What to Eat to Fuel Your Workout

What you eat and when can have a big impact on your energy level during a workout and how well you recover after.

We asked UNC Health registered dietitian Elizabeth Watt about what to eat and drink before, during and after your workout to feel your best.

What to Eat and Drink Before Your Workout

It’s a good idea to make sure you have food in your body before you lace up your running shoes.

“That fuel will give you energy to get through your workout,” Watt says. “Think about your body like a car, and your food is like fuel or gas. You’re not going to be able to get through that workout if you don’t have anything for your body to pull from.”

Ideally, you’ll eat carbohydrates and protein one to two hours before a workout. Try a banana and 2 tablespoons of natural peanut butter or toast with peanut butter if you’re eating two hours before.

“It can be something small like that. It gives you the carbs your body needs that it can pull from, and it gives you the protein, which allows for a slower digestion of those carbohydrates to give you more of a lasting effect,” Watt says.

If you’re eating one hour prior, eat a smaller snack such as a low-fat string cheese and five whole-grain crackers.

Avoid eating within one hour of starting to exercise. The closer to exercise you eat, the less fat and fruit you should have.

“Fat slows down digestion, and undigested food may cause nausea or sluggishness,” Watt says. “The fructose in fruit can cause gastrointestinal disturbances.”

Of course, you need to figure out what your body tolerates.

“If you’re someone who likes to go out for a morning run or walk, and you just don’t like to have anything heavy on your stomach, then you want to go with lower fiber, easily digestible foods,” Watt says.

Some low-fiber foods that are easy to digest include Greek yogurt with berries, a cup of applesauce and 4 ounces of cottage cheese, or pretzels with 2 tablespoons of hummus.

In addition to a small snack, make sure you drink about 16 ounces of fluids an hour before you exercise. Water is the best choice and sports drinks are not necessary for an hour or less of activity. A gulp of water is about an ounce, Watt says, but try not to gulp; sip during the hour before your workout.

“Sometimes maybe you have enough fuel on board, but you don’t have enough fluid, which puts you in a dehydrated state before your workout,” Watt says. “That is going to make that workout a lot harder, and the recovery from being dehydrated is a long process.”

What to Eat and Drink During Your Workout

During your workout, make sure you drink water.

“During exercise, drink about 4 ounces every 20 minutes,” Watt says. “If you do not have enough fluids, your electrolytes, sodium and calcium are going to be out of balance, and it can strain your cardiovascular system.”

Unless you are exercising for more than an hour, you usually don’t need to eat during a workout.

For intense exercise lasting longer than an hour, consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Here, you could use sports drinks, sports bars or gels.

Be careful when it comes to protein bars, though. Look for ones with less than 10 grams of sugar.

“Sometimes they can be glorified candy bars, so watch out and read food labels on those. There are a lot of added sugars in them,” Watt says. “If you’re out running for an hour, you might eat that to help bring your blood sugar back up and repair your muscles, but sometimes there’s so much extra sugar that it is not beneficial.”

What to Eat and Drink After Your Workout

Within 10 to 15 minutes of finishing your workout, eat about 15 grams of carbohydrates (try an apple or a slice of whole-grain bread) and 1 to 2 ounces of protein. For example, 1 ounce of nuts, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, one hard-boiled egg or two slices of turkey.

“Interestingly, chocolate milk is a fantastic post-exercise snack because it has the ideal combination of carbs and protein to bring blood sugar up and begin the repair process on muscles,” Watt says.

Be sure to drink 16 to 24 ounces of water in the hour after your workout. Eat a meal within two to three hours that includes a whole grain, lean protein, vegetable, fruit and small amounts of healthy fat. This will help you build lean muscle mass and store carbs for future workouts.

Some options include a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with baby carrots and grapes, oatmeal made with milk, topped with walnuts and craisins, or an egg sandwich with one slice of cheese on a whole-grain English muffin.

Want to schedule an appointment with a dietitian? Contact Rex Wellness Centers or UNC Wellness Centers.