Remember that exercise—whether you favor the gym, yoga studio, or the great outdoors—isn’t the only way to keep your body strong, energized, and operating at its best. Rather, when it comes to working out, what you eat before and after your sweat session is just as important as the exercise itself.
“Properly fueling your body in advance of your workout and taking in the right nutrients during your recovery period is a key part of body maintenance,” says Tamanna Singh, MD, a clinical cardiologist and member of the Sports Cardiology Center in the Robert and Suzanne Tomsich Department of Cardiovascular Medicine and Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic.
To help you make the most out of every stage of your workout, we chatted with Dr. Singh about what she recommends eating before and after every workout to properly fuel and refuel your body so that you can keep performing at your maximum—and feeling your best.
The best pre-workout food ideas, according to a cardiologist
While you probably don’t want to down an entire meal shortly before going for a jog, your body should be properly nourished before you engage in significant physical activity. “When it comes to pre-workout food, I typically recommend eating a small snack about an hour before exercise to improve energy, performance, and mental clarity while exercising,” says Dr. Singh. “But bare in mind that if you have a longer workout and/or more intense sweat session planned, you will likely need more pre-exercise fuel than that. I recommend choosing simple carbohydrates, which are faster forms of fuel and much easier for your body to access during exercise compared to fats or proteins. These take longer to digest and utilize, which can also cause some gut discomfort.”
Dr. Singh recommends simple snacks like an apple, banana, piece of toast, or a bagel. For longer or more arduous forms of exercise, your pre-workout food should ideally include some protein like nuts or peanut butter roughly one hour ahead, too.
“It is also so vital to stay hydrated,” she says. “Electrolytes are particularly important when it comes to avoiding dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities, which can contribute to significant decline in performance.” For a quick boost of electrolytes, drop a Nuun tablet into your water bottle, or sip on a low-sugar bottled drink from ROAR Organic or Body Armour.
What should you eat after exercise to help with recovery?
Rather than trying to get on with your day without stopping to refuel after a hard workout, Dr. Singh affirms that post-workout nourishment is crucial, especially if you want to ensure that you recognize all the gains that you’ve worked so hard to achieve. “Post-exercise hydration and electrolyte repletion is incredibly important, particularly if you sweat a lot or completed an intense workout, long workout, or in heat where the likelihood of dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities is high,” she notes.
What to eat, you ask? “With respect to post-exercise fuel, a common recommendation is a four to one carbohydrate to protein ratio depending upon exercise duration and intensity.” That means that yes, you should in fact be eating a lot of whole grain pasta, bread, and other grains in order to give your body the energy it needs to recover. “I typically recommend aiming for nutritious, whole foods rather than processed foods,” Dr. Singh adds. Plus, you can adjust your food choices based on the type of workout that you’ve just completed. “Consume antioxidant-rich foods and protein for more rapid muscle recovery,” Dr. Singh recommends, or omega-3 fatty acids (found in chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, salmon, and tuna) to reduce inflammation.
And while you may be tempted to reach for the bran flakes after your workout, Dr. Singh says that may not be the best idea for those with a sensitive stomach. “After long workouts, the gut may have a difficult time digesting a ton of fiber. If you have gut difficulties, I encourage taking in some simple carbohydrates that are low in fiber followed by additional nutritional foods later on,” she says.
What types of ingredients (pre-workout food or not) are best for cardiovascular health?
If you’re looking to fundamentally alter the makeup of your meals to benefit your general cardiovascular health (whether related to exercise performance or not), Dr. Singh has plenty of recommendations. “My stance is the more plant-forward you eat, the better,” she says. “Plant-based or plant-forward meal regimes are full of nutritious foods that have been shown to reduce cholesterol, control blood sugar, and bring down blood pressure and cardiovascular morbidity.”
Plant-based foods also tend to be packed with micro and macronutrients that our bodies need for both optimal athletic performance and cardiovascular health. Think fresh fruits and vegetables, plenty of beans and legumes, grains, and heart-healthy unsaturated fats from foods like olive oil, avocado, and nuts.
Are there any foods to avoid for a heart-healthy diet?
While moderation is key to any healthy set of eating habits, Dr. Singh does tend to go particularly easy on certain ingredients. “I typically recommend moderation when consuming red meat, foods high in saturated fat, and foods high in added sugar,” she says. “At the end of the day, the more whole foods, unprocessed you can eat, the better.” This applies to both your pre- and post-workout regime and your optimal health on a day-to-day basis.