The Best Fuel for Your Workout

Looking for the best foods to eat before and after your workout? Chances are, you’ve probably heard a lot of conflicting advice about what to eat and drink to get stronger, fitter, leaner, and faster. Here are the science-based guidelines that sports dietitians provide to athletes — from amateurs to world champions – to help them be their best.


One of the most important factors for optimal performance is proper hydration. Don’t underestimate how quickly fluids can become depleted during a workout or competition – especially in warm weather. Use the following guide for staying hydrated:

  • Two hours before activity, drink 2 cups (16 ounces) of fluids.
  • During exercise, drink 5 ounces of fluid every 15-20 minutes. Take advantage of breaks in your workouts to stay hydrated and keep your water bottle handy. Every large gulp or swallow = about 1 ounce of fluid.
  • After exercise, drink 2 to 3 cups (16 to 24 ounces) of fluid for every pound of body weight lost during activity. Weigh yourself before and after a workout to find out how much water weight you usually lose.

Water should be your go-to beverage. Also, fruit with a high water content – like watermelon and grapes – are perfect both pre- and post-workout. Be mindful of calorie-containing sports drinks. While they may be useful if you’re an endurance athlete, you probably won’t need them for moderate intensity or shorter activity (under 1 hour). “For the athlete that needs to replace fluid and carbohydrates, fluid replacements are easy and convenient, however some athletes use fluid replacements when they aren’t necessary,” says Steph Saullo, MS, RD, a performance dietitian at RITTER Sports.


Carbohydrates from wheat products like pasta, bread, tortillas, and cereals are the primary and preferred fuel for your muscles and brain. When carbs are digested, they’re broken down and stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen — the primary fuel source for muscles.

Sports dietitians focus on the timing and quantity of carb-rich foods both before and after exercise to boost physical performance and recovery. Mikaela Shiffrin, an Olympic gold medalist in slalom, eats a carb-rich diet to achieve peak performance. “Pasta is my go-to dish for carbs because it’s the type of carbohydrate I enjoy the most. I usually have Spaghetti Bolognese or pasta with fresh veggies and chicken the night before a big race,” says Shiffrin.

For light exercise or training lasting less than an hour, about 1 gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight is recommended. For longer duration and higher intensity endurance exercise (like marathon training), aim for a daily intake of about about 2-3 grams of carbohydrate per pound.


Protein is key to building and repairing muscle, and needs vary widely, depending your age, gender, and type and intensity of your training. About 10%-35% of your total daily calories should come from protein sources such as lean meat, poultry, and fish. And don’t forget non-meat protein. Shiffrin incorporates plant-based proteins into everyday meals. “Peas, lentils, chickpeas and beans are a key component of my diet, as they’re high in fiber and protein and give me steady energy.”

If you’re just getting started with a fitness routine or engaging in light to moderate exercise, .37 grams of protein per pound of body weight is adequate for most adults. For strength-oriented sports or intense training, like CrossFit or body building, .55 g to .8 g per pound may be needed to achieve strength gains.

So what does all this mean for daily meals?

Here are some pre-workout and post-workout ideas to get you started:

PRE-WORKOUT (eat 60-90 minutes before beginning your workout for adequate digestion and absorption)

Light Workout (lasting less than an hour)
Greek Yogurt Parfait  For the perfect blend of carbs and protein, top 3 oz nonfat plain Greek yogurt with ½ cup whole grain cereal and ½ cup fresh, whole strawberries. This sweet and crunchy snack provides roughly 160 calories. The protein in Greek yogurt will sustain you through your workout, while the cereal and strawberries contribute easily digestible carbohydrates for a quick source of energy.

More Intense Workout (lasting longer than an hour)
Tuna on Whole Wheat Toast – If you’re a sandwich lover, this is for you! Two ounces of water-packed tuna (season with a drizzle of little lemon juice and a pinch of salt and pepper) over two slices of whole-grain toast gives you an ideal protein-and-carb mini-meal with 30 g carbohydrates, 14 g protein, 2 g fat, and 250 calories.


Light Workout
Watermelon Smoothie – Watermelon is 92% water so it’s perfect for rehydrating! What’s more, research shows that watermelon can be your best friend when it comes to sore-muscle relief, thanks to an amino acid found in this tasty fruit called l-Citrulline. Enjoy this all-time favorite Watermelon and Kiwi Smoothie.

More Intense Workout
Pasta with Chicken and Fresh Veggies – Pasta has a long history of being a preferred pre- and post-workout choice among athletes. It’s also tops among sports dietitians because it’s high in complex carbs, contains protein, has a low glycemic index and partners well with so many other nutrient-rich foods, from veggies to meat and seafood. For more protein, look for a pasta with additional high-quality protein like Barilla Protein Plus, which is made with ingredients like egg whites, chickpeas and lentils and has 10 g protein per serving vs. 7 g for regular pasta.  Add lean chicken breast, olive oil, garlic, tomato and mozzarella, and you have a well-balanced, nutritious meal.

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