If we all want to get the most out of a workout, we can’t forget to fuel the engine — and properly. There are certain foods to eat before working out that will help our bodies prepare for the exertion and get us through the hard work. Learn what to eat, and what not to eat, before exercising by reading the tips below. Questions? We can help.
When it comes to setting yourself up for a good workout, what you eat beforehand can make all the difference. Eat the right foods at the right time, and you’ll provide your body with plenty of high-octane fuel to support high-energy exercises. But consume too much or the wrong foods too close to your workout, and you may feel your pre-workout meal sloshing around in your stomach—or worse, traveling upward—during your sweat session.
Before an aerobic or strength-training workout, fuel your body with high-quality nutrients to provide it with the energy it needs.
“It doesn’t matter what time you’re doing it—you should always have at least a light snack before a workout,” says Tara Collingwood, a registered dietitian nutritionist and sports dietitian in Orlando, Florida. Contrary to popular belief, “you won’t burn more calories if you’re doing a workout after fasting,” she says. Indeed, you‘re unlikely to burn more body fat by exercising in a fasted state (or on a completely empty stomach), according to research. Instead, you might end up impairing your performance because you don’t have enough energy to work hard for a longer period of time.
It’s not just a matter of putting any fuel in the tank, however. The quality of that fuel matters considerably. Before exercising, “carbohydrates are important because they’re the body’s preferred source of energy and they’re quick to digest,” says Collingwood.
Pre-workout carbs not only help your body maintain blood glucose levels during exercise, but also replace muscle glycogen stores (glucose that’s stored in the muscles), thereby “preventing your body from breaking down muscle for energy,” explains Leslie Bonci, a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Active Eating Advice in Pittsburgh.
Simply put, carbs equal energy, which is why they’re an essential part of a pre-workout snack or meal, along with plenty of fluids (ideally water). Consuming carbs before you engage in endurance exercise or high-intensity cardio exercise specifically, such as cycling or running, ensures your body has plenty of glucose available to fuel the workout without breaking down muscle.
In a small study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, researchers had active participants ingest pre-workout carbohydrates or a placebo 15 minutes before running on a treadmill for 5 minutes at 60% of their VO2 max (the maximum rate of oxygen your body is able to use during exercise), 45 minutes at 70% of their VO2 max, and then 80% of their VO2 max until exhaustion. The researchers compared the participants’ performance in this endurance test and found the time to exhaustion was about 13% longer among the participants who had the pre-workout carbohydrate boost, indicating improved endurance performance.
What’s more, a small 2018 study in Frontiers in Nutrition compared the effects of having a high-carb/low-protein snack versus a low-carb/high-protein snack 30 minutes before a high-intensity interval training session among overweight, perimenopausal women. The session involved bouts of walking or jogging uphill, alternating with recovery intervals, on a treadmill.
The results? The women in the carb-consuming group had a 22% greater increase in performance time compared to those in the protein-consuming group. The most interesting difference: Women who consumed more carbs before the workout had a greater enhancement in mood and positive feelings toward the workout one hour later.
Some good choices for pre-workout snacks in the carbohydrate-rich category include:
Before a strength-training workout, fuel up with a combination of carbohydrates and a little bit of protein, Bonci says. The carbs are crucial for the energy you need to perform the workout, and the protein helps you build muscle mass and strength, as well as repair micro-tears that naturally occur in muscle fibres when you lift weights. Think of these macronutrients (carbohydrates and protein) as the dynamic duo for building muscle strength.
Some good go-to food combinations for any type of workout include:
It’s also important to take the intensity and duration of exercise into consideration, as not all workouts are created equal. Nina Kolbe, a registered dietitian and Forbes Health Advisory Board member, believes most moderate-intensity exercisers who squeeze quick workouts (around 30 minutes) regularly into their days should focus more on proper hydration. But those exercising between 30 and 60 minutes can benefit from a light snack consisting mainly of carbohydrates.
“A banana, English muffin and small granola bar are some good options,” says Kolbe.
Meanwhile, people who are exercising for 60 minutes to 90 minutes can benefit from a snack that’s heavier on carbohydrates and lighter on protein and fat, says Kolbe. She recommends plain oatmeal made with low fat milk, a bagel with peanut butter or toast with a poached egg.
When to Eat Before a Workout
Timing matters for pre-workout nutrition. While you can eat something anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours before a workout, the closer it is to the session, the smaller the quantity of food it should be, Collingwood says.
“If it’s 30 to 60 minutes before a workout, have a snack in the 100- to 200-calorie range before the workout,” she says.
If you can eat two hours before the workout, your pre-exercise fuel could be a balanced meal containing carbohydrates, protein and a little fat as long as it’s relatively easy to digest.
Foods to Avoid Eating Before a Workout
The last thing you want to do is overload your stomach with rich or heavy food that’s hard to digest before a workout. In order to minimize gastrointestinal distress, steer clear of foods high in protein, fiber, fat, and sugar before a workout, says Bonci. “And never try anything new that you haven’t had before right before a workout.”
Some examples of foods to put on the do-not-eat list before a workout include:
Finding the optimal pre-workout nutrition formula for you can involve some trial and error. As you experiment, pay attention to how your pre-workout nosh affects your energy level, fitness performance and overall enjoyment of the workout. Once you find an approach that suits you, make it part of your regular fitness plan.
At Miller PT, we have a nutritionist that can create a personalized nutrition program that meets your needs for the best possible performance. Connect with us to discuss your challenges or concerns at (561) 278-6055 — stay connected and join our Facebook page!