Anyone who’s ever experienced a growling stomach during Savasana or that on-the-verge-of-fainting feeling during a 6 a.m. spin class knows that acing breakfast is crucial if you also want to ace your morning workout.
But just because you sweat before sunrise doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a bagel. Fueling for (and recovering from) exercise matters most when you up the duration and intensity of your workout, says Molly Kimball, R.D., C.S.S.D., a sports nutritionist in Elmwood, LA. So while pre-yoga eats may simply curb hunger; triathlon training meals prove key in helping you perform (and then rebuild).
No matter your sweat session of choice, though, you want to make sure to eat any small snacks at least 20 to 30 minutes pre-workout, which leaves time for digestion; and keep any bigger meals to at least two hours before your workout, says Kimball.
And all throughout the day—not just pre- and post-workout—keep protein intake in mind. “The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes, depending on training,” says Christine Gerbstadt, M.D., R.D., an assistant professor at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. That means if you weigh 140 pounds (about 63.5 kg), you’d aim for between 76.2 and 127 g per day.
So how does that translate into real food? Consider this your guide to how and what to eat before and after your favorite morning workouts.
Light Exercises (Easy Yoga Class or Walk)
Pre-workout: When you think about carbs as fuel, you’ll realize that you don’t need a lot to make it through a workout that isn’t as taxing, says Kimball. Whole grains (and lots of fiber) can also make you gassy and bloated before a workout (not ideal), says Gerbstadt. If you find that you’re always starving by the middle of class, consider a little bit of protein pre-workout to take the edge off of hunger and stop muscle breakdown that can happen when you go a long time without eating, says Kimball.
Try: A hard boiled egg (about 7g protein), a Greek yogurt (about 17g protein), or half of a protein bar (about 10g protein). Want to mix up your morning munchies? Try these 10 High-Protein Breakfast Ideas.
Post-workout: If your workout is under an hour and not particularly grueling, you don’t really need to worry about post-workout nutrition, says Kimball. “Just go on about your normal day.”
Long, Intense Exercise (Workouts Lasting 60-90 minutes)
Pre-workout: If you’re going hard and long for over an hour, you’re going to want to load up on about 30 to 40 grams of carbs—an amount that will fuel your muscles, energize you, but not weigh you down, says Kimball. Aim for a little bit of fat and about 10g protein, too, says Gerbstadt. Healthy fats can help sustain exercise, but too many can cause GI upset, says Kimball, so make sure your food has that balance.
Try: Two grainy slices of bread with almond butter; or a milk and fruit smoothie with banana.
Post-workout: Recovery meals matter here. Mostly, you want to think about adding carbs and protein within 20 to 30 minutes of your workout, says Kimball. “The ratio that has been shown to be really effective in enhancing muscle recovery is 3 to 4 grams of carbs for every 1 gram of protein,” she says.
Try: A shake with whey protein, milk, and fresh fruit. (Blend up this Olympian’s Post-Workout Recovery Smoothie.)
Short, High-Intensity Exercise (Spin Class, HIIT Training)
Pre-workout: “With high-intensity, short duration exercise, the big thing is that people can feel like they’re going to get sick if they eat too much,” says Kimball. Plus, if your spin class is only 30 minutes, your body has enough carbs stored in your muscles to last you beyond it (60 to 90 minutes). But for the quick energy and blood sugar lift, consider 15 grams of carbs mixed with protein, she says. Skip the fats, which can pull blood to your GI tract—away from the muscles and the cardiovascular system—says Gerbstadt.
Try: A handful (about 4 to 6) whole-grain crackers (e.g. Triscuits) with thin slice of cheese or fresh fruit and string cheese or Babybel snack cheese.
Post-workout: What you eat after your HIIT class depends on your goal, says Kimball. A general rule of thumb? Aim for a 2:1 carb to protein ratio, she says.
Try: A Kind+ Bar. (For even more advice from the pros check out what trainers say are their favorite post-workout snacks.)
Pre-workout: Weight training requires high bursts of power, so getting carbs beforehand can be beneficial, says Kimball. “Even 15 to 30 grams of carbs can give you that boost to get you through strength without adding a big calorie load to your day.” You’ll also want about 20 grams of protein, says Gerbstadt.
Try: Foldover sandwich (e.g. 3 ounces sliced turkey folded into 1 slice of whole grain bread, optional spinach leaves/tomato slice) or a power bar (e.g. a Quest Bar).
Post-workout: Aim for a 1:1 ratio of carbs to protein, says Kimball. Carbs are our muscle’s primary source of fuel for exercise. So incorporating carbs immediately post-workout helps with muscle recovery by starting the process of replenishing our body’s carbohydrate stores, she says. “Amino acids from protein can start that repair process in the muscles.”
Try: About 1/2 cup of cottage cheese with peaches.