Skip to main content
Health Insights Illinois

Fueling for fitness

girl doing sit ups

Get the most out of your workouts by fueling your body with the right nutrients before and after exercising.

Fueling Before and After Exercise

Everyone should aim to eat well-balanced meals that follow the MyPlate guidelines for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On days that you exercise at moderate or vigorous intensity for more than 30 minutes, you may need additional snacks to ensure your body is properly fueled to get the most out of your workout and recover after.

Pre-Workout Fueling

A meal 2-4 hours before exercising should contain more carbs and less fat and fiber since these nutrients take longer to digest and may cause an upset stomach during exercise. If you eat lunch mid-day and get to your workout in the afternoon or evening, you may be missing out on a chance to top off your energy stores before exercising.

A pre-workout snack is a smart option if it’s been more than 2 to 3 hours since your last meal. To fuel for a workout, aim for a snack 30-60 minutes prior to exercising.

The optimal pre-workout snack contains at least 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates with a little bit of protein and minimal fat and fiber. For early morning workouts, you may not have time to eat a meal far enough ahead of exercising but should always grab a pre-workout snack to avoid exercising in a fasted state, which can lead to decreased performance, impaired recovery, and increased risk of injury.

While it’s generally best to focus on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables as your primary source of carbohydrates, simple carbohydrates are preferred for pre-workout snacks. Simple carbohydrates digest more quickly and give your body immediate energy. This includes snacks such as bananas, bagels, crackers, and fruit juice.

Post-Workout Fueling

After exercising, eat a post-workout snack within 30 to 60 minutes, followed by a well-balanced meal about 2 hours later.

The ideal post-workout snack contains at least 30to 60 grams of carbohydrates to replenish your energy stores and 10 to 30 grams of protein to help build and repair muscles. Protein bars can be a convenient on-the-go post workout snack but be sure to check the nutrition label as many snack bars don’t have the recommended 10 to 30 grams of protein or have high amounts of saturated fat.

Protein powders are also popular. If you choose to use a protein powder, keep in mind that supplements are not regulated by the FDA, you should look for supplements with a USP- or NSF-verified seal to ensure it’s safe. Adequately recovering from your workout doesn’t require expensive supplements or fancy foods - you likely already have some good options in your kitchen! Try adding some berries and granola to plain Greek yogurt or cottage cheese; pair tuna with your favorite crackers; or enjoy a glass of chocolate milk.

Don’t Forget to Hydrate!

Hydration is vital for successful exercise performance and recovery as well. In general, try to drink enough water throughout the day to maintain a pale yellow urine color. Plain water is adequate for hydration before, during, and after most workouts. However, for exercise lasting over 2 hours at a high intensity or for exercise in a hot environment, a sports drink or electrolyte drink may be needed to replenish the electrolytes lost in sweat.

Remember 10, 30, 60

Fueling your exercise sessions may feel like a complicated equation, but if you can remember just three numbers: 10, 30, 60, you’ll find a fueling strategy that works for you in no time!

  • 30 to 60 minutes before exercising, eat a snack with 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates.
  • Within 60 minutes after exercising, eat a snack with 10 to 30 grams of protein and 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates.

Printable Fact Sheet

Fact Sheet Text: Fueling for Fitness

Pre-workout nutrition

Fuel before exercising to provide your body with the energy it needs to perform and recover!

Pre-workout meal

Aim to eat a balanced meal 2 to 4 hours before exercising. This meal should emphasize carbohydrates with some protein and less fat and fiber.

Pre-workout snack

Aim to eat a pre-workout snack in the hour before exercising, especially if your last meal was more than 3 hours ago. Look for a snack with 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates and minimal fat and fiber.

Pre-workout food choices

Examples of foods that work well before exercise include banana, graham crackers, oatmeal with berries, or waffles with maple syrup.

Post-workout nutrition

Eat immediately following a workout to replenish energy stores and build and repair muscle tissue!

Post-workout snack

Aim to eat a post-workout snack within an hour of exercising. Look for a snack with 30-60 grams of carbohydrates AND 10-30 grams of protein.

Post-workout meal

Aim to eat a balanced meal about two hours after your post-workout snack. Be sure to include a serving of carbohydrates and protein.

Post-workout food choices

Good after-exercise food choices include chocolate milk, cottage cheese with berries, tuna with crackers, or Greek yogurt with berries and granola.