Food & Recipes Home

The Best Way to Fuel Your Workout

From the WebMD Archives

Redbook Magazine Logo Are you really supposed to eat spaghetti before a big workout? And what about after exercise—is it true that protein helps prevent muscle pain? Cynthia Sass, R.D., spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association helps cut the confusion


If you've had a balanced meal within the last three hours, you shouldn't need to eat anything before hitting the gym. But if it's been longer than three hours since your last meal, or you're working out first thing in the morning, have a light snack about an hour before exercising. It should be high in complex carbohydrates and low in sugar (10 or fewer grams per serving), fiber (3 grams or fewer), protein (5 grams or fewer), and fat (5 grams or fewer).

Why go for complex carbs? Your blood absorbs them in a time-released manner to provide continuous fuel throughout a workout. Protein and fat, on the other hand, digest very slowly, and fiber doesn't digest at all, so they can give you that full, I-swallowed-a-brick feeling. As for refined sugar, it can pull water into the digestive tract, which can lead to cramping, plus it will likely get trapped in the gastrointestinal tract, making it unavailable to fuel your muscles. Snacks that fit the bill: One cup of dry cereal, such as Cheerios or Kix, half an English muffin (plain), half a mini bagel, or the original version of the PowerBar -- not the newer high-protein versions.


For moderate workouts that last approximately an hour or less, stay hydrated by drinking water every 15 to 20 minutes. If your workout is more intense, have a sports drink such as Gatorade or Accelerade to replace some of the electrolytes you've lost (look for "sports drink" on the label).


If your workout was pretty serious, like a heart-thumping kickboxing class, try to have a full meal within an hour that combines protein, a blend of simple and complex carbs, and healthy fat. These healing nutrients will help repair and feed fatigued muscles. And rehydrate with fluid from food (such as fruit and vegetables) or non-caffeinated beverages. Less intense workouts call for the same mix of nutrients, in lighter form. A full meal might consist of grilled chicken salad with vinaigrette dressing, a side of brown rice, and fruit. For a snack, low-fat yogurt with a handful of almonds or sunflower seeds and water would do the trick.

Related content on

WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine
Reprinted with permission from Hearst Communications, Inc.