Getting a great workout goes beyond the number of reps you do or the miles you log on the treadmill (though that does help too). What you put into your body before and after a race or a workout can either help or hinder your performance.

Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D. and Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
Updated January 14, 2020

Getting a great workout goes beyond the number of reps you do or the miles you log on the treadmill (though that does help too). What you put into your body before and after a race or a workout can either help or hinder your performance.

Regardless of what type of exercise suits your fancy, here are some tips for the best foods to eat before, during and after a workout.

Related: 5 Best Exercises for Weight Loss

Pre-workout foods

Pictured Recipe: Blueberry-Banana Overnight Oats

Prior to your sweat session, be sure to fuel up the right way. Try these foods and drinks before you hit the gym or lace up your shoes to make sure your energy stocks are full and ready for the burn. Staying hydrated is also really important. In one study, people who were just slightly dehydrated were typically only able to run, for example, about 75 percent as hard as usual. Hydrate pre-exercise with 2 to 3 cups of water, 2 to 3 hours before exercising. (If you're exercising in the morning, just try to drink a bit of water before you get started—no need to set your alarm for a 3 a.m. water drinking session.) It's also important to fuel up on easy to digest carbs before a workout, plus a little protein and fat if you are going to be moving for a long time. If you have a meal within two hours of when you start your workout and you don't feel hungry, you are probably good to go. If you need a pre-workout boost, try having a small snack that's mostly simple carbs (think 1/2 English muffin with a tiny bit of peanut butter or 1/2 a banana) about 60 minutes prior to exercise to keep your energy up all workout long.

During your workout:

During short bouts of exercise (think: less than a half hour), it usually isn't necessary to take in any fuel while working out. However, for longer stretches of movement, it can be really important. Along with staying hydrated, these foods can keep your electrolytes in check and keep your muscles moving the way you want.

Honey: To boost your energy during endurance activities, recent research suggests that carbohydrate blends (foods containing fructose and glucose) may be superior to straight glucose. But before you reach for a sports drink, consider honey: like sugar, it naturally has equal parts fructose and glucose, but it also contains a handful of antioxidants and vitamins. (The darker the honey, the more disease-fighting compounds it contains.) If you are going to be on the go for a while and need something portable (say, for a long distance run), go for the single use packets of honey, sold at most major grocery stores. This will allow you to take your fuel on the go without having to spend the money on expensive sports gels.

Water: For most of us, plain water is plenty to keep you hydrated (minus a very long or intense bout of exercise). More often than not, you do not need to splurge on sports drinks or coconut water. Try drinking 7 to 10 ounces for every 20 minutes of exercise, per the American Council on Exercise. However, if plain water doesn't do it for you, drinking flavored water while you're working out might make it easier to stay hydrated. In one study, people given flavored water while exercising drank more than exercisers given plain water. Choose wisely though: some brands can deliver as much added sugars as soft drinks while others use artificial sweeteners to cut the calorie load.

Post-workout:

The hard part is over: you have finished your workout. But that is not where performance stops. Recovery eating is important for moving towards your goal or even warding off soreness and inflammation. After a workout, be sure to replenish with a mix of protein and carbs. Enjoy a snack like Greek yogurt, hummus and vegetables or turkey and cheese slices with bread or crackers within 30 minutes of the end of your workout for optimal recovery. When you are able, opt for whole foods over highly processed protein bars or shakes. Contrary to popular belief, your muscles repair themselves and grow during recovery, not exercise. So even if you have a post-workout snack, aim to have a full meal with vegetables, whole grains, healthy fat and lean protein within two hours to sustain your energy and help your muscles rebuild. Check out these foods to make sure you are getting the most out of your movement.

Chocolate milk: If your workout lasts an hour or more, have a glass of chocolate (or plain) milk. The carbohydrates in it will help replenish the energy stored in your muscles (called glycogen stores) and aid in muscle recovery—more so than a carb-only drink. Don't like milk? Substitute with a post-workout snack of banana and peanut butter or Greek yogurt.

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Pictured Recipe: Anti-Inflammatory Cherry-Spinach Smoothie

Tart cherry juice: If you are really looking to hone in your recovery, trying tart cherry juice may be a good option. Tart cherry juice delivers antioxidants that mop up the harmful free radicals produced when you exercise. And research shows that a daily dose of cherry juice may help ease inflammation that causes sore muscles. A 2010 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that runners who downed 24 ounces of tart cherry juice (about 480 calories) for seven days before a long-distance race, and again on race day, reported fewer aches afterward than runners who drank a placebo. Skip the juice right before or while you're exercising, though: fructose, the primary sugar in fruit, takes longer to digest than other sugars (like those in honey or sports drinks), so drinking juice before or during exercise may cause stomach cramps.

Bottom Line

If your workout is less than 30 minutes, you probably will be fine with water and focusing on recovering after. However, with longer bouts of activity, fueling can be really important, from hours before to afterward. Try these foods to help you stay hydrated, keep your electrolytes in check and give your muscles ample protein to recover. For more, check out 5 Power Foods to Fuel Your Workout.

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