For those looking to get the most out of their workouts, deciding what and when to eat can be difficult. As anyone who has scarfed down a big meal right before hitting the gym knows, timing matters.
Let’s start with a few rules of thumb: You can mostly ignore the folks at the gym guzzling down protein shakes. According to Harvard Health, most people need roughly 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, which translates to about 55 g of protein for someone who weighs 150 lbs. Because a piece of chicken or fish the size of a deck of cards contains about 30 g of protein, most of us can meet our protein needs with a balanced diet.
Even if you’re looking to build muscle, research suggests that consuming 20-40 g of protein at a time (roughly the amount in a can of tuna) is enough, and higher amounts may even reduce your ability to gain muscle.
In short, eating a healthy meal 1-2 hours before you work out and another 1-2 hours afterward is just about all you need to do, according to dietician Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD.
Beyond these general guidelines, here are the specifics of what you should be eating pre- and post-workout, according to nutrition experts and dieticians.
Eating before exercise
Roughly 3 hours before a workout, eat foods that will keep your energy levels high, maintain hydration, and help you recover once you’re finished exercising, according to St. Pierre. Protein can help maintain or boost muscle mass and reduce markers of muscle damage, including myoglobin, creatine kinase, and myofibrillar protein degradation. In addition, protein gets amino acids into your bloodstream, which will boost your ability to build muscle.
That said, your body’s biggest need before a workout is carbohydrates, which fuel exercise. Carbs preserve muscle and liver glycogen and stimulate the release of insulin, all of which keep energy levels high. If you consume protein and carbs, the combination will prevent protein breakdown, which is why a balanced meal is key.
Fats are not the most optimal choice to eat before a workout as they don’t provide immediate energy, however, research indicates they don’t appear to diminish performance—and, they can help slow digestion, which will help maintain blood glucose and insulin levels.
According to Riska Platt, MS, RD, a nutrition consultant for the Cardiac Rehabilitation Center at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, a good pre-workout meal includes plenty of water, healthy carbs like whole grains, low-fat yogurt, and fruits and vegetables. While unsaturated fats and protein can be part of the meal, avoid saturated fats and overshooting on protein, because these macronutrients will digest slower and can redirect energy-delivering blood from muscles.
According to the Mayo Clinic, unless you’re eating 3-4 hours before exercise, you should avoid large meals, which will leave you feeling sluggish as your body dedicates its energy to digestion. If you’re eating 1-3 hours before a workout, stick to small meals or snacks with healthy carbohydrates.
Mayo Clinic experts recommend a meal that includes whole grains, bread, pancakes, low-fat milk, or fruits. Good snack options include a piece of fruit like an apple or banana, a fruit smoothie, a whole-grain bagel or crackers, a low-fat energy or granola bar, or a sports drink or diluted fruit juice.
Eating after exercise
According to Platt, the first step to healthy post-workout recovery is drinking plenty of water. You can also opt to rehydrate with fruit juice, which provides carbohydrates as well. Mayo Clinic experts recommend consuming 0.5-1 cup of water every 15-20 minutes during exercise, followed by 2-3 cups of water for every pound of water weight you’ve lost during exercise. If you’re working out for longer than an hour, consider rehydrating with a sports drink, which will help replenish your body’s electrolyte balance and provide carbohydrates to re-energize.
Next, your post-workout meal should be balanced, consisting largely of carbohydrates and protein. The former will provide energy for the rest of the day and the latter will repair and grow muscles. Mayo Clinic experts recommend a post-workout meal that includes foods like yogurt and fruits, low-fat chocolate and pretzels, a peanut butter sandwich, a smoothie, or a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread with vegetables.
St. Pierre notes that consuming protein after exercise will prevent protein breakdown, which can help increase or maintain muscle mass, and deposits amino acids into the bloodstream to aid recovery.
This doesn’t necessarily mean downing a protein shake. While whey or casein have previously been touted as an athlete’s best friend because they’re digested quickly, more recent research indicates they may act too fast. According to St. Pierre, the fact that whey and casein enter and exit the bloodstream so quickly means they likely don’t aid protein synthesis or inhibit protein breakdown as effectively as previously thought.
Eating carbs after exercise will help restore muscle and liver glycogen to normal levels. St. Pierre notes that it’s best to get carbs from minimally processed whole foods and fruits, which are well-tolerated by the body. And, again, don’t think you need to avoid fats. St. Pierre cites recent research that fat consumption doesn’t negate any of the benefits of carbohydrates and proteins following a workout.
Listen to your body
Use these guidelines to feel more energized during exercise and make the biggest improvements afterward. But keep in mind that the guidelines differ depending on age, weight, type of workouts, fitness goals, and other factors. Monitor what you’re eating and pay attention to how your body reacts. That way you can find the perfect combination of foods for an optimal workout.