Food fuels your body. When you exercise, eating the right food beforehand can be the difference between staying energized and feeling sluggish. Eating the right foods after a workout replenishes lost nutrients and helps your muscles recover.

Exercise nutrition tips vary depending on your athletic level and activity. If you’re a serious athlete, the sports nutrition program at UPMC Sports Medicine can help you zero in on the foods you should eat.

If you just want to get the most from your exercise routine, follow these pre- and post-workout nutrition tips.

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Pre-Workout Nutrition Tips

Avoid eating right before working out

You don’t want the physical demands of digesting food to interfere with the physical demands of your workout. Eating too close to exercising can cause gastrointestinal issues, such as heartburn, which can keep you from doing your best.

Eat one to three hours before exercising

For optimal performance, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends fueling your body within this time frame. Eating before exercise has been shown to improve performance, according to the Academy.

Focus on healthy carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the body’s major source of energy. Your body converts carbohydrates into glycogen, an energy source stored in your muscles for when you need it. During exercise, carbohydrates keep muscles functioning properly and prevent them from cramping. Because your body digests carbohydrates faster than protein, they provide immediate fuel for your muscles. Carbs should make up two-thirds of the food on your plate at every meal, but choose them wisely.

  • Skip sugary and processed carbohydrates. Eating healthy and working out means saying no to cookies, cakes, and candy. During exercise, your body will burn through these quickly. Sweets are empty calories and don’t provide any significant nutrients to keep your body healthy.
  • Eat complex carbs. Say yes to brown rice, potatoes, whole grain breads, whole grain pasta, whole grain cereals, and fruits and vegetables.

Limit protein

Protein isn’t an ideal energy source for exercise. It simply takes your body too long to process protein to be able to use it as fuel during a Zumba class or a cross-training session. However, protein is an important part of a balanced diet because it helps build and repair muscle. Protein should make up only one-third of the foods on your plate at every meal. It’s also important to choose the right sources of protein.

  • Skip high-fat proteins. Say no to fatty or fried meats and fast food, such as burgers, fried chicken, and hot dogs.
  • Choose lean proteins. Say yes to lean cuts of chicken, turkey, and pork, as well as fish, shellfish, eggs, low-fat cheese, milk, and yogurt. Beans and legumes, such as pinto and black beans, black- eyed peas, and lentils, are also good sources of pre-workout protein.

Healthy Pre-Workout Snacks

  • A yogurt parfait: granola, yogurt, and berries
  • A peanut butter and banana sandwich; almond or cashew butter with sliced whole fruits such as strawberries or pears
  • Hummus or black beans with whole grain pita bread
  • Oatmeal with berries or nuts and low-fat milk
  • String cheese and apple slices

Post-Workout Nutrition Tips

Eat or drink something immediately after exercising

UMPC Sports Medicine recommends replenishing your body within 15 minutes of working out. Start with a carbohydrate-rich snack, sports drink, or smoothie. To help your muscles recover, eat a more balanced meal within two hours of working out.


If your workout lasts longer than an hour or you are sweating excessively, it’s important to hydrate during exercise, either with water or a sports drink. Otherwise, be sure to hydrate after working out. Water-rich fruits such as melons or oranges can also hydrate you.

Combine complex carbohydrates and lean protein

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, this combination helps rebuild and repair your muscles, replenish the glycogen they lost, and provide essential amino acids.

Healthy Post-Workout Foods

  • A berry smoothie, with low-fat milk or yogurt
  • Low-fat chocolate milk
  • Granola bars
  • Peanut butter crackers
  • A whole grain turkey or chicken wrap

To learn how to optimize both your exercise routine and your overall health through better nutrition, contact Nutrition Services at 412-692-4497. If you’re an athlete, contact our Sports Medicine department at 724-720-3077.


About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.