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Should you eat before or after a workout?

A photo of a man wearing gym kit eating pasta
(Image credit: Westend61)

Whatever your fitness goals, if you’re not fueling your body correctly, you’ll only get so far. But should you eat before or after a workout? And what about eating before or after you head out for a run? Knowing when to eat can sometimes be as important as knowing what to eat, so to help de-bunk the myths, we spoke to a nutritionist. 

It’s worth noting here that a lot of the time, it’s about finding out what works best for you and your body. Personally, I prefer to head out for a run without eating anything beforehand, as I find I feel more comfortable and lighter. That said, if I’m training for a marathon and heading out for a run that’s longer than an hour and a half, I might take a gel with me, or eat half a banana before heading out the door. Everyone is different, and if you have any questions, it’s worth chatting to your doctor, or personal trainer. 

We asked nutritionist, running coach, and personal trainer, Alex Parren, for her advice. Here's what she had to say.

Is it better to eat before or after a workout/run?

You should always eat after a workout or run, even if it is late in the evening after dinner. This is because there is something called the ‘anabolic window’ when the body is in the best condition for absorbing nutrients. The anabolic window is open 15-60 minutes after exercise, which means this is the best time to have a balance of protein, fat, and carbs to refuel your body and give it the best chance for optimum recovery. If you have done your workout or run late in the evening, especially after dinner, you should still consume something, even if it’s just a protein shake and a banana. This will reduce the effect of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and allow you to recover faster and be ready for your next workout sooner.

When it comes to eating before a workout, this is still up for debate. A lot of people swear by ‘fasted cardio’ which is when you do a workout or run in the morning before eating anything. The science is inconclusive on whether this method burns more fat than if you were to eat something, however, for runners, there is a notable benefit. Doing a shorter or easier run in a fasted state can be used to train your body to function with little to no fuel in the tank. This would train your body to respond better in the last few miles of a marathon, for example, when you are likely to be running on empty. Definitely save this for shorter, easier workouts though and you only need to do it if there will be a time when it’s useful. For runs that last longer than an hour, you should always eat beforehand. 

(Ed. note: If you are getting into running, check out our best running shoes to shop right now). 

If you do eat before a gym session, what should you be eating?

If you’re going to eat before a gym session, make sure you eat at least two hours beforehand, to give the food adequate time to digest and absorb into the body. The best thing to eat would be a balanced meal incorporating carbs, fat, and protein — such as porridge with peanut butter, a vegetable omelette, or chicken with brown rice. If you’re going to eat closer to your workout, stick with simple carbs which are easy to digest, such as a banana or some Greek yogurt with a topping of blueberries and honey. 

a person in gym kit eating a cereal bar

(Image credit: Westend61)

If you do eat after a gym session, what should you be eating?

What you eat post-workout is really important and will make or break your recovery. Prioritize quality food and again you’ll want a balance of protein, carbs and fat. Lean protein such as turkey or chicken with a side of vegetables and brown rice would be ideal, or alternatively, if you are vegan, perhaps a vegan chilli made with kidney beans for protein and a homemade tomato sauce with lots of vegetables. Another tasty idea would be smoked salmon and cream cheese on a wholemeal bagel if it’s lunchtime and you want something quick, easy but still delicious. 

a photo of a cream cheese and smoked salmon bagel

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

How soon after a run or workout should you aim to eat?

Nutrient timing and hitting the anabolic window is important if you train regularly and want to recover as efficiently as possible. The best window is 15-60 minutes after your workout ends, but anything up to two hours will still allow you to absorb nutrients from what you’re eating and contribute to better recovery. Especially if you’ve done a hard workout or a long run, make sure to eat enough, otherwise, you will be at risk of binge eating and/or craving unhealthy foods later in the day.  

Alex Parren is an experienced personal trainer, running coach, and nutritionist for sustainable British activewear brand Sundried. (opens in new tab)  She has a background in both powerlifting and Olympic lifting, and she is now a keen ultra runner and trail runner. 

Looking for some workout inspiration? We've hand-picked the best exercises to do if you sit down all day, the cardio exercises that burn more calories than running, and the best inner-thigh exercises. Not for you? Read what happened when we tried this Pamela Reif six-pack ab workout or a dumbbell workout that's perfect for beginners

An experienced personal trainer, running coach, and nutritionist for sustainable British activewear brand Sundried. (opens in new tab)  She has a background in both powerlifting and Olympic lifting and Alex is now a keen ultra runner and trail runner. 

Looking for some workout inspiration? We've hand-picked the best exercises to do if you sit down all day, the cardio exercises that burn more calories than running, and the best inner-thigh exercises. Not for you? Read what happened when we tried this Pamela Reif six-pack ab workout or a dumbbell workout that's perfect for beginners

Jane McGuire
Jane McGuire

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past four years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.