What foods help you fuel your workouts, and what should you eat after physical activity?
Choose foods that give your body, especially your muscles, the energy it needs to power through exercise. The right foods can also restock the nutrients you’ve burned on the bike path, yoga mat, or at the gym.
Pre-workout: Your Body Needs Carbs
Before your workout, you need to eat to give your muscles fuel to power through the activity you choose to do. The specific nutrients in your pre-workout nosh or the amount you need to eat depends on your fitness level, as well as how long and hard you plan to exercise, says Laura Kruskall, PhD, a professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“Carbohydrates are important nutrients to focus on before endurance activities lasting an hour or more, or any intense strength workouts,” she says. “For the recreational exerciser, a small snack before a workout is sufficient. While for general health, we recommend high-quality carbohydrates like whole-grain foods, fruits, and vegetables, but these high-fiber foods can be problematic if you eat them right before rigorous training.”
Fiber-rich foods like a cup of chili or a fresh apple could cause you to pass gas during your workout, so Kruskall suggests some trial and error to figure out which carb-rich snacks your tummy will tolerate. “A carbohydrate-rich food with just a little protein, such as a banana with peanut butter, may provide sustained energy.”
Before you work out, fuel up with these carb-rich foods:
Make-at-home smoothie: Blend plain Greek yogurt with fresh blueberries
Early bird exercisers: Eat a hot bowl of oatmeal with banana slices
Protein-and-carb bomb: Smear fresh apple slices with almond butter
The classic: A peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole-grain bread
Don’t eat high-fat meals before you work out, Kruskall says. Fatty or greasy foods take longer to digest and often cause gas. If you’re doing any intense exercise, your body needs more carbs in the form of glucose, or natural sugar, not fat.
Do you stand before the cardio equipment and say, “Will I have enough energy to get through 30 minutes of biking?” Your mind may be more of a roadblock than your body because most of us store energy supplies from all the foods we eat each day, says Sarah L. Ash, PhD, emerita professor of nutrition at North Carolina State University. “Fuel for your workouts is really just calories, and that can be anything you eat. If you’re working out to build more lean muscle mass, make sure you’re eating enough protein, but that doesn’t mean you have to start using protein powders. Plant protein sources are good options, such as soy or quinoa.”
Be wary of so-called protein bars or sports drinks marketed as quick pre-workout energy boosters, says Laura Acosta, a registered dietitian and lecturer at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
“The more processed a food or beverage gets, the farther away it is from natural food. Some of these products may be a little better than others. Read the label. If you see sugar as an actual ingredient, that’s a red flag, especially added sugars and high-fructose corn syrup,” she says. Processed protein or sports bars advertised as being low-carb may contain sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners. “Look for a balance of carbs and protein in any energy bar.”
What about drinks for a quick boost of energy and protein before a morning workout? While many plant-based drinks like newly trendy oat milk and almond milk have calcium added, which is a good nutrient for keeping your bones strong, most are low in protein compared to cow’s milk, Ash says.
“I don’t think almond or oat milk are the best choices. Soymilk tends to have more protein per serving, about 7 grams. One cup of cow’s milk has 8 grams of protein,” she says. Another quick, pre-workout option is kefir, a tangy, shake-like dairy drink rich in probiotics. It may help you keep a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut, as well as protein and calcium. “It’s fermented, so it’s almost like yogurt in a drink.”
Post-workout: Refuel Muscles
Your body burns carbs as fuel in the form of glucose, or sugar. It also stores sugars in your muscles and liver as glycogen, which it can use for more fuel as needed. If you’ve done a sweaty workout, you may dip into your glycogen supply.
“After workouts, it’s important to replenish any glycogen you used for fueling your activity, and to provide your skeletal muscles with the amino acids they need for repair. Post-workout, good choices are quality carbohydrates such as grains, fruits, and vegetables,” Kruskall says. “If you’re a recreational athlete, you may benefit from getting 20 to 30 grams of protein in a post-workout meal, such as 3 to 5 ounces of meat or fish.”
For post-workout snacks, reach for:
- Raw fruits like bananas or apples
- A quarter-cup of dried fruit like mangoes or legumes like raw peanuts
- A whole-grain wrap with low-fat protein like turkey and fresh veggies
- Yogurt mixed with fresh berries
After a workout, fresh fruits and veggies replenish your body’s many cells in other ways, Acosta says.
“Be aware of the fact that when you exercise, you’re increasing the number of free radicals in your body, so it’s important to eat foods rich in antioxidants after a workout,” she says. Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules released by our bodies during exercise. Fruits and veggies rich in vitamins C, A, E, and lycopene give you antioxidants to protect your body: oranges, kiwifruit, tomatoes, papaya, broccoli, colorful peppers.
“If you’re in a rut and tired of the same fruits and veggies, try something new, like jicama. It’s crunchy and has a potato-like texture,” or add different varieties of mushroom, which are rich in minerals and fiber, as well as satisfying umami flavors, to a stir-fry or salad, Acosta says.