When it comes to exercise, what you eat before or after a workout can have a big impact on both how your body performs and how it recovers. Whether you’re a recreational runner, committed gym bunny or elite athlete, eating the right foods at the right time will provide your body with enough energy to make the most of your workout – and set you up for the next one.
Alternatively, eat too much, too little, or just the wrong stuff, and you might end up with an overly heavy pre-workout meal sloshing around in your stomach, be faced with a mid-session crash, or simply struggle to recover in time for your next session.
What to eat before a workout
According to the British Dietetic Association (BDA) – the official association for UK dieticians – the best way to ensure you’re adequately fueled up for your workout is to follow a regular eating pattern that includes a high-carbohydrate, low-fat snack or light meal around 2-3 hours before you exercise.
Carbohydrates might get a bad rap, but you actually rely on them as your main source of energy when you’re exercising – they get broken down into glycogen, which is what your muscles use for fuel during intense exercise. Generally, the harder or more often that you exercise, the greater the amount of carbohydrates you’ll need – both in your diet and as part of your pre-workout meal or snack. If you don’t consume enough carbohydrates before you exercise, you can end up feeling more fatigued, have difficulty concentrating and your body may struggle to recover properly.
Although carbohydrates are a crucial part of any good pre-workout meal or snack, eating just any old carbs won’t do. Rich pasta dishes like mac and cheese, fried foods like donuts and sweet treats or pastries are all high-carb, but are also very high in fat and sugar, making them much harder to digest before you exercise – leaving you susceptible to feeling sluggish, overly full or having a sugar crash. Instead, aim to build around 50g of simple-to-digest, complex carbohydrates like fruit, bread, pasta, rice, potato or cereal into your pre-workout meal or snack, alongside a small amount of protein or fat.
Eating pasta before a workout
Pasta is an easy-to-digest, carbohydrate-rich food, so it’s exactly the type of thing you should be eating before exercise. That said, you don’t need to go overboard – it’s fine to eat some pasta as part of a light meal up to around 2-3 hours before a workout, but you don’t need a huge amount – around 150-160g of cooked pasta is more than enough. If your workout is under 2 hours away, you’d be better off going for a lighter snack, whether that’s some fruit, a salad or a piece of toast topped with something that isn’t too high in fat.
Our favourite pre-workout recipes
From a couple of lighter options to a more substantial pasta salad, here’s some of our favourite, Italian-inspired recipes that make for an ideal pre-workout meal or snack.
Two slices of thickly sliced bread provide around 50g of carbohydrate, while the tomato topping is easy on your stomach, low in fat and contains plenty of water to keep you hydrated. What’s more, this recipe is genuinely delicious and very easy to make. It’s a pre-workout winner for us.
A similar approach to the bruschetta, but in salad form. This Tuscan classic contains an ample amount of carbs, plus plenty of extra hydration from the cucumber and tomatoes, which both have high water content. An ideal light meal when you have a couple of hours until your workout.
Pasta salad with roasted sweet potato
One for when you have around 3 hours until your workout, this pasta salad provides plenty of easy-to-digest carbohydrates from the pasta and the sweet potatoes, which have the added benefit of helping to control your blood sugar – giving you a steady stream of energy throughout your next workout. A perfect prep ahead dish, this recipe is a good choice for lunch if you’re exercising after work.
Pasta and carb loading
You might’ve heard of the term ‘carb loading’ before, which is a nutrition strategy most commonly used by endurance athletes like marathon runners, triathletes and cyclists. Used properly, carb loading can help to increase your body’s glycogen stores, giving you more fuel when you most need it (like at mile 20 of a marathon).
Despite common misconceptions, proper carb loading doesn’t just involve eating a huge portion of pasta the night before a race, but instead requires you to eat a higher carbohydrate diet for a few days prior to your endurance activity, while also reducing the amount of exercise you do. Typically, nutritionists recommend athletes eat around 8-12 g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight when carb loading.
If you’re an elite athlete or are partaking in a recreational endurance event, eating carb-heavy meals (like pasta) in the 3 days before can help. All of the pasta recipes in the post-workout section below are also excellent choices if you’re carb loading, just remember to vary your carb intake with other sources like fruit, oats and whole grains.
What to eat after a workout
If your pre-workout meal is intended to fuel your muscles during exercise, the main goal of your post-workout meal is to supply your body with the right nutrients to enable you to recover properly – as well as maximising the benefits of your chosen activity. Even if you’ve smashed out a huge workout session, many of the benefits will be lost unless you refuel properly.
According to the British Dietetic Association (BDA), protein has an important role to play in repairing and building muscle. Indeed, the BDA highlights: “the addition of 15-25g of protein to a post-workout meal or snack can boost glycogen storage, reduce muscle soreness and promote muscle repair.” You also need to replenish the glycogen stores that you depleted during your workout, so carbs are (again) important. Here, sports nutritionists recommend that you eat a small high-carb snack in the first half hour after exercise, followed by a larger meal rich in protein and carbohydrates within two hours of finishing your workout.
Eating pasta after a workout
In terms of what foods you should be eating post-workout, complex but easily-digestible carbs like pasta, rice and potatoes are all good options for your larger meal, alongside a lean protein source like fish, chicken or beans. Fresh egg pasta is one option as the eggs used in the dough provide extra protein compared to dried pasta, while pasta made with whole grain flour – like spelt pasta – is even higher in protein, without the extra fat that comes from the egg yolks in a traditional dough. An average person should aim for around 120g of uncooked fresh pasta or 100g of dried as an ideal portion size, accompanied by around 10 to 20 grams of lean protein.
Our favourite post workout recipes
Chicken cacciatora pasta
The skinless, boneless chicken thighs in this recipe are an excellent source of lean protein, a deliciously authentic take on hunter’s chicken. Paired with fresh strands of pappardelle pasta and a tomato sauce filled with vegetables, it’s a low-fat, high protein and carb-rich dish that’s perfect a couple of hours after a big workout.
Fettuccine and cod in a tomato sauce
A 100g serving of white fish like cod provides around 20g protein, which makes this cod pasta recipe an ideal alternative to chicken. With a delicate tomato sauce made with olive oil, this dish also provides plenty of vitamins and good fats. What’s more, it’s packed with flavour and will transport your post-workout refuel to the Italian coast.
Pasta with lentil ragu
For vegetarians and vegans, legumes like lentils are an excellent way of getting plenty of protein into your post-workout meal, without having to resort to supplements. Serving this tomato and lentil ragu with plenty of pasta makes for a complete meal – well-suited to a post-workout refuel.