What to Eat Before and After Exercise

Desiree Flicker pro TriathleteAs a triathlon coach and sports dietitian, the most common questions I’m asked are, “What should I eat before a workout?” and “What should I eat after a workout?”

These questions are not as easy to answer as you’d think. What you should eat before training is depends upon what your body can metabolize during the activity you’re going to do and at what intensity.

For example, some triathletes can eat a turkey dinner before a bike ride, but can’t eat any solid foods before they run. In addition, many athletes find that they can take in more calories when they exercise at lower intensities (ie, a LSD ride or run) versus interval training sessions.

As a general rule, you want to have a meal or snack that provides a good source of carbohydrates and at least 300 calories before an endurance workout. That mean should contain some carbohydrates and protein and have a lesser amount of fat.  You’ll want to eat 1-3 hours prior to exercise, depending upon how well you tolerate fueling up prior to exercise. You’ll need to test various calorie levels and foods and timing to see what works best to “dial in” your pre-workout and pre-race meal options.

The best advice I give athletes is “practice, practice, practice!” It’s necessary to find out exactly what works best for you as a pre-exercise meal or snack. To do this, I recommend scheduling in at least one “nutrition focused” workout per week. Just as you would focus on hill repeats or speed or endurance, this workout is focused on your nutrition.

Your nutrition workout helps you figure out what works and what doesn’t. How many calories you can tolerate, liquids versus solids, and what makes you feel energetic and fast as opposed to lethargic and slow. I have some simple rules to live by when thinking about what to try:

  • Focus on whole foods as much as possible.
  • Use sports nutrition products (drinks, bars, gels, blocks, etc) for their convenience factor but don’t rely on them for daily nutrition.
  • No food (hydrate only) is necessary during training unless you are working out longer than 90 minutes.
  • Combine complex carbohydrate and protein whenever possible to maintain blood sugar levels
  • Maintain good hydration levels throughout training and racing to help metabolize nutrients.
  • Learn proper timing of food intake for your own body.

While everyone is different, here are some common choices for pre-exercise and post-exercise eats.


  • Mini bagel or toast with peanut butter
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Greek yogurt and blueberries
  • Almonds and dates (or other dried fruit and nuts)
  • Cereal with milk
  • Toast with banana and PB
  • Pasta salad
  • Apple or banana with PB or almond butter
  • Oatmeal topped with Greek yogurt or nut butter


  • Turkey-Veggie wrap
  • Protein smoothie
  • Whole grain crackers and low fat cheese
  • High protein cereal and skim milk
  • Chocolate milk
  • Edemame and Quinoa Salad
  • Cottage Cheese and slivered almonds
  • Brown Rice and Beans
  • Apple and walnuts
  • Pasta salad with chicken

(Optimal hydration is very important before, during and after endurance exercise, but this post only covers what to eat and hydration will be covered in another post.)

Jennifer Giles, MS, RD, CSSDThis post is from Jennifer O’Donnell-Giles MS, RD, CSSD.  Jennifer is a board certified specialist in sports dietetics with a personal passion for the sport of triathlon. She’s an Ironman Lake Placid finisher and is currently a sponsored athlete for Power Bar Team Elite! She has a private practice in Connecticut and is the proud mother of four young children.

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  1. Beth M. says

    Great post! I ask myself these questions all the time! I workout at least 5 days a week for about an hour around the same time everyday so my bodies on schedule of when to eat, but it’s what to eat before and after that I’m still trying to figure out. My workouts range in intensity everyday depending on what I plan on doing, but I have noticed a difference in energy levels depending on what I ate before I workout. I definitely plan on having a nutrition focused workout at least once a week to figure out what foods provide the best energy before my workout. As for after, I usually never need anything but maybe water or coconut water. I heard its more important to eat right after a workout; is this true? I’m just wondering if I’m doing my body bad for not refueling after a cardio and weight training workout.

  2. SANDY says

    I loved this post. As a person who has lost 50 pounds in a year, I am now just learning how to properly eat before exercise for maximum energy…thankyou

  3. Allison Giles says

    Love this! I never know exactly what’s best for me. My workout routine is my less intense (sigh!) but this nutrition advice makes a lot of sense — even for me! Thanks!

  4. says

    Great post! i definitely agree that whole foods are much better than processed gus! I love purreed dates wrapped in cling-wrap. Brendan Brazier has excellent recipes in his book Thrive that i have used while marathon training. Thanks for the tips!

  5. says

    I am researching a talk that I will be giving at LuLuLemon Athletica Jacksonville FL and I am so thrilled to find this very practical and valid information among the sea of confusion of weak and very limited information on the internet. Thank you Jennifer!

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