Bowl of cereal with milk and strawberries

What to eat before and after exercise

Follow these five rules to feel your best when working out and afterwards.

Walking, riding a bike or hitting the gym can help you meet the recommended minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity per week. Being active is an important part of a healthy lifestyle that will reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. Eating a balanced diet is equally important.

So what should you eat to make the most of your regular physical activity? These five rules will help you keep it simple.

1. Sport supplements, powders and pills are not required.
For basic and moderate exercise, you do not need to carb load before you work out, or have protein shakes or energy bars afterwards. Stick with simple, balanced meals (see examples below) to support your active lifestyle.

2. Have a small meal or snack one to two hours before your activity.
It will provide the fuel you need, and keep you from feeling hungry. Ensure it contains carbohydrate, which is the body’s main source of energy, and protein to decrease muscle breakdown during exercise. These simple snacks combine carbs with protein, and are so delicious:

• Oatmeal with walnuts and blueberries
• Greek yogurt with a banana
• Peanut butter and jam sandwich
• Whole grain crackers, apple and cheese    
No-bake almond oat bars 

3. Avoid certain foods before a workout.
To power your exercise and avoid stomach trouble, here are some do’s and don’ts:

• Avoid fast food, fried food, and greasy pastries. High-fat foods can take up to four hours to digest, which will make you sluggish.

• Save high-fibre legumes (chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans) and gas-forming vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, kale) until after your workout to avoid embarrassing gas and bloating.

• Carbs are good, but pure sugar is not. Soda pop or candy before exercise will cause a sugar rush and a subsequent crash while you’re mid-workout.

4. Enjoy protein-rich foods after a workout.
Protein helps your tired muscles recover. For regular exercise such as a bike ride, spin class or walk, there’s no need for protein supplements. Your next meal will deliver enough protein if you choose options such as the ideas below. Bonus: these healthy plates also contain carbs to replenish energy.

Grilled turkey strips with salad
• Greek yogurt, granola and berries
• Tuna and tomato sandwich on whole grain bread
• Quinoa and chicken salad on a bed of greens
• Salmon, sweet potatoes and broccoli
• Shrimp and vegetable stir-fry on brown rice
• Steak and red pepper fajitas on corn tortillas
• Hummus, smoked tofu and leafy greens on whole grain flatbread

5. Stay hydrated with water.
Water is your best choice since it is sugar- and calorie-free, and purely hydrating. A casual walk or friendly game of tennis does not require replenishment from sports drinks, since the extra calories, sodium and sugar are simply not needed.

If you’re exercising for more than 60 minutes in hot, humid conditions or participate in events with high sweat loss, sports drinks may be advisable. They can assist with hydration, but also replenish carbohydrates, sodium and other electrolytes that you lose through sweat.

After your hard workout, don’t use exercise as an excuse to fill up on junk food or other less-than-healthy choices. Find other ways to reward your commitment and dedication, such as sleeping in, taking a relaxing shower or buying yourself flowers.

If you’re an elite athlete…

If fitness is more than your part time activity, and you are involved in endurance sports, body building, team sports and the like, your nutrition needs are different than what’s described above. Consider getting a custom nutrition plan from a sport dietitian.

The plan will be developed to meet your specific requirements based on the type and duration of athletics that you participate in, and will ensure that you are meeting all of your nutritional needs for protein, vitamins, minerals, fluids and more. This advice is not one-size-fits-all.

Elite athletes are often amazed how small tweaks to their food and beverage regime, as advised by a sport dietitian, can make a big difference in their fitness level and workout results. You can find a dietitian at (search with the keyword sports).

3 Responses

  1. Rob

    A lot of information in here flies in the face of research. One does not need carbs before or after exercise. In fact, carbs can reduce performance. The body works better and more efficiently on ketones so working out after a good 8 to 9 hour sleep without breakfast is now recommended by many nutrient researchers. Carbohydrates are not an essential nutrient. Protein and fats – saturated at that – are essential.

    1. Sharon Hollingsworth

      Hi Rob and thank you for your comments on my Heart and Stroke Foundation blog post, “What to eat before and after exercise.” People who choose low-carb diets can still exercise and stay fit in a healthy way. But carbs ARE essential! Even low-carb diets have about 40-170 g of carb each day, mostly from vegetables. At the end of the day, people should follow a diet that they can stick to in the long run, makes them feel good, and is filled with foods they enjoy. The overwhelming evidence from the research does support carbs for exercise, even if smaller studies are testing other theories. Sincerely, Cara Rosenbloom, RD

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