Best Foods For Your Workout

By Audrey Kessler, RD, LDN

As warmer weather rolls in, getting out--and working out--more may be top on your self-improvement list. The best exercise-related resolutions (meaning, the ones you keep) answer when and how you will achieve them. For instance, “losing ten pounds” should be accompanied by something like, “by walking the track for an hour on Mondays and Thursdays.” Additionally, knowing when and what to eat pre- and post-workout will significantly improve your energy level, which will increase your odds of turning this good intention into a healthy habit.  

Here are the basics on what to eat before and after exercise to help make this resolution stick.  


1. Most Important Meal

Aim to eat breakfast to maximize athletic performance. Along with the potential benefits of resisting unhealthful treats and discouraging overeating later in the day, this morning meal will ensure adequate energy for your workout. If you exercise first thing, wake up an hour early to fuel up with a snack-size or smoothie breakfast. If you exercise in the afternoon or evening, start the day with a hearty breakfast to prepare for an intense workout later on.  


2. Size and Time

These general guidelines indicate how long it may take to digest your food. Avoid eating too much or too little before your exercise session, both of which can leave you feeling tired and uncomfortable.  

  • Large meals: Eat 3-4 hours before exercising. 
  • Mini meals: Eat 2-3 hours before exercising.  
  • Small snacks: Eat 1 hour before exercising.  


3. Eating After Exercise 

For muscle recovery and replacement of stored energy (aka: glycogen), eating a meal within two hours of exercising is recommended. This meal should contain both carbohydrates and protein. If you plan to go out for a meal soon after the two-hour window, eat a snack. This way you can replenish carbohydrate stores without spoiling your appetite.  


4. Drink It Up

To get the most out of your workouts, it is not just about the foods you eat. Consuming and replacing fluids is key to exercising optimally. The American College of Sports Medicine has the following recommendations when it comes to staying hydrated: 

  • Drink 2-3 cups of water at least four hours before exercise; and 1½ cups 10-15 minutes before you start. 
  • Drink ½ to 1 cup of water every 15-20 minutes during your workout.  
  • Drink about 3 cups of water after your workout for every pound of weight you lost.  


Depending on whether you hit the weight machines, join a yoga studio, bike the Greenway or hike the Smokies, the duration and intensity of your workout will determine exactly what and how frequently you will need to eat and drink.  Along the same lines, how many calories constitutes a “large meal” or “small snack” will vary based on your total energy needs. Remember, everyone is different. Use these recommendations as a guide at first and then modify your eating habits according to what works best for your body and workout regimen.  


Pre-Workout Small Breakfast & Snack Ideas

  • Banana
  • Fruit smoothie 
  • Energy bar
  • Whole grain cereal 
  • Low-fat or skim milk
  • Raisin bagel and low-sodium vegetable juice


Post-Workout Meal & Snack Ideas

  • Low or non-fat yogurt with fresh fruit
  • Peanut butter toast 
  • Tuna on rye
  • Trail mix
  • Brown rice with grilled chicken and vegetables
  • Egg or bean burrito with guacamole



Mayo Clinic. Eating and Exercise: 5 tips to maximize your workouts. Accessed March 10, 2015. 

American College of Sports Medicine. Selecting and Effectively Using Hydration for Fitness. Accessed March 10, 2015.