1-1.

5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight immediately following a workout or competition. An additional 1-1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight should be consumed 2 hours after the workout has ended as well.

Examples of foods to consume 30 minutes after a workout/competition:

  • Peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole wheat bread
  • Non-fat chocolate milk
  • Fruit shake made with banana, strawberries, mango and 100% fruit juice and non-fat yogurt
  • Beans and brown rice
  • Sports beverage containing carbohydrate and protein
  • Cereal and non-fat yogurt
  • Turkey and cheese on whole wheat bread
  • Peanut butter on crackers
  • Granola bar and glass of non-fat milk
  • Pasta with lean meat spaghetti sauce
  • Graham crackers and yogurt
  • Peanut butter and apple slices

Foods to avoid for pre- and post-workout/competition meals

  • Caffeine (chocolate, latte, coffee, soda)
  • Candy
  • Doughnuts and pastries
  • Greasy foods high in fat (french fries, fried chicken, fried fish, pizza)
  • Fructose, high fructose, high fructose corn syrup
  • Highly sugared, refined cereals
  • Milkshakes and ice cream

Hydration tips

It is important to practice adequate hydration because dehydration can lead to physical and mental deficits in competition and in practice. As much as 1-2 percent loss of body weight can have a significant negative impact on athletic performance, therefore, it is important to avoid losing water weight so the athlete will not have to play “catch up” later to return to a hydrated status.

The key to avoiding dehydration is to drink approximately 14-20 oz. of fluid before playing or practicing an activity. This pre-performance hydration routine should begin two hours prior to the start of a competition or practice. In the course of the first hour, an athlete should drink the 14-20 oz.

of sports drink, fruit juices or water. However, in the course of the second hour, fluid consumption should cease. If extra liquids are consumed in the hour immediately prior to the competition or practice, the kidneys will be over stimulated, causing an increase in urine production.

This process actually can lead to dehydration of the athlete.

As part of the pre-competition/practice routine, athletes should consume a glass of fruit juice or sports beverage. Water is also appropriate, however, sports drinks and fruit juice contains a small percentage of carbohydrates.

These carbohydrates have been shown to assist in the absorption of fluids into the system and in turn, help prevent dehydration during games/practices.  At all costs, athletes should avoid drinks such as soda and energy drinks both before and after competitions and practices. These drinks can cause intestinal cramping and have a high amount of sugar.

Although they may give athletes a short-term energy boost, they also tend to increase urine production and lead to an energy drain shortly after consumption.

During competition or practice, it is important to encourage athletes to continue drinking, despite the conditions of the environment. A good rule of thumb is to encourage about 4 oz.

(1/2 half cup) of liquid consumption every 15 minutes.

Water is best during these fluid consumption breaks, but sports drinks are also acceptable as long as they do not contain more than 8 percent carbohydrates or 8 grams per 100 mL of fluid.

Sources: American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM); Clark, Nancy, MS, RD. Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. 4th Ed. Champagne (IL): Leisure Press; 2008; Baechle, Thomas R., and Earle, Roger W. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 3rd Ed. Champagne (IL): Human Kinetics, 2008.

For more information about Mercyhealth’s sports medicine services, CLICK HERE.


What to Eat Right before a Workout

Pre-workout nutrition tips

Best meals before gym time? Check out our top five picks.

Gym bag packed, water bottle ready, both shoes found (score!) … but are you forgetting something? When it comes to working out, eating before you go can keep your blood sugar steady. That means plenty of energy for cardio and strength training.

Nutrition tip: Mix protein, healthy fats and a bit of good carbs. And sure, throw in some healthy desserts after (you’ve earned it!). Here are our top picks for what to eat right before a workout.

1. Whole grain toast, peanut or almond butter and banana slices

There’s a reason that runners love their post-race bananas — the fruit is packed with simple carbs, natural sugars and, best of all, potassium. That electrolyte helps prevent muscle cramps and can be lost through sweat. Peanut or almond butter has healthy fat, and the toast is all about blood-sugar-steadying complex carbs.

2. Chicken thighs, rice and steamed vegetables

Looking for the best meal before gym time? Consider this classic, which blends protein and complex carbs. Plus, the fiber in the veggies helps with digestion. Choosing chicken thighs over breasts is a personal preference, but dark meat has more of the good fat you need to keep from getting hangry during your workout.   

3. Oatmeal, protein powder and blueberries

The complex carbs in oatmeal are broken down in your system slowly, which means more sustained energy. Up the nutrition by adding a scoop of protein powder. Fruit blueberries, raspberries or cherries contain antioxidants — super helpful substances that help to prevent cell damage. Also: delicious.

4. Scrambled eggs, veggies and avocado  

Go ahead, use the whole egg. They’re packed with high-quality protein and, if you’re including the yolk, you’ll get all eight essential amino acids. Those boost muscle building and recovery. Avocado gives you that healthy fat fix, and the veggies are nutrient-rich powerhouses, no matter which you pick.

5.  Protein smoothie 

Protein powder is a must — but after that, go for what you best. Milk or almond milk, mixed berries, bananas, peanut butter, avocado, even some leafy greens are all fair game. You’ll get fast-digesting carbs, plus those healthy fats and protein.

Find what works for you

Maybe your bestie is the protein shake queen, but you try it and … blech. That’s okay. exercise, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to pre-workout options. What to eat right before a workout means what’s right for you.

Also, pay attention to timing. If you’re going for a bigger pre-workout meal, aim for eating two or three hours before working out.

But if you’re short on time, make your portion more of a snack and eat about 45 minutes before gym time. Then, notice how the timing affects you.

Maybe you’re the 30-minutes-until-treadmill kind of eater, or it could be that your belly feels better with more digestion time.

Play around with food combos and timing, and you’ll be sure to find your best go-to meal before hitting the gym.