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Should You Eat Before or After a Workout?

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By: Erin Coleman, B.S. - Nutritional Science, R.D., L.D.,

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

eat before or after workout

Should you eat before or after a workout? That is the question many women ask when starting a new weight loss or muscle building routine.

Knowing this helps you achieve the figure you desire and gain the energy needed to maximize fitness and stay lean.

Having simple meal plans in place makes pre- and post-exercise fueling feel like a breeze.

If you're wondering whether to eat before or after a workout, follow these guidelines.

Pre- and Post-Workout Eating Guidelines

Learn about some basic tips and tricks to help you plan pre- and post-workout nourishment.

Pre-Workout Tips

Eat something before you work out, but avoid a large meal right before strenuous exercise.

A good rule of thumb, according to Purdue University, is to fuel your body with a nutritious meal 2-4 hours before exercise, and something lighter (containing 30-60 grams of carbs) within an hour before you work out.

Pre-workout meals and snacks should contain a healthy carbohydrate (one that's easily digestible) plus a small amount of protein or fat.

Post-Workout Recommendations

Consume post-workout fuel within 30-60 minutes after exercise.

The position stand of the International Society of Sports Nutrition is to consume 0.36 grams of carbs per pound of your body weight (or ideal body weight if you're overweight) plus 0.1-0.2 grams of protein per pound (a 3:1 carb/protein ratio).

Don’t forget to hydrate with water before, during, and after exercise!

Should I Try Fasting Cardio?

If weight loss is your goal, you may have considered fasting cardio, as some studies show this strategy increases fat burning during aerobic exercise.

However, other studies found no difference in body composition after comparing study subjects who tried fasting cardio vs. non-fasting cardio.

To increase exercise performance, however, studies show that fueling your body prior to working out is the way to go.

Carbohydrate Food List

To learn more about the carbohydrate content of some common foods, use the following guidelines provided by Yale School of Medicine:

15 grams of carbohydrates =

  • 3 graham cracker squares
  • 4 cups of popcorn
  • 6 saltine crackers
  • 12-18 small pretzels
  • 1 cup of unsweetened dry cereal
  • 1 mini whole-grain bagel
  • 1 granola bar or cereal bar
  • 1/2 cup of granola
  • 1/2 cup of cooked oatmeal
  • 1/2 of an English muffin
  • 1/2 pita bread
  • 1/3 cup of cooked rice
  • 1/3 cup of cooked pasta
  • 1 slice of bread
  • 1/2 sports bar
  • 2 rice cakes
  • 1/2 cup of cooked corn, sweet potatoes, peas, beans, or other legumes
  • 1/2 cup of canned fruit in natural juice
  • 1 small apple, orange, pear, or other fresh fruit
  • 1/2 of a large banana or 1 very small banana
  • 1 cup of melon
  • 1 cup of berries
  • 15 cherries
  • 15 grapes
  • 1/4 cup of trail mix
  • 2 tablespoons of raisins
  • 1 cup of plain of yogurt
  • 10 ounces of low-fat milk

When in doubt, read the nutritional label to determine how many carbs are in your favorite foods, or use the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FREE Food Composition Database.

Sample Personalized Meal Plans

To learn more about what to eat before or after workouts, use a personalized meal plan customized around the time of day you exercise.

Sample sports nutrition meal plans might look like this:

Early Morning Workouts

  • 2-4 cups of water: when you wake up
  • Pre-workout snack plus water: within an hour prior to exercise OR fasting cardio
  • WORKOUT (early in the morning)
  • Breakfast plus water: within 30-60 minutes post-exercise
  • Morning snack: 2-3 hours later
  • Lunch plus water: 2-3 hours later
  • Afternoon snack: 2-3 hours later
  • Dinner plus water: 2-3 hours later

Lunchtime Workouts

  • 2-4 cups of water: when you wake up
  • Breakfast plus water: right after you wake up
  • Pre-workout snack plus water: within an hour prior to exercise
  • WORKOUT (around lunchtime)
  • Lunch plus water: within 30-60 minutes post-exercise
  • Afternoon snack plus water: 2-3 hours later
  • Dinner plus water: 2-3 hours later

Evening Workouts

  • 2-4 cups of water: when you wake up
  • Breakfast plus water: right after you wake up
  • Morning snack: 2-3 hours later
  • Lunch plus water: 2-3 hours later
  • Pre-workout snack plus water: within an hour prior to exercise
  • WORKOUT (in the evening)
  • Dinner plus water: within 30-60 minutes post-exercise

If you can’t eat a meal within 60 minutes of exercise or you don’t have much of an appetite, consume a post-workout snack after your workout and a larger meal several hours later.

What to Eat Before or After a Workout

Having a list of pre- and post-workout meals and snacks helps you plan what to eat before or after workouts.

Pre-workout snacks are high in easily digestible carbohydrates, while post-workout nourishment contains a good mix of fiber-rich carbs and protein.

Pre-Workout Snacks

Below are some examples of some pre-workout snacks, containing primarily carbohydrates plus a tiny bit of protein or healthy fats, that won’t weigh you down:

  • A banana or apple with a small amount of nut butter
  • Any type of fresh or dried fruit
  • Applesauce
  • Trail mix containing dried fruit
  • A sports drink or 100% fruit juice
  • Greek yogurt topped with granola or raspberries
  • A cereal or granola bar
  • A whole foods bar (such as Outright bars)
  • A smoothie made with oatmeal or fruit plus plant milk
  • Oatmeal with raisins and sliced almonds
  • Whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk or plant milk
  • Pretzels and peanuts
  • Toast with peanut butter and banana slices
  • Rice cakes with nut butter
  • Toast with eggs
  • A turkey or tuna sandwich
  • Graham crackers with peanut butter
  • Pita chips or pretzels with hummus

Post-Workout Snacks

Post-workout snacks are similar to pre-workout fuel.

In fact, many pre-workout foods help your body replenish glycogen stores and enhance muscle building after exercise too.

The only difference is you might choose slower-digesting carbs with protein after exercise.

Examples include:

  • A protein powder and fruit smoothie
  • Whole foods protein bars (such as Outright bars)
  • Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts or seeds
  • Low-fat cottage cheese with fruit and nuts
  • A turkey or tuna and veggie wrap
  • Eggs on toast or with oatmeal
  • Hard-boiled eggs with fruit
  • Whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk or plant milk
  • A meat and fruit bar
  • Pretzels and peanuts
  • Pita chips or pretzels with hummus
  • Chocolate milk or plant-based milk
  • Reduced-fat cheese with fruit

Post-Workout Meals

If you have an opportunity to eat a well-balanced, nutritious meal within 30-60 minutes after exercise, do so!

Examples of post-exercise meals that help refuel your body include:

Nutritious Breakfasts

  • A vegetable omelet with avocado slices and oatmeal or roasted potatoes
  • Scrambled eggs with fruit and yogurt
  • Oatmeal made with milk and topped with nuts
  • Yogurt with granola and fruit or nuts
  • A protein smoothie containing oatmeal, fruit, protein powder, and nut butter
  • Uncured turkey bacon with fruit and roasted potatoes or oatmeal
  • An egg and roasted vegetable wrap
  • Eggs and tomato slices on a whole-grain English muffin
  • A whole foods protein bar

Healthy Lunches or Dinners

  • A lean turkey burger or veggie burger with sliced avocados and tomatoes on a whole-grain roll
  • Whole-grain pasta with grilled chicken, broccoli, and an oil-based sauce
  • Turkey, vegetable, and bean chili (minus the cheese)
  • Trout, salmon, or cod with sweet potatoes and sautéed zucchini
  • A leafy green salad with grilled chicken, eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas or black beans, sunflower seeds, and an oil-based dressing
  • Tuna or chicken mixed with avocado oil mayonnaise, topped with greens on whole-grain bread
  • Baked chicken, turkey, or seafood with cooked quinoa and asparagus (sautéed with sesame seeds in olive oil)
  • A cold three bean and quinoa salad made with bell peppers and an oil and vinegar dressing

Choose a variety of lean proteins, fiber-rich carbohydrates, and heart-healthy fats during each meal to meet your body’s nutritional needs and stay lean.

Should I Eat During Exercise?

Stick with just water if you exercise for 60 minutes or less.

However, if endurance workouts last more than one hour, fuel your body with water plus carbohydrates to enhance exercise performance.

You might choose a sports drink, sports gel, or another carb-rich snack containing easily digestible carbohydrates.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency recommends athletes drink 6-12 ounces of a sports beverage containing 6-8% carbohydrates every 15-30 minutes (after the first hour of exercise) or sports gels in addition to water for longer endurance workouts.

Purdue University suggests consuming 30-60 grams of carbs every hour during longer endurance workouts by choosing snacks, gels, or sports drinks containing a mixture of different carbohydrates (maltodextrin, glucose, fructose, starch, etc.).

How Much Water Should I Drink?

Drink water all throughout the day and aim for at least 12 cups of fluids daily.

Every morning, drink 2-4 cups of water to get or stay hydrated.

Keep a water bottle with you during the day and fill it up often.

The American Academy of Family Physicians provides the following hydration recommendations for athletes:

  • Drink 2-2 1/2 cups of water 2-3 hours before exercise
  • Drink 1 cup of water 20-30 minutes before workouts
  • Drink about 1 cup of water every 10-20 minutes during exercise
  • Drink 1 cup of water within 30 minutes after workouts
  • Drink 2-3 cups of water for every pound of body weight lost (from sweating) during exercise

A good way to determine if you’re drinking enough water is by the way you feel and the color of your urine.

Signs of dehydration include fatigue, weakness, decreased exercise performance, dry mouth, dizziness, dark yellow-colored urine, nausea, and muscle cramps.

When you’re properly hydrated, your urine is close to clear or very light yellow.

Considerations for Weight Loss vs. Muscle Building

What you should eat before or after workouts depends on your weight management goals and the intensity and duration of workouts.

For example, women seeking weight loss have different pre- and post-workout nourishment guidelines than women trying to gain weight and muscle mass.

The main difference is the calories your body requires daily to lose, maintain, or gain weight.

Calories for Weight Loss

Many women seeking weight loss need about 1,200-1,500 calories (up to 1,800 calories if they are very active) per day.

If this is the case for you, consider the following sample meal plan:

  • Breakfast: 300 calories
  • Snack: 150-200 calories
  • Lunch: 300 calories
  • Snack: 150-200 calories
  • Dinner: 300 calories

Add an additional 150-200 calorie pre- or post-workout snack as needed.

If you feel hungry while using this weight loss meal plan, slightly increase your calorie intake.

Calories for Healthy Weight Management

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 set the following weight maintenance calorie guidelines for women based on their age and activity level:

  • Sedentary women: 1,600-2,000 calories
  • Moderately active women: 1,800-2,200 calories
  • Active women: 2,000-2,400 calories

The older you are, the fewer calories your body needs as your metabolism begins to slow down.

If you require about 2,000 calories per day to maintain your current weight, consider the following meal plan:

  • Breakfast: 400 calories
  • Snack: 250-300 calories
  • Lunch: 400 calories
  • Snack: 250-300 calories
  • Dinner: 400 calories

Add an additional 200-300 calorie pre- or post-workout snack as needed.

Calories for Weight Gain

If healthy weight gain is your goal, increase muscle building exercises and add an additional 250-500 calories to your meal plan daily.

Drink an extra protein shake or add nutrient-dense foods, such as nuts, seeds, nut butters, and avocados, to daily meal plans to boost calories without feeling excessively full.

It is the position stand of the International Society of Sports Nutrition that ingesting about 0.2 grams of protein per pound of your body weight every 3-4 hours enhances muscle building and is associated with improvements in body composition and exercise performance.

This equates to consuming about 25 grams of protein every 3-4 hours if you weigh 125 pounds.

Personalize What You Eat Before or After Workouts

Everybody is different, so it’s difficult to find pre- or post-workout fuel sources that are a perfect fit for every woman.

Experiment with different foods in varying amounts to find those that work best for you.

Choose food combinations you enjoy that enhance exercise performance, keep energy levels high, and lead to visible improvements in weight and body composition.

How to Achieve Your Dream Body

To help you plan weight loss meals and know what to eat before or after workouts, try the Fit Mother Project 30X (FM30X) designed for busy moms of all ages.

The program offers education, guidance, and the accountability needed to burn fat, lose excess weight, reduce chronic disease risks, and achieve and maintain your dream figure for life.

When you sign up for FM30X you’ll receive:

  • Fat-burning workouts
  • Nutritious meal plans
  • Custom menus
  • Healthy recipes
  • Online health coaching support
  • Weekly newsletters
  • Much more

To see what the program entails, start with the FREE Fit Mom 3-Day Weight Loss Jumpstart!

You’ll never have to second guess what to eat before or after workouts again!

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Erin Coleman

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

Erin Coleman is a registered and licensed dietitian with over 15 years of freelance writing experience.

She graduated with her Bachelor of Science degree in nutritional science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and completed her dietetic internship at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Prior to beginning her career in medical content writing, Erin worked as Health Educator for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Internal Medicine.

Her published work appears on hundreds of health and fitness websites, and she’s currently working on publishing her first book! Erin is a wife, and a Mom to two beautiful children.

If you’re a busy mom who wants to finally lose weight, get healthy, and actually keep the pounds off for good, this is the simple program you’ll love sticking to…

Our Fit Mother 30X Program (FM30X) is the answer you’ve been looking for. Inside FM30X, you’ll receive:

  • The simple & delicious Fit Mother Meal Plan with easy recipes for you and your family.
  • The metabolism-boosting Fit Mother 30X Workout (under 90 min/week) to kickstart your metabolism for fast fat burning.
  • VIP email coaching where we’ll personally walk you through the program.
Learn More About FM30X

If you’re a busy mom who wants to finally lose weight, get healthy, and actually keep the pounds off for good, this is the simple program you’ll love sticking to…

Our Fit Mother 30X Program (FM30X) is the answer you’ve been looking for. Inside FM30X, you’ll receive:

  • The simple & delicious Fit Mother Meal Plan with easy recipes for you and your family.
  • The metabolism-boosting Fit Mother 30X Workout (under 90 min/week) to kickstart your metabolism for fast fat burning.
  • VIP email coaching where we’ll personally walk you through the program.
Learn More About FM30X

*Please know that weight loss results & health changes/improvements vary from individual to individual; you may not achieve similar results. Always consult with your doctor before making health decisions. This is not medical advice – simply very well-researched info on what eat before or after workout.

Join Fit Father 30X

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