Fuel Up For Maximum Results: What To Eat Before And After Your Workout

With all that effort, you want to make sure you’re getting maximum results. And a key part of that is the way you fuel your body: both before and after those grueling workouts.

Nourish it right, and you’re on your way to faster recovery, vibrant energy, and toned muscle. Fuel it wrong and all that hard work could be undone.

So how do you nourish your body for the best results?

Before your workout

The goal for pre-workout nutrition is to provide your body with enough energy and stamina to perform well throughout your gym sesh. Both the timing and the make up of this pre-workout meal are important to maximize results.


Your muscles use glucose in carbohydrates for energy during your workout. Glycogen stored in our muscles and liver is the primary source of fuel during high-intensity sessions of short duration. [1] For longer exercise sessions (e.g. marathon running, triathlons) energy is usually provided by fatty acids.

To ensure you have sufficient glycogen available to fuel your workout and delay fatigue, you should consume a snack or meal containing carbohydrates between 45 minutes to three hours before you exercise. [2] The make up of that meal or snack will depend on the intensity of the workout and how closely it is consumed to your workout time.

If you are eating 45-60 minutes before you work out, choose foods that are simple to digest. Main meals should be eaten two, or ideally three hours before you work out to avoid any upset tummies. Be careful with foods that are particularly high in fibre or fat close to your workout time, as these can cause digestive discomfort.

Examples of optimal pre-workout meals and snacks:

If your workout is two or three hours away:

  • Tuna and salad sandwich on wholegrain bread
  • Chicken and vegetable stir fry with brown rice
  • Baked potato or kumara with cottage cheese and tuna.

If your workout starts within two hours:

  • Crackers with hummus or cheese
  • Fresh fruit and sugar-free Greek Yoghurt
  • An apple and a boiled egg
  • A slice or two of wholegrain or paleo bread with almond butter.

If your workout starts within an hour:

  • Fruit smoothie
  • A piece of fruit (pineapple, apple, pears, oranges)
  • Protein bar.

Working out first thing and no time for a proper meal?

Working out on a completely empty stomach is not recommended, as you may fatigue easily or feel lightheaded or dizzy, so grab a glass of pineapple juice, a piece of fruit, or even a glass of milk on your way to the gym. As long as there’s some fuel in your tummy, it’ll help.

Selecting the right kinds of carbohydrates

The type of carbohydrates you choose is also important for optimizing workout performance. The best way to select the right carbohydrates is by following the Glycemic Index.[3]

The Glycemic Index (GI) ranks carbohydrates according to how quickly they release glucose into the bloodstream. Foods with a GI rating of 70 to 100 are considered High GI. They increase blood sugar levels quickly, providing a rapid source of glucose for muscles. These fast-acting carbs are beneficial after exercise and provide a rapid source of energy during intense workouts lasting longer than an hour (e.g. distance running, hiking, triathlons, or long tennis matches).

You can reach for Lollie's or sugary sports drinks to keep you going during a long workout or you can top up your energy levels with a nourishing high GI snack. Healthy options for high GI carbs include:

  • Pineapple
  • Banana
  • Watermelon
  • Dried fruit

Medium (55-70) and low (below 55) GI carbohydrates are broken down more slowly, meaning they provide a more sustained source of energy. These are the carbs we should be eating before exercise to fuel us during our workouts. They’re also the carbs we should be eating most often in our normal diet, as they prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels and help promote satiety, keeping you fuller for longer.

Healthy low-GI carb options include:

  • Brown rice or quinoa
  • Lentils, chickpeas or beans
  • Kumara and pumpkin
  • Baked potato with toppings (tuna, cottage cheese, hummus or Greek Yoghurt)
  • Wholegrain or paleo toast with almond butter or hummus
  • 6-8 pieces of brown rice sushi
  • Oats (Porridge with yogurt is a great option)
  • Apples, pears and kiwifruit
  • Wholegrain crackers with cheese, hummus, cottage cheese or tuna.

For more information on GI and how to use it for sports and general nutrition, visit www.glycemicindex.com


It might not be glamourous or high-tech but the single most important factor for pre-workout nutrition is good old H20. Water plays a number of essential roles during exercise, including:

  • Maintains blood volume and cardiovascular function
  • Regulation of body temperature.

Good hydration can help sustain and even enhance performance, while dehydration has been linked to significant decreases in performance.[4][5]

As a minimum we need 1.5-2 litres of fluid per day, plus another litre for every hour of exercise we do. In hot conditions, or when the workout is particularly intense, this amount should increase. Although ice-cold water might be more palatable, room-temperature water is best as it’s easier to drink (eliminates the brain freeze!).

Water alone is sufficient for workouts up to one hour, but if you’re working out intensely for longer than that, you’ll need something to replace lost glucose and electrolytes.

If weight loss is my goal, should I avoid eating before exercise?

There’s an old school of thinking that working out in a fasted state will mean your body burns its fat stores for fuel, helping promote weight loss.

But working out an empty stomach is actually counterproductive: When you work out hungry, you are likely to fatigue faster, meaning you will not be able to train as long or as hard. Having a small, low-calorie snack before exercise will enable you to work out longer and at a higher intensity – meaning you’ll probably burn more calories overall. [6] That said, if your workout is a gentle walk, yoga, or Pilates class, you can get away with not eating before, if you choose. 

Post-workout nutrition

Refueling your body after exercise is crucial to enhancing performance and optimizing recovery. To understand the importance of post-workout nutrition, we must first look at what happens to your body when you work out.

During exercise your body breaks down its muscle glycogen stores for fuel. Your muscles become partially depleted of glycogen, and some proteins in your muscles may also get broken down or damaged.[7]

After exercise, we therefore need to replace depleted glycogen stores, prevent muscle breakdown and encourage muscle synthesis (growth).[8] Post-workout nutrition will also help enhance recovery.


As discussed above, exercise triggers the breakdown of muscle protein. [9][10] Eating adequate protein after your workout is crucial to provide your body with sufficient amino acids to help repair and rebuild these muscle proteins.[11] It will also provide the nutrients to help build new muscle tissue.

So how much protein do you need after a workout? According to researchers, consuming 20–40 grams of protein will maximize your recovery after exercise.[12][13]


While protein is often considered the silver bullet of post-workout nutrition, carbohydrates are equally important for optimum recovery. Eating carbohydrates helps replace depleted muscle glycogen and works hand in hand with protein to help repair muscle damage.

Eating protein and carbohydrates together stimulates a larger release of insulin than when protein is eaten alone. This is important as insulin is essential for glycogen synthesis (production).[14][15]

Therefore, consuming a snack combining both carbohydrates and protein is your best bet for maximizing muscle repair and replenishing glycogen stores after your workout. [16].

For optimum recovery, the most effective ratio of carbohydrates to protein seems to be 3: 1(carbs to protein), e.g. 20 grams of protein and 60 grams of carbohydrate.[17][18]


The timing of your post-workout meal or snack is also really important. Experts talk about an ‘anabolic window’—a period of time after your workout that leads to the best recovery. Usually, this time frame ranges between 45 minutes to an hour post-workout, so make sure you grab a snack or meal containing protein and carbohydrates no more than an hour after your gym session.[19]

Ok, so I need protein and carbs within an hour after my workout, but what exactly should I eat? 

Healthy options to fuel your recovery include:

  • Sugar-free Greek Yoghurt with fruit and a sprinkling of raw, unsalted almonds
  • Wholegrain or gluten-free toast with almond butter, hummus or cottage cheese
  • Baked potato or kumara with cottage cheese or tuna
  • A bowl of porridge with fresh fruit and Greek Yoghurt
  • Salmon with roasted kumara and steamed vegetables
  • Chicken or beef stirfry with brown rice and vegetables.


Deciding on the right kind of post-workout nutrition

When determining your pre- and post-exercise nutrition needs, it’s important to consider your goals and the nature and intensity of your workout. For example, a young man lifting very heavy weights at the gym will require many more calories than a female attending Pilates classes to tone up or lose weight.

While replacing lost nutrients is important, many people fall into the trap of eating more calories than they expend – undoing all the benefits of that hard work at the gym.

Pre- and post-exercise meals and snacks must be factored into your overall energy/calorie budget for the day. Rather than adding additional meals or snacks into your diet, shift the timings of your current meals to accommodate your workout schedule. i.e. If you hit the gym after work, have your afternoon snack at approximately 4 pm, and your evening meal around 7 pm.


Drinking plenty of water is also essential after your workout to replace lost fluids and electrolytes and to promote recovery. As discussed in the pre-workout nutrition section, makes sure you drink at least a litre of water for every hour that you workout. For longer or more intense sessions, consider adding electrolytes to your water to keep glucose stores up.

A little extra boost

Working out is fantastic for improving fitness and enhancing wellbeing, however, it does increase our need for nutrients. We need higher levels of vitamins and minerals to promote recovery and boost energy, and extra antioxidants to counteract the increased free radical production that occurs during intense exercise.


[1] Gollnick PD, Matoba H.Role of carbohydrate in exercise. Clin Sports Med. 1984 Jul;3(3):583-93. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6571232
[2] Semeco, A. Pre-Workout Nutrition: What to eat before a workout.
[3] Bell, J. Holistic Sports Nutrition. M2Woman 38. January/February 2016.
[4] Maughan, R. Investigating the associations between hydration and exercise performance: methodology and limitations. Nutr Rev. 2012 Nov;70 Suppl 2:S128-31. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2012.00536.x.
[5] Casa DJ1, et al. National athletic trainers' association position statement: fluid replacement for athletes. J Athl Train. 2000 Apr;35(2):212-24. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16558633
[6] Australian Institute of Sport. Eating before exercise. http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/fact_sheets/eating_before_exercise
[7] Semeco, A. Post-Workout Nutrition: What to eat after a workout. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/eat-after-workout#section1
[8] Semeco, A. Post-Workout Nutrition: What to eat after a workout. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/eat-after-workout#section1
[9] Kerksick C et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2008 Oct 3;5:17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18834505
[10] Pitkanen HT et al. Free amino acid pool and muscle protein balance after resistance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 May;35(5):784-92.
[11] Semeco, A. Post-Workout Nutrition: What to eat after a workout. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/eat-after-workout#section1
[12] Biolo G. An abundant supply of amino acids enhances the metabolic effect of exercise on muscle protein. Am J Physiol. 1997 Jul;273(1 Pt 1):E122-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9252488
[13] Tipton KD1 et al. Postexercise net protein synthesis in human muscle from orally administered amino acids. Am J Physiol. 1999 Apr;276(4 Pt 1):E628-34. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10198297
[14] Poole C.. The role of post-exercise nutrient administration on muscle protein synthesis and glycogen synthesis. J Sports Sci Med. 2010 Sep 1;9(3):354-63.
[15] Ivy JL1.Glycogen resynthesis after exercise: effect of carbohydrate intake. Int J Sports Med. 1998 Jun;19
[16] Rasmussen B et al. An oral essential amino acid-carbohydrate supplement enhances muscle protein anabolism after resistance exercise. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2000 Feb;88(2):386-92.
[17] Ivy JL et al. Early postexercise muscle glycogen recovery is enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2002 Oct;93(4):1337-44.
[18] Semeco, A. Post-Workout Nutrition: What to eat after a workout. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/eat-after-workout#section1
[19] DuVall, J. How much protein do I need? Men’s Health.
[20] DuVall, J. How much protein do I need? Men’s Health. https://www.mensfitness.com/nutrition/what-to-drink/trainer-qa-how-much-protein-do-i-need-after-a-workout