How To Fuel Your Workout: What To Eat Before, During and After Exercise

    Woman chopping food

    Whatever your fitness preference, it’s important your food is helping you to get the most out of your exercise. Here’s how to fuel your workout and make sure you’re eating right before, during and after exercise.

    Exercise and good nutrition go hand in hand for health, and ensuring you eat the right foods before and after workouts isn’t just for elite athletes. ‘Everyone who exercises will benefit from appropriate fuelling before, during and after training,’ says sports dietitian Laura Clark. The basics? ‘Carbohydrates give you the energy to start and keep going, protein helps you recover, water keeps you hydrated throughout. Add a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, fruit and healthy fats and you’re already getting fitter.’ But just as every workout’s different, so too are its matching nutritional needs. Here’s how to get it right for different activities.

    Fuel your workout for cardio and HIIT

    Cardiovascular or aerobic activity needs energy. ‘When you eat carbs – found in grains, fruit and veg or sugars – your body breaks them down into glucose, then converts that into glycogen, to store in your liver and muscles,’ explains Clark. ‘Exercise draws on those glycogen supplies, breaking them down into glucose again to use for energy.’


    Two to three hours before exercise, eat a meal that’s based around complex (unrefined) carbohydrates, a little protein, healthy fats and vegetables to fuel your workout. ‘This combination means slow-release energy.’ Think wholewheat pasta with vegetable sauce, a tuna sandwich on wholegrain bread or a jacket potato with beans.


    Rehydrate well and resist the temptation to reward your sweatfest with a high fat or sugar treat; wait until your next meal. ‘Make your next meal a wholefood mix of high-quality protein such as fish, chicken or tofu, with complex carbs (such as brown rice) and a pile of veg – the antioxidants will offset any oxidative stress exercise causes.’

    Fuel your workout for strength training

    Making gains with weights or resistance work through nutrition is all about helping your muscles repair and rebuild for next time. The key nutrient? Protein. ‘The amino acids in protein are the building blocks for all processes triggered by activity that make you stronger and fitter,’ says Clark.


    Muscles rely on carbs to exercise, so as for cardio you’ll want to ensure you fuel your workout to power through your session. Add a little protein too to kick-start the muscle-repair process. Because you won’t be leaping around as much as in a HIIT/cardio workout, you can leave a shorter window between eating and training. If you’re peckish between work and the gym, it’s fine to eat a healthy low-sugar energy bar.


    ‘Consuming protein with a little carbohydrate is ideal after strength training,’ says Clark. ‘A whey protein shake is an easy option – quickly absorbed, palatable and kick-starts lots of muscle recovery processes. Or choose Greek yogurt, milk or eggs, all of which are rich in the amino acid leucine which is the most significant for muscle recovery. For your next meal, a balance of protein, veg and carbs such as an omelette with veg, a chicken salad or a salmon fillet with sweet potato is great.’

    Fuel your workout for endurance sport

    Training for a half marathon or more, a triathlon, cycling event, or all-day hike? This is where you need to get more serious about sports nutrition and hydration.


    When it comes to long, high-intensity effort, only carbs will do to fuel your workout. ‘You’ve heard of carb-loading before a big event or session?’ says Clark. ‘It means taking on enough carbohydrate in the days leading up to it, so your stores are full. It’s why the traditional marathon-eve meal is a plate of pasta. Slowly increase your carbs by adding a banana to breakfast, an extra sandwich-half to lunch and a larger portion of rice to dinner, for example. But on race day itself go light and just have a small, balanced breakfast – your stores are full so all you need to do is top up your blood glucose.’


    Some people find it hard to eat during a long training session. So, while taking snacks like an energy bar, banana or a flapjack might be OK on a long hike, trail run or cycle, you’re better off choosing an easy-to-digest isotonic (carb plus electrolyte) drink or gel for other activities longer than an hour.


    As soon as you can, take on some carbs and protein to replenish stores – chocolate milk is the ideal mix. Then get a hearty, balanced meal in you. And yes, you can have pudding.

    If you want to put these tips to the test, why not read our article introducing you to a form of exercise many people find intimidating? Find out everything you need to know about lifting weights.

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