- Whether it’s best to eat before or after your workout depends on your goals for that exercise session.
- Eating a snack 30 minutes before your exercise may help to provide the energy you need to complete the workout.
- A good snack includes some carbs for energy, but isn’t high in fats as they can be slow to digest.
So, you’re all ready for your workout. You've got your activewear and trainers on, and you’re ready to get stuck in.
Then your belly rumbles. What do you do now? Maybe spend the next hour in the kitchen concocting some kind of creation out of complicated ingredients? Or do you just wait till after you’ve exercised?
You find yourself wondering… is it better to eat before or after a workout? And either way, what exactly should you be eating?
We asked Advanced Sports Dietitian Simone Austin all these questions and more. Then we pulled together this handy guide to help you crack the conundrum of what to eat before and after your workouts.
So… is it better to eat before or after a workout?
“Before you decide when you’re going to eat, you need to ask yourself what your goals are for the workout,” says Simone.
“Then, once you know what you want to achieve, make sure you have enough energy for the whole exercise session. That way, you can use any extra energy to hit those goals.”
For example, let’s say you go for a half-hour walk along the beach every morning before breakfast. This is something you do regularly without any issues. It’s not particularly strenuous, so eating afterwards when you get home could be a good plan for you.
Similarly, you probably won’t run out of oomph if you’re doing a low-intensity Pilates session. So in this case, you can eat either before or afterwards - whatever fits in best with your schedule, eating plan and preferences.
However, Simone says that it’s different if you’re training for a marathon and plan on doing a high-intensity run for an hour. In that case, you might well need some extra fuel in your tank to help you finish the distance.
“Regardless,” she advises, “what you don't want to do is go for hours and hours without any protein. If you do that, your body might not get the benefit of doing your exercise as it needs protein to repair and build muscle and your body does this best with regular bouts of protein foods .”
Your body also likes carbohydrates to fuel your exercise and spare the protein for muscle repair and building. It's all about knowing your limits and what you need to hit your health goals.
Knowing what to eat before a workout can be guided by what your goals are.
How long before a workout should I eat?
Simone notes that timing can be important when it comes to eating and exercise.
“After you’ve eaten, blood's trying to go to your stomach to digest your food. If you’re exercising, you really want that blood to go to your arms and legs or whatever parts of your body you're moving,” she says.
In some cases, she adds, exercising after eating may end up causing a stitch – something that nobody wants to feel.
To avoid this, she suggests waiting about half an hour after you eat, to exercise if you need a snack to fuel your fire. “This should help to reduce the likelihood of irritation and let your digestion settle so your blood can flow back to your limbs where you want it.”
She adds that if you’re having a larger meal, it's better to wait 2-3 hours before you exercise. This may help you to avoid getting a stitch, and will allow your body to access the nutrients from the food you just ingested.
Some research has shown that’ training the gut’- practicing to eat and drink before and during exercise can sometimes help your body get used to it, reducing the chance of gut upset or a stitch.
Before you decide when you’re going to eat, you need to ask yourself what your goals are for the workout.
What foods are best to eat before a workout?
According to Simone, the answer to this will depend on your tastebuds as well as your exercise goals. Whatever you eat has to give you the energy you need to complete your exercise at the right intensity.
Sports Dietitians Australia suggest eating foods that are “rich in carbohydrates to prime your fuel stores”, but being mindful of “foods overly high in fat, as these are slow to digest.”
Wondering how you’ll be able to eat all this? Don’t worry: you don’t have to add all sorts of extra food into your diet.
“It’s often best to just move your usual food around, rather than adding in extra,” Simone suggests.
For example, if you’re considering what to eat before a morning workout, you could still just have your normal breakfast cereal. Just make sure you time it right and wait long enough before you exercise to avoid that intestinal irritation.
Whatever you eat before your workout needs to give you the right amount of energy.
Good pre-workout foods
If you’re looking for a satisfying snack to fuel you up and eat 30 minutes before a workout, Simone suggests, “some protein to help build your muscle, and some carbohydrate to help fuel the session.”
To create this nutrient combination, consider options like:
- a smoothie with milk, fruit and yoghurt. If you’re vegan, try adding in some nut butter and seeds to a plant-based milk product you enjoy to increase its protein content
- a small sandwich with cheese, tuna or peanut butter. Or, if you don't eat animal products, try one of the tastier plant-based meat alternatives as a sandwich filling
- a small bowl of pasta with a tomato-based sauce and a handful of cheese
If you’re time-poor or just need to eat something quick and easy due to limited access, think about options such as:
- a serving of high-quality protein powder that you can mix with water
- foods that don’t need cooking or refrigeration, such as a trail mix that includes seeds, nuts and dried fruit
Also, when you’re making your weekly family meal plan, think about your exercise plan too, so you can arrange your meals to support your exercise needs.
If you’re not sure of the best way to do this, a dietitian can probably help. For example, an Accredited Sports Dietitian can help you to figure out your individual needs, and tailor your pre- and post-workout nutrition to them.
What about the carbs?
Carbohydrates (aka ‘carbs’) have received a bit of a bad rap for being ‘unhealthy’ and responsible for all kinds of problems. But the truth is that carbs are an essential part of a balanced diet, providing a key fuel for the brain and central nervous system.
That’s just what you want when you’re planning your workout nutrition. But if you’re wondering how many carbs to have before a workout, the answer is that there’s no ideal amount.
Yes, there are complex formulas you can use to calculate a suggested intake – usually based on your body size and the exercise you’re doing. And if you really want this, an Accredited Sports Dietitian can also help you figure out a number to aim for. A rough guide is a third of your plate to be carbohydrate foods if you're quite active and around a quarter of your plate for the general population.
However, Simone says that for most people, it’s better to focus on quality over quantity. Quality carbohydrates are usually high in dietary fibre (e.g. wholegrain bread, brown rice, oats, potato, corn) and these will fill you up.
The best carbs to eat before or after a workout
According to Simone, it’s not so much about exactly when to eat your carbs and how many to have. Instead, it’s more important to choose the right ones.
She recommends starting by, “getting your carbs from foods that will give you other nutrients as well.” This means focusing on high-quality wholefoods (e.g. wholegrain bread, brown rice, fruit, yoghurt) and trying to limit the simple carbs in heavily processed, sugary foods and drinks.
Her top tip is a simple one. “If you eat dairy, have a glass of milk,” she recommends. “Milk is a fluid to help with hydration, and it’s packed with both protein and carbohydrates, along with vitamins and minerals.”
And, of course, it's relatively affordable, and easily available too.
Looking at the bigger workout nutrition picture
The key point to take away is that fuelling your workout well doesn’t have to mean adding in lots of extra foods. Instead:
- It can mean having nutritious options around you, including the plant protein sources if you want to increase your intake of plant-based foods.
- It can mean starting a new habit of focusing your diet on a wide range of wholefoods and less ultra processed foods.
- It can mean looking at healthier takeaway food options, instead of swearing never to eat out or order in again.
Chatting to an accredited sports dietician can help improve how you fuel your workout.
Get help ‘stoking the fire’ for your workout
There are so many variables when it comes to fuelling your workout well. Seeing food as fuel for your exercise is one potential trick for eating healthier, and it may help you to focus on foods that make you feel better too.
However, if you're finding it confusing or overwhelming, don’t be afraid to reach out to an accredited sports dietitian.
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Simone Austin is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, an Advanced Sports Dietitian, author of Eat Like An Athlete and past President of Sports Dietitians Australia. Her passion for optimising sports performance and health through nutrition has led Simone through her 25+ year career working with some of Australia’s top sports teams.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board December 2021.