You want to get the most out of your workouts, right? While a lot of that has to do with what you're doing during the workout—making sure you have the right form, adding some variety, stretching, etc.—what you do before can make a difference, too. Making sure you're fueling up with the right foods before starting your fitness routine can provide you with enough energy to power through the most challenging parts.
"If timed correctly and done right, eating before a workout can boost energy and enhance exercise performance," says Sarah Rueven, RD, MS, CDN, of Rooted Wellness.
So what should you reach for before you exercise? There are a couple of things to keep in mind, says Yasi Ansari, MS, RD, CSSD, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. First, what you eat before training may depend on the intensity, duration, and how much time an individual has to eat before their workout. And second, it's not one-size-fits-all. "What may work for you may not work for someone else," she explains. "Eat what gives you energy and what is tolerable for your body. Try different snacks and see what works best for you before workouts and how long you can comfortably consume a snack or meal before training that you can tolerate."
But you want to make sure you're getting a good mix of nutrients, which is pretty much the advice for all meals you consume. "Each macronutrient plays a role in exercise performance and recovery," Rueven says. "Carbohydrates contain glucose, which is stored in our muscles as glycogen. Our glycogen stores are used to fuel our muscles during high-intensity workouts. Protein is essential for muscle performance and repair. Fat is used as the primary source of energy during long-duration, low- to moderate-intensity workouts."
Timing is everything, too, since you want to make sure your body is able to digest everything before you start exercising. The nutritionists we spoke to said that you'll want to eat a balanced meal (carbs, moderate protein, and low in fat) in the two-to-four-hour range before. "However, timing up your meals and workouts perfectly is not always realistic, and this is where a pre-workout snack comes in handy," Rueven says. "Eating a snack containing both carbohydrates and protein 30 minutes to one hour before you work out can boost energy for your workout." What you want to avoid is eating within the 30 minutes before a workout because Rueven says your body won't have enough time to digest the food, and your stomach with compete for energy for digestion, which might leave you with low-energy and also might cause GI distress.
Ansari adds that for snacking before a workout, she generally recommends quick carbs, fast-acting/digesting carbohydrates that are generally lower in fiber and help boost energy levels. And for the meals before, she recommends adding carbs that are higher in fiber because "because the body has enough time to break it down before a training session. Plus, they will also help keep energy sustained for a longer period of time than a carbohydrate lower in fiber."
And that five-course meal or burger and fries are no-nos. "I would say the only thing to not have is a big and heavy meal right before the workout," says Robin Foroutan, MD, RDN, HHC, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "And that's because when you eat a big meal, more of your blood gets shuttled towards your digestive organs to help you digest and metabolize the meal. So if you start doing exercise that requires blood flow to your peripheral muscles, then that's when people get stomach cramps and they don't digest that well. Also, I think the sensation of that big meal still being in your stomach would slow most people down."
That sensation for me, personally, is why I like to work out on an empty stomach, especially when I'm doing an early morning sweat session. So I had to ask the experts if it was okay to skip eating beforehand.
"I always recommend consuming at least 15 to 30 grams of carbohydrates before a very early training session," Ansari says. "If you can't eat a meal, grab a snack with these guidelines (bananas, bars, fruit pouches, dried fruit, electrolyte-enhanced beverages). If you have enough time before the workout, I would aim to eat a full meal, as this will help to keep energy stable for a longer period of time. By not eating, you're putting yourself at risk of not being able to have enough energy to get the most out of your high-intensity workouts! You want to be able to fuel enough to put enough energy toward a training session."
Foroutan adds that you should listen to your body when it comes to making this call. "As long as you don't feel compromised in your workout—like you're not feeling dizzy, you're not feeling weak—then it is perfectly safe," she explains. "Because when you really think about it, our bodies are designed to tap into stored energy when we haven't eaten in a while."
But if you do forgo a snack or meal, Rueven says you should plan on eating something within 30 to 45 minutes of working out that contains both protein and carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores and support muscle repair. And for early workouts, Ansari says you can prep the night before by making sure your dinner the night before helps support morning training.
What to Eat
If you're looking for some ideas for a pre-workout meal or snack, take a look at some of their suggestions below:
Fruit and Nut Butter
Grab an apple or banana with the nut butter of your choice. "Fruit makes a great pre-workout snack because it is relatively simple for our bodies to digest," Rueven says. "It contains glucose, which is used to power your muscles during a workout. Nut butters contain protein which helps support muscle repair."
Greek Yogurt With Granola, Honey, and Berries
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"I love adding berries to yogurt," Ansari says. "Generally, fruits rich in antioxidants can help decrease inflammation that can be put on the body after training." Rueven adds that yogurt is a source of protein, while the berries contain carbohydrates and fiber.
Protein Shake, Fruit Smoothies, or Juices
"A carb with protein gives you a combination of fast carbs to fuel the workout, as well as protein, which allows for more sustained energy and muscle repair," Foroutan says. "So a protein shake with mixed berries would be a nice pre-workout snack." Fruit smoothies or juices are also a good option for a quick energy boost, Ansari adds.
Almonds and Dried Fruit
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"Almonds contain protein needed for muscle performance and repair," Rueven says. "Dried fruit provides the glucose needed to fuel muscles during high-intensity workouts."
Hard-Boiled Eggs and Avocado Toast
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This one's on the meal side. "Moderate to low protein can help increase satiety so you will feel more satisfied and less hungry going into a session (so you won't be thinking about your growling stomach!)," Ansari says. "Add a light spread of avocado, which is a healthy fat that helps to decrease inflammation. And the whole wheat bread can help to sustain energy. The more fiber a carbohydrate has, the longer it takes to break down."
Whole-Grain Toast or English Muffin With Almond Butter
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"Selecting a whole-grain bread is key," Rueven explains. "Whole-grain bread contains fiber and carbohydrates, whereas white bread lacks fiber. Fiber prevents blood sugar from spiking too rapidly and provides sustained energy. Almond butter is a great source of protein and fat."
For a full meal, Ansari recommends an omelet, fruit salad, English muffin, and a cup of milk or fresh juice. "Meals that contain a protein, carbohydrate, and veggie will help to increase satiety and also provides energy," she says. "Meals or snacks that include all food groups can help support this."
Cup of Oatmeal With Sliced Almonds
"Oatmeal contains carbohydrates, while almonds provide protein and fat," Rueven says.
Fruit With Another Snack
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"As we get closer to the workout, other recommended snacks include bananas, graham crackers, string cheese and fruit, or a carbohydrate-rich granola bar with a piece of fruit and applesauce," Ansari says.
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Okay, yes, water is not technically food, but it's essential to stay hydrated, especially when you're working out. "Keep a water bottle with you and drink at least 20 ounces of fluids three hours leading up to a training session and at least four to eight ounces every 15 to 20 minutes, if possible, during training," Ansari recommends.