Ever wonder what’s best to eat before you hit the gym? What about after a tough spin class? Many people hit up the juice bar for a protein shake, but is that really the only way to refuel your body?


There many articles providing information about what you should and shouldn’t eat around your workout. I’m here to summarize nutrition research to help you break it all down and simplify the answers to above questions.

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Let’s talk pre-workout. Fueling appropriately before you workout will give you the energy to give your best efforts and reap the benefits of your training. Many people hold the belief that fasting, or not eating, before a workout will increase weight loss – but this isn’t always the case. If you’re working out with no fuel in the tank, you will likely not have the energy to make the most of your workout and without something for the body to feed on, often times it will look for sources in the body to breakdown for energy. After your body’s limited glycogen stores (carbohydrate storage) are used up, one of the next places it turns to will be the muscle. It will begin to break down your hard earned lean mass, to release amino acids for energy. So, to prevent early fatigue and protein breakdown by ensuring you eat something before you decide to train. This doesn’t have to be excessive, especially for lower intensity exercise such as a short aerobic workout or class, but for classes and sessions that focus on high intensity aerobic or resistance training, choosing something with a bit more substance will ensure you can make the best of your workout.

For post-workout, the intensity is an important thing to consider when determining how much and when you should eat. During this time, your body is looking to rebuild or even just restore any nutrient stores in the body that were used during your training. If moderate to strenuous activity was done for a sustained period of time your body will need some fuel to prevent protein breakdown and overall fatigue.

Lastly, while the types of nutrients you get matters, the types of foods you use to get them is not as important. For example, protein is important post workout for repair but whether you sit down to a whole food source or choose to have a protein supplement on the go, its all the same nutrient and your body will use them either way to restore what was used up.

Before getting into some examples, there are a few important pieces of information you should know first that would affect your choices. These things include what nutrients are important, workout intensity and timing.

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When to Eat

Timing food before a workout is highly individualized as it depends mostly on the individual’s schedule. For some, training occurs first thing in the morning before work and so they need something small, but energy dense to eat within an hour of their training. For others who may workout after work, a large mid day meal may be the best choice as it gives the meal a few hours to digest but is large enough to provide enough energy to sustain them.

After training, the research on nutrient timing is much more consistent, especially for individuals who are training on a regular basis. Specifically, most studies suggest eating within 30 minutes to an hour after moderate to vigorous activity to gain the most benefits from protein synthesis and glucose uptake. This not only helps to rebuild tissues but it also provides energy stores for the next training session and prevents fatigue after a hard training session.

What to Eat

We all know that carbohydrates give us energy. We also know that protein is what builds and repairs the tissues of our body. So from that, its would be a safe bet to assume that those nutrients are important before and after a workout when your body needs energy to perform and the building blocks to repair. Studies have provided good evidence that these two nutrients are indeed important for both pre and post workout, whether it’s aerobic or resistance based training. With that being said, that doesn’t mean you need huge portions of each. Instead, two key factors into the amounts an individual needs are really based on the time you have worked out for and the intensity of your training.

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Intensity and Fueling

Intensity is a critical factor because it will determine how many nutrients were used and therefore how much you need to take in to replenish your body. Fitness classes such as zumba, recreational dancing, yoga and pilates will not demand as much energy and resources as a hard cycle class, a high intensity interval training (HIIT) session or a long bout of resistance training will. In the former scenario, pre and post nutrition is not as important as the later. For lower intensity training it is probably sufficient to simply eat intuitively. In other words, perhaps eat something light before if you haven’t eaten in a while or are peckish and eat when you feel hungry after the training. Due to these types of exercises being less energy consuming, there is not need to sprint to the smoothie bar for immediate refuel.

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For high intensity training, some consideration is required as the resources the body needs may be much higher. For pre-workout, although some feel they workout best on an empty stomach. However, most often fasted training (whether aerobic or resistance) leads to a sub-par session and the potential for light headedness and early fatigue is heightened. As such, it is important to get some fuel before exercising at this level. The next thing to think about is timing. If your training is in less than an hour, less volume and easy to digest nutrients are best as they won’t leave you feeling overly full and bloated. If you have more time to digest, having a normal meal a 1-2 hours beforehand should be appropriate. In this meal, a complex carbohydrate source combined with moderate protein and a small amount of fat would be appropriate to give you enough energy to work optimally from start to finish. During the post workout period, it is important to provide a good dose of carbohydrates and protein once again for the rebuilding phase. For optimal growth, eating within 30 minutes to an hour is best.

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In conclusion, questions around what to eat before and after a workout, are not so simple. Pre and post workout nutrition depend highly on workout timing and intensity. Remember, there are plenty of real-food options that can fit into your pre and post workout nutrition routine – you don’t always have to reach for a protein shake.

For more personalized nutrition information around your workouts, make an appointment Registered Dietitian who is knowledgeable in this area.

Research and article written by Chelsea Cross, BASc (c)

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