Fuel Up: Foods to Maximize Your Workout


As busy college students, it seems hard enough to squeeze in time at the Wooden Center. That’s why it’s good to make sure you’re consuming the fuel you need, before and after your workout, to make sure you’re getting the maximum benefits from your physical activity.

College schedules are weird, and sometimes you have to work out before breakfast, right after lunch, or even late at night. However, whatever your quirky workout time may be, there’s a snack for that.

I would also like to note that this are guidelines for a partial cardio/partial weight workout. If your workouts are extensive weight training, or cardiovascular training (or last for longer than an hour), what to consume before/after may need to be changed. Also, if you find certain foods that work better for your body that is fine too; what’s important is finding what gives your body the fuel and energy you need. This guide, however, will serve as a good example for a majority of workouts.

Before a Workout

It is recommended to eat food 1 to 3 hours before you workout. This is because while you’re working out, your body will be mostly focused on your muscles, not your digestion. Eating too close to a workout could even cause problems with your digestive system.

Good foods to eat 1 to 3 hours before a workout include complex carbohydrates (i.e. whole grains, lentils, or vegetables). Carbohydrates serve as the energy for your body, and they are stored primarily in your muscles and liver. So, in order for there to be the correct fuel for your workout, carbohydrates need to be present so they can be converted into energy. However, try to avoid simple carbohydrates during this time, because they will not give you sustainable energy, and do not provide the right nutrients for a thorough workout.

If you have to work out just after waking up, there is a chance you won’t be able to eat 1 to 3 hours before. In this case, it’s best to eat easily digestible foods right before.

Some examples of easily digestible foods include:

  • Bananas
  • Crackers
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Spinach
  • Yogurt

An important note: While protein heavily assists in muscle building, it is not the most important thing to consume before a workout. Eating foods high in carbs with a low level of protein is probably best, since carbohydrates will be your main fuel source. Protein also tends to slow down your digestive process, depriving your body of oxygen and slowing down the delivery of blood to your muscles. Similarly, it is also not recommended to eat fatty foods before working out, because it can also slow down your digestive process.

During a Workout

For most workouts that last an hour or less, there is not a need for snacks during exercise. However, an essential part of working out is drinking water. Staying hydrated can help the effectiveness of your workout, and shorten recovery time.

If you do happen to do a longer workout (i.e. running a marathon, or even playing a game of soccer) there is a chance you will need to eat some carbohydrates every thirty-minutes or so. This could include a sports drink, some pretzels, nuts, or granola.

After a Workout

After a workout your body’s glycogen (stored in muscles and the liver) depletes, so it’s important to replenish within (if you can) 15 minutes of your workout. Like pre-workout fuel, post-workout energy will mostly come from carbohydrates. However, there should be a little more emphasis on protein to help repair your muscles.

By “emphasis” on protein I do not mean downing a large protein shake or protein bar right after you finish exercising. Some research suggests that eating 1 gram of protein for every kilogram of your body weight would suffice daily. Contrary to popular belief, stocking up on protein will not rapidly increase muscle growth, but instead can lead to kidney damage, an imbalance in the acidity of your blood, or to the weakening of bones.

So, what are the best snacks to eat after a workout?

  • A chicken sandwich
  • Apples with nut butter
  • Yogurt with granola and fruit
  • Chocolate milk and some pretzels
  • A banana smoothie (with maybe some protein powder or spinach)

All of the above mentioned snacks incorporate carbohydrates and protein, do not only help your body grow and recover, but to give you the sustainable energy you need for your day.

Everyone’s body is different, and hopefully this article will serve as a guideline to find your favorite pre/post-workout snack. Even different exercises require different snacks, depending on the intensity or the length. Either way, the body requires carbohydrates, protein, and nutrients to allow it to work as well as it can. The important thing to remember: Your body cannot function when it is empty, so fuel may be the most important part of a good workout.

Aurora Finley is an undergraduate student at UCLA majoring in English. Along with blogging for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative, she is the upcoming Sexperts Director for the 2017-18 academic year. She is also an active member of UCLA’s Body Image Task Force and a regular volunteer for UCLA’s Habitat for Humanity chapter.