Ask the Coach – Eating Before a Workout

Ask the Coach – Eating Before a Workout

Marysol’s question is probably one that many athletes have: What should I eat before and after a workout?
The first answer is a common one…it depends. But it’s not hard to take a look at a few factors and get a solid fueling plan. We’ll look at general before and after guidelines, and then go over some sample meals or snacks. I’m going to leave out the numbers here and not specifically discuss grams of carbs and protein, as those will vary depending on individual circumstances.

Time of day: If your workout is in the morning right after you wake up, you are likely going to want to top off your glycogen stores. Because you are in a fasted state, your body needed to tap into your liver glycogen to keep your blood sugar stable overnight. Around 100 calories of a carbohydrate source is all you need. A small banana or about 8-12oz of a sports drink will provide that. That said, if your workout is short in duration or not very intense, you might not need anything at all, provided you eat immediately after your workout. If your workout is a longer one, add a small amount of fat or protein. A banana with some peanut butter or almond butter gets me through early morning workouts with intensity that are an hour, sometimes longer.

If your workout is during the day or evening, you should eat a meal about 2-3 hours before the workout. The meal should contain carbohydrate sources and some protein and perhaps a little bit of a healthy (omega-3) fat. If you can schedule your workout between meals, that is an ideal situation, as you won’t need to plan a specific “pre-workout” meal. Stick to your normal balanced diet in this case.

Length of the workout: The longer the workout, the more you might want to eat ahead of time, but there is no need to eat a huge meal. Unless it is a long and intense workout, your body should have plenty of muscle glycogen to pull from if needed. Make sure you give your body plenty of time to process the food. Longer workouts might also require electrolyte and calorie supplementation during the workout, which we could write a lengthly book about all the options that are available on the market today.

Intensity of the workout: The more intense the workout, the more you need to make sure your body has adequate energy stores. If you ate a meal 3 hours before the workout, you might have a light snack that is primarily carbohydrates before your workout, as long as it settles well with you. If you are doing an intense workout first thing in the morning, you might consider a sports nutrition product during the workout if you find that you seem to run out of energy.

What you can tolerate: This is the “art” of fueling. Everybody has different needs and different degrees of what they can tolerate. Some can eat a burger and fries (although not recommended!) and go for a 12 mile run right after. Others may only tolerate a liquid source of calories first thing in the morning. Depending on how well you recovered from your previous workout (what we are about to discuss) can also affect how much you might need to eat before your next workout. Try to avoid  pre-workout meals with too much sugar, fat or protein, as they are more likely to cause GI issues.

Intensity/Length of Workout: These two factors, intensity and duration, will determine what you need to eat after a workout. You’ve probably seen all the marketing for “recovery products” that contain protein. And yes, you should get a protein and carbohydrate source after your more intense or long workouts. The general guidelines are 3:1 or 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio, but if you get some good carbs and some quality protein (low-fat dairy, eggs, whey protein) you probably don’t need to worry about the exact ratio. The protein helps your muscles recover and the carbohydrates help replenish your muscle glycogen. If you are working out again that day or within 24 hours, especially if there is intensity in your workouts, getting this meal is critical. This is the time to consume some simple carbohydrates, as they are quickly absorbed back into the muscles to replenish muscle glycogen stores.

A warning about the post workout meal. There is a lot of media on how important this is, but again, consider your recovery needs and your workout intensity. Athletes will likely have a tendency to eat too much. (Also the “I earned it” thinking. Try to avoid that. Let’s look at an example: If I swim for 60 minutes at a moderate intensity, perhaps I burned 500 calories in that hour. That’s about a bagel and cream cheese. Or a mocha with whipped cream. 500 calories is a normal meal, and not a lot of food. If I run for 2 hours at 10:00min/mile pace, I’m burning (ballpark here) about 1200 calories.  A 600 calorie balanced breakfast that should do the trick. If you listen to your hunger cues, you might need to eat an extra snack during the day, and that’s OK.

That said, if you workout easy to moderately once a day, your regular meals should be sufficient to keep your muscle glycogen stores topped off and you don’t need to worry about a “recovery” meal, unless you are hungry at the conclusion of your workout and want a light snack before your next meal.

Example Pre-Workout Meals/Snacks
Banana with nut butter
8-12oz sports drink
Toast with banana and peanut butter
Yogurt, fruit and granola
Fruit and egg whites
Smoothie with fruit, whey protein, and yogurt

Example Post-Workout Meals/Snacks
The other half of the smoothie
Chocolate milk
Eggs scrambled with veggies and beans
Tuna salad sandwich with a side of fruit salad

There are tons of other options – the general guidelines are that pre-workout meals contain more carbohydrates and the post-workout out meal should definitely contain protein. But again, if your workouts are easy to moderate, your normal meals and snacks should be sufficient to keep you fueled and energized.

Coach Nicole is the author of The Triathlete’s Guide to Race Week. She is also the founder and head coach for NEO Endurance Sports & Fitness, a Colorado-based endurance sport coaching company. She is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach and also coaches triathlon for Team In Training. Learn more at You can contact Coach Nicole on facebooktwitter or via email at

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Nicole Odell


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