What Should you Eat Before your Workout?
Updated: Jan 6
“Your body is like a car: it needs fuel. And the type of fuel matters and is especially important during a workout.”
What the heck should you eat before your workout? Does it make a difference whether you are working out in the morning or the afternoon or the night? If you eat before you exercise, will you be too full to work out? These are all questions you may have asked yourself before heading to your favorite workout class or hitting the gym, and with so much information out there, it can be tricky to cut through the noise and just get to the bottom of it. It is important, however, to get it right because your body is like a car: it needs fuel. And the type of fuel matters and is especially important during a workout.
The American College of Sports Medicine says, “Adequate food and fluid should be consumed before, during, and after exercise to help maintain blood glucose concentration during exercise, maximize exercise performance, and improve recovery time. Athletes should be well hydrated before exercise and drink enough fluid during and after exercise to balance fluid losses.” (1). This does not mean that you have to go crazy and create a strict schedule for yourself or skip a workout if you do not think you have followed the pre-workout rules you have set for yourself, but it may mean you want to rethink some things you do before, during, and after your exercise when it comes to food.
So... what should you eat before the gym...and what should you maybe avoid? Here is a brief list of some suggestions:
1. Carbohydrate-rich foods or beverages should be what you reach for first. This is because these foods digest well and quickly, so they won't bog you down during your workout. They are also a great source of energy and are stored in your muscles as glycogen. Or in other words, circulate in your bloodstream as glucose, giving you the boost, you need to exercise with intensity! Examples of these foods are fruits, vegetables, whole grains like whole-wheat toast, smoothies, and yogurt.
2. Hydrate. This one should be obvious, but make sure you are drinking adequate amounts of water throughout the day to stay hydrated, and to help your body to replace some of the water you will lose by sweating during your workout.
3. Try to avoid heavy proteins and fatty foods before exercising like meats, fried food, and cheeses. This is because they take longer to digest and may bog you down during your workout. They also take away oxygen and energy-delivering blood from your muscles (2). You also may want to avoid spicy and/or high fiber foods because they often produce gas (which your neighbor on the treadmill may not appreciate).
4. Protein. Research shows that including a small amount of protein in your pre-workout routine can help support muscle growth and repair (3). Some examples of well-tolerated protein foods are low-fat or non-fat dairy products. As a note, be sure to decrease the protein content of your meal and lean more towards carbohydrates, the closer you get to your workout time. Now that we know what types of foods to grab before a workout, we can talk about the timing. Below is a rough outline of timing regarding your pre-workout meals and snacks:
- 3-4 hours before your workout: eat your last big meal, which should be carbohydrate-rich, but also include a protein and fat.
- 2 hours before your workout: eat a snack and/or beverage (like a smoothie) that is high in carbohydrates.
- 1 hour before your workout: drink water and a very light snack (hello, banana).
There is no need to panic if you cannot fit these guidelines into your schedule, just remember that the closer to the workout you get, the fewer calories you should eat. So, we understand the types of foods we should eat before a workout and when, so let's move on to some specific examples. Below is a quick list of some pre-workout snack ideas that are good items to consume about 2 hours before you exercise:
- Peanut butter on whole wheat toast with sliced banana
- Banana "sushi”: 1 banana coated in nut butter, wrapped in a whole grain tortilla and sliced into bite sized pieces
-A pita with hummus and sliced pepper
-Oatmeal with a spoonful of nut butter and berries
Of course, the guidelines listed above are only suggestions, and it may take some playing around to figure out what works best for your workout needs. What you eat could also depend on the level and intensity of your exercise routine, or you may find that you have specific food preferences that work for you. And, beyond pre-workout foods and, your overall diet is critical to your health, so aim for a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. Ultimately, do what works best for you, and know that what you put in your body (nutrition) is as important as what you do with your body (exercise), and that the two go hand in hand to keep you performing at your best.
1. Rodriguez, N. R., Di Marco, N. M., & Langley, S. (2009). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Nutrition and athletic performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc., 709-31. doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f
2. American Heart Association. Food as Fuel Before, During and After Workouts. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/food-as-fuel-before-during-and-after-workouts
3. Wolfram, T. (2019, February 7). 4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass. Retrieved from https://www.eatright.org/fitness/training-and-recovery/building-muscle/strength-building-and-muscle-mass