Foods to Fuel Your Workout and When to Eat

Foods to Fuel Your Workout and When to Eat
Eating just the right thing before lifting weights or jumping on the elliptical trainer, spin bike, stair climber, etc.  can keep you energized from start to finish. But what you should eat depends on how hard, how long, and what kind of  exercising you are doing. But before we discuss the types of food to eat, you might be asking yourself this question...

"Should I eat before or after my workout?"

This makes for a fun topic as you are going to hear everything under the sun!  My answer is Both.  This is why: Some people may tell you to train on an empty stomach in order to burn more fat, but that has turned out to be FALSE, not to mention pretty dreadful.  You do not have to suffer to get results.  There is a better way, I promise! In fact, your body needs some glucose (blood sugar) for fuel in addition to what it can use from fat stores when you’re working out. If you don’t have any blood sugar available, your body will eat the muscles’ glycogen, or stored glucose. Low blood sugar will also make you tired and sluggish during your training session.  You will have no power to work hard, which is what really changes your body. I can always tell when a client of mine has skipped breakfast or not eaten for hours because they have no power or push point for their workout. For these reasons, I suggest you eat something 45 minutes to an hour before training —you’ll have more energy and endurance to work harder, burn more calories, and improve your muscle tone.  This goes for both cardio and strength training workouts.   After training, during a period known as the golden hour (45 to 60 minutes after a workout), muscles absorb the most nutrients, and glycogen is replaced the most efficiently. This is especially important after strength training. You don’t have to have a huge meal — just a little something that contains both protein and carbs will give the best results.  You don’t want to throw all your hard work out the window by not refueling.

Here are just some surprisingly easy ways to fuel your muscles before different workouts and -- "pant, pant"--help you recover after you've worked your butt off! :

(No, this is NOT what I had in mind!)

A Solid Aerobics Session: 30–60 Minutes

Before A small liquid snack 5 minutes before a run, step session, or power yoga class turns into fuel almost immediately. Let these rules be your guide:
  • Keep it light (under 200 calories) for faster digestion.
  • The less time you have to eat before exercising, the less you should eat. You don't want stuff sloshing about in your tummy as you move.
  • Skip juice blends or energy drinks that list high-fructose corn syrup or glucose gels on the label. Both heavy-hitter sweeteners can make blood sugar levels plummet mid-workout.
A few 200-calorie-and-under suggestions:
  • A blend-it-yourself 8-ounce smoothie made with fruit and low-fat yogurt
  • High-Fiber Cereal and milk of your choice
  • Coconut Water, my favorite
  • Protein Shake
  • A 6-ounce glass of OJ and two graham crackers
After To rehydrate and keep your blood sugar stable, have some water and one of these snacks:

Hit-the-Wall Aerobics: 60 Minutes or More

Before You want a snack that keeps muscles supplied with a steady flow of glucose. Just as a car sputters to a stop when it runs out of gas, you 'hit the wall' or 'bonk' if your glucose supplies are drained. Once that happens, no snack will fuel you fast enough to finish the workout. Runners call it "Hitting The Wall!" Before you go all out, have these:
  • Water to ward off dehydration, especially in hot weather.
  • Carbs that are high quality and easy to digest -- they'll leave your GI tract quickly and supply enough glucose to fuel a long workout.
  • Protein from yogurt, milk, almond or soy milk, or nuts to offset a rapid drop in blood sugar from eating those carbs.
  • Foods that are light (again, 200 calories) and low fat, to avoid digestive problems. If your energy dips or your legs become shaky, eat more the next time, until you hit on the right amount.
Good carb/protein combos:
  • Half of a 4-ounce whole-wheat bagel with 1 tablespoon nut butter,or try my hummus recipes, or low-fat cream cheese
  • One small slice of last night's vegetarian pizza or two-thirds cup of leftover spaghetti with marinara sauce. Try my Dinner Meals-so many to choose from!
  • One stick of low-fat string cheese, one medium pear, and three whole-grain crackers
After Recover with more water and a 100-calorie, all-carb snack like these:
  • 50 pretzel sticks
  • Frozen yogurt, smoothie, or fruit
  • Half a baked sweet or potato topped with 2 tablespoons of salsa
(or check out my Parsnip Fries)

Up to 60 Minutes of Gentle Yoga, Stretching, or Light Recreational Sport

Before A pre-workout snack isn't essential for low-sweat activities -- say, an hour of yin yoga or a stretch class. But if you're hungry, try a banana for potassium and two graham crackers for carbs. Wash it down with some water. After All you need is more water.

Semi-Intense Strength Training: 30–45 Minutes

Before Carbs with a dash of protein is your fuel of choice. For the average gym rat who does 30 minutes of weight training two or three times a week, just have a high-carb snack at least 30-60 minutes or so before you start.  Only serious body builders and weight lifters who pump for more than 45 minutes at least 3 days a week need extra protein -- most people get plenty!  If you're borderline hard core, try these 200- to 250-calorie protein-laced snacks:
  • Whole-grain bread and a piece of fruit
  • Whole-grain, High-Fiber Cereal with a low-fat milk
  • Egg whites with a whole-wheat english muffin, check out all my Egg Dishes
  • Oatmeal with fruit
  • One tablespoon of nut butter (peanut, almond, or cashew) and one half of a sliced banana OR you can also add that to a 10-inch whole-wheat tortilla, all rolled up, burrito-style and cut in half, save the rest for another snack in the day. Try my Peanut Butter and Banana Quesadilla, (so delicious!)
  • Fruit or try my Dried Fruit Recipes, (like chocolate dipped oranges!)
  • Three whole-grain crackers with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter and 6-ounces of V8 juice
  • Low-Fat Protein Bar, (not completely carb-free, you want energy)
  • One small (2-ounce) low-fat muffin, check out my Muffin Recipes (from zucchini, blueberry, apple, pumpkin, chocolateand egg muffins!)  and a 6-ounce glass of OJ
After Rehydrate with water, and have a mix of a simple carb and a protein that helps repair and build your muscles. A protein shake with fruit is a great option.  Also, this would be the one time to knock your self out with low-fat Chocolate Milk! (perfect carb, protein, and sugar ratio.) Here are some good options:
  • smoothie with a protein.
  • Plain, non-fat yogurt mixed with berries or applesauce, I love Greek Yogurt.  Try my Greek Yogurt Parfait (with or w/o the brown rice)
  • Fruit and a low-fat protein bar
  • Protein Shake- my "go-to" most of the time.

An All-Day Activity like a Hike, Skiing, Surfing, or Snowboarding, Cycling, Running

Before To build your glycogen stores, plan ahead:
  • For a day or two prior to your outing, eat high-carb meals of whole-wheat pasta, quinoa, couscous, or brown rice dishes.
  • Drink ample fluids, too -- at least 10 cups a day. Before setting out, have a substantial high-carb meal of pancakes or waffles with fruit.  Try my Pancake Recipes, they are all super!
  • Regularly sip water or sports drinks; don't wait until you get thirsty, then it is too late! You can't fool your body. 😉
  • READ my "Are You Drinking Enough Water?" Post for more info on how to properly hydrate!
After Soak in the hot tub! And keep drinking water. Have a high-carb snack, such as popcorn (every night at my house!), pretzels, a muffin, or hot cocoa and a graham cracker. Exercising regularly will not only burn off all those snacks, and more, but also it can make you younger and your body will be inches trimmer. Nice, right!  Food should be fuel for your body most importantly but it can be fun, enjoyable, and something to look forward to after all your hard work.  Keep in mind, these are all suggestions and there are many other options, but now you get the picture and do what is best for you. 🙂 See you on your next workout! “IT IS OK TO HAVE BAD DAYS.  THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOU ARE OFF FOR GOOD.  FORGIVE YOURSELF AND GET BACK ON TRACK!”
Love Monica Nelson

Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that I am not a Registered Dietitian. While my advice relies on my own personal experience and research, what has been successful for myself and others may be not best for you. You should always consult your doctor when making changes to your diet. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to email me at

9 Comment to “Foods to Fuel Your Workout and When to Eat”

  1. Very informative. I was just thinking about this topic over the weekend. I’ve tried both and I agree, it’s just too hard to get anything accomplished an a totally empty stomach.
    Suzanne Williams

  2. Heidi says:

    Thank you for this great post! I have really been enjoying reading through all of the fabulous information on your website and blogs over the past few weeks. Thank you!

  3. Coco says:

    Thanks for a great post. I am just about to start a new exercise regime and this will be so useful. I am always worried about eating too much/too little after working out.

  4. My pre-work out recommendation = roasted butternut squash + egg whites + cinnamon + stevia! I eat that every morning prior to my “hit the wall” cardio! It’s amazing and delicious. I make it pancake style 🙂 It gets me excited to get up in the morning! LOL.

  5. Monica Nelson says:

    GiGi, I love your idea! I too also eat a ton of butternut, sweet potato, or kombocha squash but you are on it with the egg whites, cinnamon, and stevia. 🙂 Pancake style,= awesome!

  6. Shannon says:

    Just read this article and found it very interesting. I workout first thing in the morning up at 5 a.m. and working out by 5:30. I usually don’t eat anything but was wondering if a handful (1/2 oz) of almonds or something light right when I wake up would be helpful or not?

    • Monica Nelson says:

      Hi Shannon, Great to hear from you. So you will hear everything under the sun on what you should or shouldn’t do! My expert advise though is, I think you are FAR better off eating something small (rather than nothing) for sure! This will fuel you to power through a good workout, this will also set you up for success throughout the day without any energy crashes and blood sugar drops, you will not be grouchy… and most importantly, it will start the metabolism up. In my opinion, 1/2 oz of almonds is completely reasonable and you should absolutley still get the results you are after. 🙂 Best of luck!

  7. Kristin says:

    These look so yum! Thanks for your suggestion. Can’t wait to try it out for my spinning session tonight 🙂

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