What should you eat before and after workouts?

By Thanh Thuy   June 5, 2024 | 12:34 am PT
Consuming nuts, beans, bananas, and sourdough bread prior to working out, and eating sweet potatoes and protein-rich foods afterward can help quickly restore energy and improve health recovery.

Time magazine and Healthline cite health experts who recommend these specific foods for consumption before and after strenuous workouts.

Before exercising

Nuts and beans

Research in sports nutrition highlights the advantages of a simple pre-workout meal, like a bowl of blueberries and almonds. These foods are rich in polyphenols, which can reduce inflammation from extended workout sessions.

Wild blueberries are particularly beneficial for both professional and amateur athletes. The polyphenols act like antioxidants, fighting the damaging molecules that inflammation from exercise produces, akin to how firefighters put out fires, speeding up recovery.

Jenna Stangland, the dietitian for the Minnesota Timberwolves, incorporates polyphenols into the players’ diets by adding blueberry sauce to their salad bar.

Health researcher David Nieman found that eating around 40 almonds daily for four weeks prior to strenuous exercise reduces muscle damage. An earlier study this year showed that individuals who consumed almonds for two weeks felt no muscle soreness after a 30-minute downhill run. Almonds are calorie-dense, providing sustained energy for increased physical activity.

A slice of sourdough two hours before exercising

For intense exercise sessions, it’s advisable to consume more carbohydrates than the minimum recommended amounts. Michael Phelps, an American swimmer, broke a world record after consuming three sugar-coated French toast slices and five fried eggs.

Chickpeas, lentils, and sourdough are healthier carbohydrate options, as they digest slowly and offer a consistent energy source for late-day workouts.

Elaine Lee, a biomechanist and head of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Connecticut, suggests eating these carbohydrates about two hours before exercising.

A banana just before exercising

Ripe bananas. Illustration photo by Pexels

Ripe bananas. Illustration photo by Pexels

Bananas are packed with essential nutrients such as carbohydrates and potassium, which are crucial for enhancing exercise performance and promoting muscle development.

They are also easily digestible and can help regulate the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, making them an excellent snack choice before exercising.

You can enjoy bananas on their own, or combine them with a protein-rich food like yogurt or peanut butter for a simple pre-workout snack.


Honey, with its easily digestible simple sugars, is Stangland’s choice for energizing athletes. She regularly provides honey at the start of a game and during breaks to help maintain their strength.

However, eating honey too soon can lead to hypoglycemia, reducing performance during exercise, as noted by Baar.

Eggs when hungry

Mixing carbohydrates with proteins such as eggs or Greek yogurt before a workout can be beneficial. Proteins help stave off hunger longer than other foods, which is crucial during exercise. Being less hungry can positively impact workout performance.

Whether one is a vegetarian or not, good workout results with plant-based proteins are completely possible. Lentils, which are high in protein, are preferred by some athletes on Stangland’s team.

Furthermore, a combination of brown rice powder and Dutch pea protein not only satisfies the full amino acid requirements but also serves as an excellent energy source, aiding workout performance.

Coffee and collagen an hour before exercising

Using small dietary supplements before exercising can be both safe and effective for enhancing athletic performance. One such supplement is caffeine.

Studies have shown that collagen, a type of protein, can alleviate joint pain. Consuming collagen mixed with orange juice an hour before exercising improves its absorption.

Amy Bream, a CrossFit athlete from Nashville, says collagen has reduced her back pain. She incorporates collagen into her coffee each morning.

Similarly, Stangland has developed a "watermelon collagen dose" for her athletes to use before games, particularly for those susceptible to tendon injuries.

After exercising

Sweet potatoes one to four hours after exercising

Sweet potato fries. Illustration photo by Pexels

Sweet potato fries. Illustration photo by Pexels

Post-exercise, it’s crucial to replenish expended energy—especially glycogen. Consuming a mix of fiber-rich carbs, protein, dark green vegetables, and hydrating drinks within one to four hours after training maximizes the metabolic activity of muscle tissues.

Sweet potatoes, packed with fiber and nutrients like polyphenols and electrolytes, are optimal for rehydration. Stangland ensures the Timberwolves team consumes sweet potatoes at least twice daily.


Protein intake can be flexible throughout the day, yet it is especially effective when consumed immediately after training by older individuals since their bodies are more efficient at transporting protein to muscles during this time, according to health researcher Keith Baar.

It’s advisable to thoroughly chew food and opt for ground meat over sliced beef for better protein absorption.

Avoiding overconsumption of vitamins

Research indicates that athletes who consume excessive amounts of vitamins C and E may experience heightened inflammation and oxidative stress during recovery. Nonetheless, it is nearly impossible to reach such high levels from food alone, which should not deter one from eating vegetables.

Several studies endorse using a supplement called creatine, derived from a natural compound in muscle cells, post-exercise. When used daily, it can enhance recovery and improve performance in weight training and high-intensity workouts.

Recovery smoothies

Stangland tailors recovery smoothies to each athlete’s needs. For instance, she adds more carbohydrates for Edwards’ high-intensity performances. The overarching principle in nutritional science is personalization, which encourages individuals to discover what works best for them.

One might experiment with dietary changes, such as replacing a daily peanut butter and jam with a bowl of almonds, blueberries, and polyphenol-rich greens after workouts to assess improvement over a two-week period. Recording changes, such as tracking heart rate during and after exercise, is also recommended.

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