what to eat before and after exercise

Hi everyone. Back in December I started my post series what to eat and when to eat it. I answered these questions;

  1. Should I eat if I'm not hungry?
  2. Should I avoid eating after 8pm?
  3. When is the best time to eat carbs?

Today, we reach the final question:  What do I eat before and after exercise?

This is a complex nutrition topic because it depends on the type of exercise, what time of day it is, and your personal eating habits. Everyone is different and it can take time to find out what is right for you. There is quite a bit of research out there about what to eat to maximize performance, muscle growth, and weight loss. Research is so important to the strength and conditioning world, but the findings are often more applicable to the competitive athlete or their trainer. It can be difficult to extrapolate these studies to "real life" because the average person does not train at the same intensity that the subjects of these studies are often pushed to. Another downside is that some research looks at just one moment in time (acute), such as performance two hours after consuming a certain food. Results of such studies are often misinterpreted.

On my Facebook page I linked to an article (along with my opinion) about consuming fast food post-workout. (Hint: click the picture to be linked to the Washington Post article that summarized this research study)

(Here is a better discussion on this topic:"You can't outrun a bad diet.")

Those of you that know me personally know that I have always been a bit of a "fitness freak." Over the last seven years I have explored numerous types of exercise including: boxing, running, circuits, yoga, German volume training, CrossFit, and more. I have a genuine curiosity for how hard I can push my body and how physique can change. Through all of my training and changing activities I was always  confused about what to eat in order to reach my goals (I discuss some of my "old ways" on my about page).

As my dietetics/nutrition education progressed I thought I would learn about proper nutrition around exercise, but instead I became more confused. As a member of the SCAN (Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition) dietetic practice group I was thrilled to have access to evidence-based recommendations for sports performance nutrition. I was disappointed to find that everything centered around competitive athletes. I would never disagree that proper nutrition is vital for high level athletes to perform at their best. However, I would argue that an individual that challenges and pushes their body through their exercise of choice is also an athlete, just in a different way. I found a lack of recommendations and practice guidelines for the recreationally active person. It was frustrating. I kept asking myself, "What about the rest of us?" A lot of trial and error over many years helped me shape my current approach to pre- and post-workout nutrition. I hope you find my tips helpful.

Disclaimer: Every person's body is different and every person's body will respond differently to exercise and food.  This post is for the average person who exercises recreationally or for health and wants to know how food can help or hurt their efforts. If you are training for a physique or body building competition then you have different needs because you have very specific goals. Additionally, I do not have enough experience with long distance running (I have never run more than 5 miles) to make any sort of suggestions. If you are training for an event that requires an hour of running or more please locate a dietitian with experience working with endurance athletes. I also encourage you to check out the research of Jeff Volek, PhD, RD.

So let's get started. I will break this topic up by time of day. Today, we will focus on the late afternoon, pre-dinner exerciser. This is the most common and appealing time to workout. It is easiest to go to the gym straight from work or school. It is also easier to get active at home before evening chores take over.

Before you get moving...

You had lunch a few hours ago and you are probably getting hungry. Dinner is just around the corner, but a sweat session is in order first.

Rule 1: If you are hungry, eat. Do not try and hold out until dinner time. You will be exhausted. Some people get caught up on having a balanced, large snack 60 minutes before exercise. I don't know about you, but I can never pinpoint exactly when my workout will happen. What works well is something portable that you can eat before you leave work or in the car.

Rule 2: Keep it small. Focus on eating just enough to  quiet your hunger without overdoing it. You don't want to eat so much that you end up with a stomachache or with other gastrointestinal distress in the middle of your workout. Something that is liquid will be more readily absorbed and more easily broken down, therefore less likely to cause a stomachache.

Rule 3: Keep it simple. Something that you easily digest will work. This can be anything else you might have as a snack, no need to reinvent the wheel. For instance, I can't do yogurt, it makes me bloated and extremely uncomfortable, even a few bites as a post-work, pre-workout snack would render me useless. I am more apt to choose half of a Larabar or a big spoonful of nut butter.

Check out my post here about good snack options. I will list some other good options, I say "half" a lot because most of us aren't working out for over an hour or going crazy with the intensity. When you have just enough to keep your blood sugar and energy stable you can get through your workout without discomfort and without passing out. It is a balance. If you do more intense workouts, again you are the judge of how hard you push yourself, then have more.

  • Yogurt or milk
  • Half of a piece of fruit or berries
  • Apple slices or banana with nuts or peanut butter
  • A spoonful or portable packet of peanut butter or other nut butter
  • Beef Jerky
  • Half of a granola bar, like a Larabar, or make your own (pictured below)
  • Simple whey protein powder (I only recommend Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Whey) with water or almond milk
  • A few slices of deli meat and cheese 
  • some dried fruit with cheese or nuts

Rule 4: Don't underestimate the impact of your lunch (and breakfast). If you are so hungry by 4:00 or 5:00pm that a snack just won't do, there is a good chance you aren't eating enough earlier in the day. Check out these links for my tips on how to structure the content of your meals>> breakfast and lunch.

Post exercise

Okay, your workout is over, should you eat again? Fitness articles and magazines tend to state that we must eat within 30 minutes of exercise and we must eat certain things. I will be the first to admit I used to live by this rule. I would have a freak out if I couldn't eat the proper foods at the proper time. Now, the intensity of my exercise has come down and I am more aware of how my body feels. I base my post exercise snack on how I am feeling (dizzy, shakey, or normal) instead of on a generic "rule." It can take time to tune in to what your body is telling you.

Be prepared. You will never be able to predict how hard you will work or how tired you will feel because this can be impacted by what you eat early in the day and how mentally stressful your day is. If you are driving home from the gym, the park, a class, it is important to have something on hand "just in case". The last thing you want is to get dizzy or nauseated.

The "half" option for your pre workout snack is great because you will have the other half on hand. For instance, slice up an entire apple and bring some peanut butter. If you're not feeling hungry before your workout maybe you will just eat a slice or two. But let's say spin class is extra hard that day and you are shaky and bit dizzy when you leave. Now you have something on to eat and to keep you alert until you get home and can have dinner. I also recommend having a blender bottle with protein in it. You don't need to add water and make the shake, but you will have it with you if you need it. 

If you did a quick workout in your room or your basement, I suggest getting some water, letting your heart rate come down, and then having dinner.

What to have for dinner? Articles like the Washington Post article I linked to above suggest that food quality doesn't matter after exercise, that your body will use the macronutrients to recover regardless. This is false. If you exercise four days a week and each time you stop for fast food after because it "helps you recover" then you are doing some serious damage to your health. Food quality always matters. So, focus on having a real food dinner that has adequate protein. This can be chicken, beef, seafood, pork, and even canned salmon or tuna works!

You also need carbohydrates. If you're confused about what carbs are, read hereI talk about the amount of carbs to have at different meals here. If you have had a tough workout, such as circuit training or weight lifting, feel free to increase the amount of carbs at dinner. They should make up no more than half of your plate (ideally less, based on intensity). Remember, good carbohydrate sources include vegetables, potatoes, corn, and rice if you would like a grain (not McDonald's). 

Of course, don't forget a the fat source. Olive oil over lettuce or butter over your veggies will work.

A post workout dinner might look like this: shredded slow cooked pork (protein) with cauliflower mash, carrots, kraut and spinach (all my carbs) with butter and olive oil (fat) on the veggies.

A post workout dinner might look like this: shredded slow cooked pork (protein) with cauliflower mash, carrots, kraut and spinach (all my carbs) with butter and olive oil (fat) on the veggies.

Having a balanced, real food dinner after you workout will give your body the fuel it needs to recover, keep you full and satisfied for the rest of your night, and you will avoid the tremendous negative effects of "fast" food or quick processed foods.

Wrap up

You don't need to eat two extra meals everyday just because you exercised.

You should listen to what your body is telling you and asking for.

Always be prepared and have portable (real) food on hand.

You may need trial and error to find out what works for you. 

Don't forget to have a protein and carbohydrate source (with fat) at dinner. 

And of course, eat real food. Your body can recover and thrive without heavily processed protein bars and shakes.


Look out for my next post on tips for morning workouts!

If you are working toward more specific strength or physique goals and have a more intense and focused, strength based workout regimen feel free to contact me directly or leave a question in the comments.