What To Eat Before & After A Workout (How To Use Food As Fuel)
Written by: Liz Brown - Aug. 9, 2019
You may or may not be familiar with the concept of nutrient timing and using food to fuel performance, but when it comes to maximizing the effects of your workouts, incorporating this simple strategy into you routine can accelerate your results and help you reach your health and fitness goals more effectively. Timing your meals might feel like a lot of work, but it’s actually super simple once you get started. And if you’ve ever wondered what to eat before and after a workout before, good news—you’ve already completed the first step to mastering nutrient timing and you’re well on your way to reaping the benefits!
In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about what to eat before and after a workout based on your training style and goals. So, whether you’re doing a cardio workout or lifting weights, you’ll learn how to use food as fuel based on the heart rate zones of your workouts in order to maximize your performance and aid in recovery! We’ll also discuss the best pre-workout food, post-workout food, and the best supplements to take for optimal results.
- How to calculate your maximum heart rate (MHR)
- Heart rate zones (based on maximum heart rate)
- Understanding heart rate zones and energy metabolism—how it works
- What to eat before a workout (by type of exercise)
- Best pre-workout food
- What to eat after a workout (by type of exercise)
- Best post-workout food
- Best supplements to take before and after exercise
How To Use Food As Fuel
Exercise is divided up into two types of workouts: aerobic and anaerobic. Both are activated in different heart rate zones and burn different macronutrients throughout the process. So, the level of effort you’re putting into your workout determines whether your body converts carbohydrates, fat, or protein into energy allowing you to eat the right types of food before and after. Your heart rate zones are calculated based off of your maximum heart rate (MHR) and your MHR varies depending on your age.
Once you know your maximum heart rate (MHR), you’ll be able to use heart rate training to tailor your workout to the appropriate intensity and understand what foods to eat before and after to fuel your workout and boost recovery.
How To Calculate Max Heart Rate (MHR)
Calculating your maximum heart rate is simple, here’s how to do it:
To determine your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from the number 220.
220 – (age) = Max HR
So, if you’re 40 years old, here’s how it will look:
220 – (40) = 180 beats per minute (BPM)
In this scenario, your maximum heart rate would be 180 BPM. Easy peasy!
Heart Rate Zones Based On Your Maximum Heart Rate
Your heart rate zone can vary depending on what type of exercise you’re doing and how much effort you’re putting into that exercise. For example, sprinting up a hill requires significantly more effort and skyrockets your heart rate, as opposed to the level of effort needed to complete a single push-up. Because your body utilizes nutrients differently, knowing your MHR will help you determine what type of food you’ll need to fuel up with before and after. Here’s a rundown of the different heart rate zones based on your maximum heart rate (MHR).
Heart Rate Zones
- Active Zone: 50-60% MHR (very light exercise)
- Training Zone: 60-70% MHR (light exercise)
- Aerobic Zone: 70-80% MHR (moderate exercise)
- Anaerobic Threshold: 80-90% MHR (hard exercise)
- V02 Max Zone: 90-100% MHR (maximum effort exercise)
Performing different types of exercises can place your heart rate in one or more of these different heart rate zones. Just to reiterate with another example, performing sprint intervals or jogging a 5k require a different level of effort to perform than a brisk walk through the park or completing a bicep curl and require different types of energy sources (carbs, fat, and/or protein) for fuel. Let me explain a little bit more about how these heart rate zones affect our energy metabolism.
Heart Rate Zones & Energy Metabolism
Energy metabolism is the process of generating energy from nutrients. This type of energy is called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and is the primary energy carrier for all living organisms. During exercise, your body takes the energy from your food and turns it into ATP, which is the energy you burn during exercise.
In order to understand what to eat before and after a workout and reap the benefits of nutrient timing, you have to understand how your body utilizes these types of nutrients as fuel in the different heart rate training zones. In layman’s terms, this helps you determine what you’ll need to eat before and after your workout. So, bear with me because it’s about to get real science-y for a second! But trust me, it will all make sense.
- Aerobic Glycolysis (long-term energy system): Aerobic glycolysis refers to a condition in which glucose is converted to lactic acid in the presence of oxygen and converted into ATP.  This process breaks down glucose and glycogen for energy—AKA carbs! Because this process requires the presence of oxygen, we can remain in this exercise zone for quite some time (longer than 3 minutes). Aerobic glycolysis occurs in the active heart rate zone, the training zone, and the aerobic zone and uses primary carbohydrates as fuel.
- Anaerobic Glycolysis (short-term energy system): Anaerobic glycolysis breaks down carbohydrates into ATP in the absence of oxygen.  Meaning, you’re burning through your carbohydrate storage more quickly, in turn, using your fat storage as fuel. Anaerobic glycolysis can occur in the higher end the aerobic heart rate zone and throughout the anaerobic threshold. Because this process occurs without the presence of oxygen, you can only sustain this process for anywhere between 30 seconds to under 3 minutes.
- ATP-Phosphocreatine (immediate energy system): This system provides immediate energy due to the breakdown of stored ATP and phosphocreatine and allows a burst of energy (anywhere from 10-30 seconds) of maximum effort.  ATP-Phosphocreatine occurs in the high end of the anaerobic threshold and in the V02 Max zone.
What To Eat Before A Workout
Hippocrates once said “let food be thy medicine”, and while this is true in regard to natural healing, food can also be used as fuel to improve sports performance and speed recovery. Now that you understand how your body uses food as fuel, we can talk about what to eat before and after a workout.
It’s important to remember that sports nutrition isn’t one-size-fits-all and what to eat before and after a workout varies depending on your goal or preferred style of exercise. Despite these general guidelines, trusting how your body feels is a great indicator that something might not be working for you. If you feel like something is “off”, make any necessary adjustments until you find something that works for you. Here’s a general recommendation on what to eat before a workout:
What to eat before a cardio workout
If you’re planning on doing any sort of aerobic exercise for longer than 3 minutes, like HIIT training, biking, moderate-intensity weight lifting, or running, your body will convert your food to fuel through aerobic glycolysis. Before your workout, you’ll want to eat something that’s low in fat and sugar, moderate in protein, and high in carbs.
What to eat before lifting weights
Despite popular belief, lifting weights can burn quite a bit of calories so it’s important to properly fuel your weightlifting session with a decent number of calories. However, this is dependent on the type of exercises you’re performing, the level of effort your putting in, and how much you’re actually lifting. For example, performing a deadlift or back squat requires more muscles and more energy compared to a bicep curl. You’ll want to eat a balanced meal with carbs and protein about an hour or two before you hit the weights to maximize the effects of your weight lifting session.
To learn more about nutrient timing and what to take leading up to your workout (from 4 hours before up to 30 minutes before), you can do so by clicking the link below.
Best Pre-Workout Food
Next time you’re about to hit the gym for a workout, whether it be for a sweaty cardio session or a body sculpting weight lifting session, fuel up on these healthy pre-workout foods! These are the best pre-workout foods to eat before a workout:
- Apple and nut butter
- Rice cakes topped with nut butter
- Meal replacement protein shake
- Mixed nuts and dried fruit
- Egg frittata muffins and oatmeal
- Greek yogurt and a banana
- Lean protein, brown rice, roasted vegetables
- A pre-workout energy drink that won’t give you the jitters, like SkinnyFit Jump Start
What To Eat After A Workout
What you eat after a workout is just as important as what you eat before a workout, if not more. You see, when you exercise, your body uses your nutrient stores to fuel your workout to give you the energy you need to perform. After exercise, it’s important to replenish your body with the nutrients that were lost during exercise. Doing so not only helps your body and muscles recover faster, but helps regulate your metabolism in order to see results. Here’s a general recommendation on what to eat after a workout:
What to eat after a cardio workout
After anaerobic cardio training, like HIIT, cycling, and sprint intervals, you’ll actually burn more calories after you’ve completed your workout. This is due to excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). EPOC is your body’s way of cooling itself down after this type of exercise your body needs to rebalance its hormones, restock its fuel storage, and repair damaged muscle tissue and cells to help it return to its normal state . The best way to do this is with electrolytes, carbs, and protein. Protein and electrolytes will help repair and replenish your muscles while carbohydrates will refill your glycogen storage. Similarly, you’ll want to stay hydrated. So, make sure to drink 8 oz of water.
For aerobic cardio or long-distance steady-state cardio sessions, like jogging or hiking, you’ll want to focus more on replenishing with carbohydrates. Try a 3:1 ratio of carbs to protein.
What to eat after lifting weights
What to eat after a weightlifting session is generally the same as what you would eat after a cardio workout except you’ll want to eat more protein, especially if you want to build muscle. Instead of a 3:1 ratio, try to get 20-30 grams of protein within 15-20 minutes after your workout. This enhances the metabolic effect on muscle protein . Doing this will help your body increase muscle protein synthesis, decrease muscle protein breakdown, restore glycogen storages, and enhance recovery.
Best Post-Workout Food
The best post-workout foods contain carbs and protein. This helps refuel your glycogen storage and replenishes your muscles with amino acids, electrolytes, and protein. This is the best food to eat after a workout:
- Coconut water and protein powder. Try this Tropical Collagen Coconut Water recipe.
- Protein shake and a banana
- Chocolate milk or simply mix two scoops of Super Youth Chocolate Cake with 8 oz of milk.
- Lean protein with complex carbohydrates (like brown rice or sweet potato)
- Tuna and crackers
- Greek yogurt and berries
- Protein oatmeal with nuts and berries
- BCAAs, like SkinnyFit Repair and Recover, and a protein shake
Is It better To Eat Before Or After A Workout?
When it comes to pre- and post-workout nutrition, a common question is whether it’s better to eat before or after a workout. The answer to this question is often seen on a case-to-case basis. In general, what one person does before their workout, or how they feel for that matter, might not work for you. Again, fitness nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all and we suggest that listening to your body and paying attention to your performance, energy levels, and recovery to determine if eating before or after a workout is right for you.
However, studies suggest that fasting before a workout can provide positive effects on your body composition. You may have heard about fasted workouts before, and while it’s very popular (especially for people who choose to exercise in the morning and have a tight schedule), it isn’t for everyone. Oftentimes, people who don’t eat before a workout can feel light-headed and faint. If this sounds familiar, I recommend eating some of our pre-workout food suggestions to boost your energy levels.
Best Supplements To Take Before And After Exercise
No matter what type of exercise you’re planning on doing, pre- and post-workout nutrition is crucial. If you don’t have any food on hand, you can easily get the nutrients you need with supplements.
Best Pre-Workout Supplement
The best pre-workout supplements won’t give you the jitters. Feeling jittery is something that many people complain about with pre-workout powders, but the best ones don’t contain the harmful ingredients that cause them in the first place. Look for a pre-workout that contains taurine, caffeine, and citrulline instead, like SkinnyFit Jump Start. These ingredients are well-studied and proven to improve physical fitness for women, without the crash.
Best Post-Workout Supplement
The best post-workout supplements contain a blend of BCAAs (branch chain amino acids) and electrolytes. These help to replenish your muscles of the essential nutrients it needs after a tough workout. SkinnyFit Repair & Recover is a delicious tropical punch flavor that tastes amazing with water! We recommend sipping your BCAAs throughout your workout and immediately after for optimal results.
The Bottom Line
Listen to your body before deciding what to eat before and after a workout! Sometimes people react differently to different types of foods. There are a lot of variables to consider and if something doesn’t feel right, like you’re feeling sluggish during your workout, make some adjustments until you’ve found the right fit for you.