What to Eat Before and After a Workout

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Eating before and after a workout is important for burning calories, staying energized, losing weight, and speeding up recovery. The most beneficial combination to eat, both before and after a workout, is a mix of complex carbohydrates and protein.

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates help keep the body fueled through a workout and delay the onset of fatigue. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for exercise and are stored in the muscles as glycogen. The depletion of muscle glycogen and carbohydrates represent the onset of fatigue. It is therefore important that muscle glycogen stores and available carbohydrates don’t deplete too quickly.

Muscle glycogen and carbohydrates are used as fuel during a workout via both aerobic (oxygen dependent) and anaerobic (oxygen independent) pathways. What does this mean? It means that glycogen and carbohydrates support both low intensity and high-intensity exercise. Carbohydrates burn aerobically during long periods of low-intensity exercise and anaerobically during quick bursts of high-intensity exercise.

Complex carbohydrates also take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates, which helps maintain steady blood sugar and insulin levels. When carbohydrates are digested too quickly there is a sudden rise in blood sugar and insulin, this is followed by a sudden drop in blood sugar and insulin. The sudden spikes and drops in blood sugar are unstable and may contribute to early onset of fatigue during exercise.


Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and promotes muscle synthesis immediately after a workout. It is important for individuals aiming for specific training adaptations, like bigger muscles and more endurance, to consume sufficient amounts of protein.

When digested, protein breaks down into its amino acid components. Certain amino acids convert to carbohydrates or fat to be used as fuel by skeletal muscle. During exercise, amino acids can contribute to as much as 15% of the energy burned during exercise. More protein breaks down than is being synthesized during exercise.

Protein synthesis for training adaptations takes place immediately after exercise. Consuming protein during this period of time is optimal for maximizing the results of exercise such as strength and endurance training.

How long before and how soon after?

Try to eat at least two hours before exercise to give it time to digest and store as glycogen. This is especially important when consuming large amount amounts of food, such as in carbohydrate loading. The onset of exercise redirects blood to the working muscles and away from digestive organs, which may interfere with digestion.

Foods high in protein are best to consume immediately after exercise, during the period of highest protein synthesis. Insulin sensitivity also rises during this period and carbohydrates quickly store in muscle as glycogen (1).

eating before & after workout santa cruz core

Tips on What to Eat

Banana with almond butter:

Banana and almond butter are both rich sources of carbohydrate. Furthermore, fiber levels in both help to slow the release of sugar into the blood and keep it steady. It is important to limit fiber intake, however, as too much fiber can cause intestinal bloating and excess gas.

Greek yogurt with granola:

Greek yogurt is a complete source of protein that is also rich in fat. Fat is also an important fuel source during exercise, mainly low-intensity exercise. The granola will help provide adequate levels of carbohydrate to replenish glycogen stores both before and after exercise.

Hummus with Multi-grain Crackers or Bread:

Hummus and grain-based products like cracked and bread are amazing sources of carbohydrate. Furthermore, hummus is rich in protein and contains some fiber which will help maintain steady blood sugar during exercise.

Protein shake made with almond milk and a banana:

Protein shakes are probably best if consumed after exercise. This is especially true for individuals trying to build muscle through strength training. The choice of milk depends on the individual, for those who are lactose intolerant almond or soy milk will work. Dairy, soy, and almonds are all good protein sources.

Multi-Grain Bread with Nut butter:

Both multi-grain bread and nut butter are good sources of complex carbohydrates. Nut butter, such as peanut butter or almond butter, is a good source of protein. It is always good to vary protein sources and don’t rely too much on animal protein which can contain large amounts of saturated fat. Nut butter has healthy fats that offer health benefits pertaining to heart health, not just exercise.

The best way to maximize health and get results is to address diet and nutrition and all its contributing factors.   Talk to our staff at Santa Cruz Core to set up a series of consultations in with our Integrative and Functional Nutritionist today.


Tipton, K D, and R R Wolfe. “Exercise, Protein Metabolism, and Muscle Growth.” International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2001, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11255140/.