What you choose to eat before a workout depends on your training, intensity, time and your goal. I share guidelines for what to eat before exercise,  plus some pre-workout snack ideas to get you started.

“What should I eat before I work out?” 

I get this question a lot. The truth is, it depends on your goal.

Eating before meals, or in the fed state, as opposed to skipping meals has been show to improve performance.  The goal of the pre-workout meal/snack is to provide fuel for your working muscles, guaranteeing that you’re neither hungry nor left exercising with a large quantity of undigested food in the stomach.

Your Preworkout Snack Depend On:

  • Individual Goals– weight loss, fat losses, gain strength, improve speed, etc.
  • Duration of Exercise– 30 minute workout versus a 3 hour workout
  • Intensity of Exercise– high intensity (can’t talk) vs. low intensity (can carry on a conversation)
  • Type of Exercise-strength versus endurance
  • Individual Level of Training– novice versus elite athlete

Many of my clients prefer to work out on an empty stomach.  If your goal is only to burn calories or lose weight, that might actually work.  But, if your goal is to get faster, stronger, build muscle or perform better, it’s time to start focusing on a pre-workout plan.

Guidelines For Choosing Pre-Workout Fuel

To gain a performance benefit, there are some general guidelines to consider. They are:

  • Focus on carbohydrates such as whole grain breads, pasta, tortillas, rice, cereals, fruits and vegetables.    Eating carb-rich foods before you exercise can help supply energy, and maximize muscle glycogen stores.
  • Small-moderate amount of protein (depending on timing)
  • Keep the pre-workout meal low in fat and fiber.  Meals high in fat and fiber take longer to digest, which may cause fullness and other GI (gastrointestinal issues) such as nausea, bloating, cramping and general discomfort.
  • Hydrating foods are great to provide some additional fluid.  Foods such as fruits, vegetables, smoothies and yogurt make good options.
  • When exercising in extreme conditions or for long duration, choosing salty foods will help prevent sodium depletion. Good choices are chicken broth, pickles, olives or pretzels.

Most athletes don’t like to exercise with a belly full of food, nor do I recommend it.  When it comes to portion size, the closer you are to the workout, the less food you consume.  The more time that’s available, the more food you consume.

For higher intensity workouts, be sure to leave more time for digestion.  If you hit the gym before breakfast, try eating something small, such as a banana or another easily digestible carbohydrate, 30 minutes before you start.  But be sure to have a balanced breakfast as soon as your workout ends. If you know your stomach can’t handle solid food before a workout, opt for a smoothie or sports drink for the added carbohydrates.

We’re all different when it comes to the types of food we tolerate before exercise and the amount of food we eat will also vary based on our individual needs.  It’s important to practice pre-workout fueling until you learn what works for you.

Example of pre-workout snacks (1-2 hours before a workout):

  • 1/2 turkey sandwich with an orange
  • yogurt with a few crushed almonds & dried fruits
  • cereal with milk
  • toast, bagel or English muffin with nut butter and jelly
  • 1/2 PB & J sandwich
  •  3-4 fig Newton’s or other small low-fat granola bar

Remember, we are all different and we all require a different amount of food.  If you need help determining your own individual needs, consider consulting a sports dietitian.  Check out http://www.scandpg.org/search-rd/ to help locate a sports dietitian near you. Or, you can read more and get more tips in my book, Fueling Young Athletes.

Do you have a favorite pre-workout meal or snack?

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