Fuel for Fitness: What to eat before and after a workout

Last week I gave a nutrition talk at my favorite Barre Studio on Fuel for Fitness: Pre and Post-workout nutrition. As promised, I wanted to give a little recap for those who were unable to make it!

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Too often I see clients working out hard in the gym, and then sabotaging their efforts with poor nutrition. Nutrition is important for everybody, but particularly for individuals who demand more of their body systems through exercise. Common questions I get from clients include “what do I eat before and after a workout?” and “does the timing of meals and snacks really matter?”. Individual nutrition needs vary based on the person, the types of workouts they do, and their particular goals (health maintenance, weight loss, weight gain, fat loss, muscle building, etc.) but these general guidelines are a good starting point. I love this topic and plan on breaking down what you should really be focusing on when it comes to nutrition for optimizing your fitness goals in todays post. 

Before we jump into talking about pre and post-work nutrition, I want to mention that focusing on your overall intake throughout the day is JUST as important as what you eat before and after a workout. A few important questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you eating consistently throughout the day? Physiologically our bodies work best when we eat every 3-4 hours. This is important for supporting an efficiently working metabolism and for stable blood sugar and energy levels.

  • Are you consistently including a variety of carbohydrates, protein and fat throughout the day, and where are these foods coming from?

  • Are you nourishing your body with mostly whole, minimally processed foods?

Pre-Workout Nutrition:

Have you ever gone into a workout and felt like you “hit a wall” half way through? Or just felt really low energy throughout? This is likely because your body’s energy/carbohydrate stores were empty before you even started working out. Carbohydrates are the primary energy source used by the brain, central nervous system and to support muscular work (from getting out of bed in the morning to powering through a spin class!). Include a carbohydrate rich snack 30-60 minutes prior to exercise to give your body the fuel it needs. The major goals with pre-workout nutrition are to:

  • Provide adequate energy for your body to sustain exercise

  • Enhance performance and endurance during exercise

  • Preserve muscle & liver glycogen - this tells your brain that you are well nourished, so your body can focus on repairing and building lean muscle.

  • Minimize gastrointestinal issues (we’ve all been there!)

Including a pre-workout snack is particularly important if you are doing some heavy lifting, HIIT training, spinning, boot camp classes, shorter + faced paced runs, etc. Eating too much fat, protein or fiber before a workout can cause digestive upset and prevents your body from accessing the quick energy it’s looking for. Focus on good quality carbohydrate rich snacks and play around with what makes you feel your best! If you’ve had a well balanced meal a couple hours before your workout, you might not need a pre-workout snack.


(mainly carbohydrates + a small amount of protein)

  •  Fruit (banana, orange, berries, apple, pear)

  • Dried fruit (dates, apricots, cherries)

  • Fruit leather

  • 2-3 dates + peanut butter

  • Whole grain toast +  slice of organic cheese

  • Unsweetened apple sauce + cinnamon

  • ½ medium sweet potato + cinnamon + drizzle of nut butter

  • Fruit based bar (such as a Lara bar or Kind Pressed Fruit bar)

Post-Workout Nutrition:

Depending on your goals (fat loss, weight loss, weight gain, muscle building, general health) the exact composition of your post-workout meals will vary. In general, it’s recommended to include a meal or snack within 2 hours after exercise to optimize workouts. The major goals with post-workout nutrition are to:

  • Replenish muscle fuel (carbohydrates) used during exercise

  • Provide protein to repair damaged muscle & support muscle protein synthesis

  • Replenish fluids + electrolytes lost

  • Provide antioxidants for reducing inflammation

Including a combination of carbohydrates and protein in post-workout meals/snacks is crucial. If you’re planning on eating a well balanced meal within a couple hours after exercising, a post-workout snack likely isn’t necessary (unless you’re feeling hungry!). If you won’t be having a meal for a couple hours, I would definitely recommend having a snack to optimize the hard work you just put in exercising. Exercise also promotes acute inflammation and stress on your body. Incorporating antioxidant rich foods (your bright colorful vegetables and fruit!) after a workout can help support your immune system in reducing inflammation and speed recovery.


(carbohydrates + protein + moderate/low amount of fat)

  • A whole food meal would be ideal: sweet potato + broccoli + protein of choice + avocado slices

  • Seeded Crackers + tuna fish

  • Cheese stick + a pear + almonds

  • Boiled eggs + sourdough toast

  • Oatmeal + hemp seeds + berries

  • Full fat cottage cheese + pineapple

  • Whole grain crackers + apple slices + organic cheese slices

  • Banana + protein shake

  • Guacamole + carrot sticks + turkey slices


What are some of your favorite pre and post-workout foods? What other questions do you have about fueling for fitness? I’d love to hear from you!

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