What to Eat Before a Workout
Your food choices (and timing) make a huge difference.
You’ve got an hour before your training session and you’re absolutely starving. What do you eat? Most of us know that a fast food cheeseburger and fries isn’t the answer but when it comes to what to eat before a workout, the information out there can be confusing. Should you fast before a workout? What about carbs vs. protein? Does it matter what type of workout you’re doing?
“When it comes to exercise, you need to be running like a well-oiled machine in order to see results that will last,” says Nicole Haworth, Celebrity Trainer and Cofounder of The Workout LA. But what makes one person “well-oiled” can be very different from another, especially when you consider how long and how hard you plan to train.
From pre-workout snacks to how long before exercise you should eat them, we consulted the experts in a roundtable Q&A. Read on to learn more about the best foods to eat before your next workout.
Q: There’s a lot of talk out there about intermittent fasting. Is it ever okay to work out on an empty stomach?
A: “It depends on the type of workout,” says Integrative and Functional Medicine Nutritionist at Starkel Nutrition Amanda Cirie. “Folks who are fasted and heading into a cardio session will burn more fat when exercising on empty, but burning more fat doesn't equate to getting leaner or stronger. With a properly fueled body, you can exercise harder, burn more calories and potentially burn more body fat for overall weight loss. For those about to do weight training or lifting, consuming a combination of protein and carbohydrates together before exercise will provide more energy to meet workout goals, build muscle tissue and help prevent tissue injuries.”
“In general, I don't recommend fasted workouts, especially prior to those lasting longer than 60 minutes,” says Registered Dietitian Lauren Leedy. “We know that training in a fasted state is associated with decreased physical performance. To provide adequate fuel and prevent muscle breakdown, our bodies perform best with some sort of carbohydrate-based pre-workout fuel, even if it’s as simple as a banana or piece of toast. With that being said, if you experience gastrointestinal upset or the workout is lower in intensity, a fasted workout might be okay for you.”
“Eating a few calories before a workout depends on how hard you plan to work out,” says trainer Lalo Fuentes. “If it’s light cardio right after waking up, it's okay to do it on an empty stomach. However, if you wake up and wait some time, it’s best to eat something light before your workout. When you’re doing a more challenging workout, you’ll benefit by eating something 45 minutes beforehand. I recommend protein smoothies, yogurt or a low-acidity fruit like peaches.”
Q: What are some of the best foods to eat before both cardio and strength-training workouts?
A: If you start a cardio workout with low blood sugar, you’ll fatigue earlier,” says Cirie. “Focus on eating a 300 calorie-serving of carbohydrates prior to a cardio workout.”
¾ cup oatmeal
½ bagel + fruit
½ cup homemade trail mix: dried fruit, cereal and pretzels
1 tablespoon of peanut butter on 2 pieces of toast
½ cup berries with yogurt
“If you’re doing a strength-training workout, eating a combination of carbohydrates and protein beforehand will help shuttle energy into muscles,” Cirie says. “Try to plan this snack 30-60 minutes prior to exercising, and focus on quick-release energy and long-lasting fuel. Choose foods and snacks that are lower in fiber and fat to ease digestion.”
1 slice bread with thin layer of peanut butter
1/2 cup blueberries + handful of pistachios
1/2 cup homemade trail-mix: dried fruit, cereal, nuts and pretzels
Apple or banana with 1/2 tablespoon peanut butter
1/3 cup dates + 7 almonds
Q: What kinds of foods should you AVOID before a workout?
A: “Anything that could cause potential digestive upset, such as artificial sweeteners and high-fat and fiber foods that are slower to digest,” says Leedy. “It's also important to avoid alcohol and anything you’ve personally had difficulty digesting in the past. For some, this might mean avoiding lactose.”
“No matter what type of exercise you’re about to do, you want to feel focused and light on your feet,” says Cirie. “You don’t want to be in the middle of digesting a big meal where blood is rushing from the extremities of your arms and legs towards your digestive tract to help break down nutrients. Prior to a workout, take a break from consuming foods high in fat. Fat is the most calorically-dense macronutrient and the slowest to digest. Also, be aware of the volume of foods you are consuming. Over-filling your stomach can cause poor digestion, bloating, gas and cramping.”
Q: We’ve spoken a lot about what to eat before a workout but what should we drink before a workout?
A: “Electrolyte drinks are great,” says Fuentes. “They keep your body hydrated and contain higher levels of sodium that prevent cramps. Avoid any kind of sugars aside from honey here and there.”
“The food we consume in advance of our workout can also be adequate to replace electrolytes,” says Leedy. “For workouts that last under an hour, I recommend consuming 16-24 ounces of water 30 minutes before a workout. For more strenuous workouts, electrolyte replacement--in addition to fluid--becomes important during the workout. These electrolytes can be obtained separately or along with carbohydrates in a beverage or solid form.”
“I would not encourage caffeine because it’s a stimulant and diuretic,” says Cirie. “What goes up, must come down. A caffeine crash can leave you feeling doubly spun out from elevated cortisol levels and increased dehydration.”
Q: When it comes to foods to eat before a workout, what are some of your personal favorites?
A: “Some of my favorite pre-workout snacks are a banana and almond butter, avocado toast, oatmeal with berries or a green juice,” says Haworth.
“I love emphasizing carbohydrates with a small amount of protein in a pre-workout meal or snack,” says Leedy. “My personal pre-workout favorites include toast with peanut butter and banana, or baked oatmeal. Post-workout, I commonly opt for Greek yogurt with fruit.”