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The Pre-Workout Meal

Proper nutrition is a critical component of your fitness regimen. Understanding the physical demands of exercise is the first step to making informed choices-fueling up pre-workout is as important as choosing the right foods to guarantee a good recovery post workout.

Feeling sluggish and lightheaded before or after your workout? You may not be feeding your body properly before exercise or refueling adequately enough to be ready to hit the treadmill running the next day.

Understanding what the body needs before and after an intense workout is key to attaining an efficient balance between energy expended and energy taken in.

“First of all, there are different things going on. When you are preparing yourself for a workout, you’re in need of fuel to be a source [of energy]. Following a workout you are in recovery mode, you want to put back and eat a combination of foods that will help replace what you’ve used, ” says Dr. Liz Applegate, director of Sports Nutrition at University of California Davis and author of Eat Smart, Play Hard (available at

Carbohydrates should form the foundation of the pre-workout menu-carbs consumed and the excess that gets stored in your muscles as glycogen are what get burned up during exercise.

“A pre-workout meal should be centered around mostly carbohydrates, keeping it low in fat because it’s slow to digest, and moderate in protein… A bowl of cereal and one percent milk with sliced banana is a good start [for a morning workout]. Adding to that to make it more calories would be a slice of bread with jam,” suggests Dr. Applegate.

Most fitness trainers and nutritionists recommend eating a light meal from ninety minutes to two hours before a workout to provide necessary energy and to avoid digestive complications. Figuring out the most appropriate window in which to eat, however, can still be a case of trial and error. Dr. Applegate advises those with a queasy stomach to give themselves three hours before working out and to keep track of what they ate, when they ate it, and its effect in a fitness journal.

Carbohydrates are an essential component of the post-workout meal, which should also incorporate a source of lean protein. After an intense session, protein helps repair muscle tissue and carbohydrates restore depleted glycogen levels; a meal that incorporates both effectively prepares the body for the next day’s workout. Says Dr. Applegate: “A good meal following a workout is a tuna salad or roasted turkey sandwich or even tofu, with all the fixings and then a piece of fruit or about a cup of fruit salad and of course something to drink.”

Eating to suit your activity level requires understanding of how much energy is being expended. If you are exercising with intensity for at least 60 minutes, five to seven times a week, when and what you eat is of greater concern.

“Let’s say you are running or cycling for an hour. In that case you are using a lot more calories, and by extension carbohydrates, so there is a need to replace those and to eat within about an hour after you’ve finished working out. Do you need to eat something within thirty minutes of finishing an hour-long walk? No, you can probably wait until your next meal-it’s not an issue. Pre-and-post-workout eating is for people who are serious about what they do and who are exercising for a long period of time,” says Dr. Davis.


  • If you exercise first thing in the morning, half a banana or sports drink can provide sufficient fuel.
  • Avoid fatty snacks or meals before a workout, as they take longer to digest.
  • Wait at least three hours to exercise after a heavy meal.
  • Adding a few shrimp to a small bowl of pasta creates a balanced protein plus carbohydrate post-workout meal.
  • During a long workout make sure to replace carbs and to stay hydrated.

“During exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30-60 grams of carbs be consumed every hour, so that could be taken in the form of a sport drink, in the form of carbohydrate gels or the new sport jelly beans. It could be an energy bar, it could be a banana,” says Dr. Applegate. “And about a half cup of liquid every 15 to 20 minutes.”

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