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Nutrition Articles  ›  Healthy Habits

What to Eat Before You Work Out

Eating Before Exercise for Maximum Results

-- By Dean Anderson, Fitness Expert
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Everyone knows that athletes must plan and time their meals and snacks very carefully to reach their performance goals. But what about the rest of us? You try to squeeze in 30-60 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Do you have to be careful about what you eat before and after your workouts, too?

Usually not. If you’re eating a healthy diet and getting enough calories to support your activity level, you can probably rely on your own appetite, energy levels, and experience to tell you whether you need to eat anything before or after exercise and what it should be. The basic rule here is: Find out what works best for you, and do that.

There are some advantages to knowing how your body works and what it needs to perform at its best. The bottom line for healthy weight loss and fitness sounds simple: You have to eat fewer calories than you use up—but not fewer than your body needs to function at its best.

The size, timing, and content of your pre- and post-exercise meals and snacks can play an important role in your energy levels during your workout, how well your body recovers and rebuilds after your workout, and whether the calories you eat will be used as fuel or stored as fat. Here’s what you need to eat and drink to get the results you want!

Your Pre-Exercise Fluid Needs
Being well-hydrated will make your exercise easier and more effective. Try to drink 16-20 ounces of water during the 1-2 hours before starting your workout.

Your Pre-Exercise Meal or Snack
News flash: Most of the fuel you use during exercise doesn’t come from the food you’ve recently eaten! It actually comes from the carbohydrates (called “glycogen”) and fat that’s stored in your muscles, liver, and fat cells. That’s enough to fuel 1-2 hours of very intense exercise or 3-4 hours of moderate intensity exercise.

This means that if your overall diet is adequate to keep your fuel tanks topped off, you may not need to eat anything before you work out. So, if eating before exercise upsets your stomach or you like to exercise first thing in the morning or at a time when eating first isn’t convenient, don’t feel like eating first is a must.

Some people do have a hard time exercising without eating first, especially if it’s been a long time since their last meal or snack. These individuals often are more sensitive to changes in their blood sugar levels, which fall during the first 15-20 minutes of workout. That drop in blood sugar can cause tiredness, mild dizziness, or even faintness—especially if your blood sugar was already low, but eating something beforehand can help prevent this. If you have health issues like diabetes or hypoglycemia that can cause low blood sugar, you’ll probably want to eat before your workout. If you get very hungry during a workout (and it interferes with your energy levels or focus), or become so ravenous after an exercise session that you end up overeating, try eating before you hit the gym to avoid these problems.
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About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

Member Comments

  • I got really bad heartburn today doing turbo jam, 30 day shred, and couch 2 5K . I drink lemon water, so I guess I will cut that out :( - 7/2/2013 7:28:20 PM
  • I end up with heartburn if i eat before i run. it doesn't seem to matter what it is i eat. - 6/26/2013 9:36:22 PM
  • After reading this article and its comments, I decided to eat something this morning before going on my walk. I ate 1/2 leftover sweet potato with Activia Strawberry Greek yogurt (see my Sweet Potato in a Strawberry Patch recipe). I think I ate it about 30-40 mins before I start walking AND I made sure I drank 1 bottle of water, also.

    Remarkable difference. NOT getting scientific or anything and it could be mind over matter but normally within 1/4th of a mile I'm reaching for water or a pick me up. NOT today, I walked my entire course and didn't reach for anything until ending 1/4 mile to finish. I also had more energy.

    NOT saying I'll do this every time BUT I'll do it more often! - 6/15/2013 11:36:48 AM
  • I've ridden 100-mile bike rides on just an energy gel for breakfast, then appropriate nutrition throughout (and no, not carbo-loading the night before!) If it takes at least an hour for food to digest, and longer for whole grains, then there would be no point in eating them right before a workout, correct? As with anything else, experiment and you'll find what's best for you. - 5/8/2013 5:08:22 PM
  • I get up in the morning and take my psyllium and L-Glutamine in a cup of warm water, then apple cider vinegar in another cup of water. Then I eat a hard-boiled egg and take a CLA with another 2 cups of water. Then I either hop on the treadmill or make tea and head to my desk to work, depending on what time I got up. I have dinner at about 3 or 4pm, so I need a protein boost as soon as I get up at 4am. - 4/29/2013 8:35:26 AM
  • I don't eat within 2 hours of working out, or I feel sick. I always take my morning walk on a completely empty stomach. - 4/28/2013 1:04:04 PM
  • First, if you work out in the morning on an empty stomach our body is going to bring out glycogen stored in the liver and take it to muscle to be broken down into glucose.
    Second, exercising in the morning with a piece of fruit and 1 cup of milk, your muscles are going to retrieve glucose that is been there in the blood stream for energy. So by this being said, there is less effort for the muscles to uptake energy for your work out. Consequently, glycogen will only leave the liver when low or no glucose flows in the blood. So stored glycogen and fat will always be in their reservours until later in the work out or even not leave their storage places (liver and adipose tissue) at all.

    p.s. Information based on my human anatomy and physiology class. - 4/4/2013 1:43:34 AM
  • A word of warning. If you are doing high intensity training or running, you may want to avoid milk right before a workout. When exercise stomach acid hits milk, it can cause an upset stomach. People have been known to throw up from exercising too soon after drinking milk. - 11/23/2012 4:42:27 PM
  • I usually eat before my work out otherwise my first thought when I get back in the house is "food" and then I don't make such good choices. So a meal about an hour before and then some fruit or something light within a few hours after works best for me. - 11/23/2012 10:18:09 AM
  • I eat a protein and a fruit about 3 hours before an intense workout. mainly my 2+ hours of mma training. If its less than that I don't need anything unless I'm cutting weight. Then I need to plan my limited carbs so that they peak when I need them to still train energized.

    Basically unless you're doing a very serious workout you don't need a preworkout snack. But there's still nothing wrong with grabbing a banana an hour or two before so that the sugars are there to make you go harder - 9/24/2012 7:21:59 PM
  • I like to have a Larabar and 8 ounces of water before my workouts, esp. since I workout in the morning. If I don't, I usually get a headache after. :-) - 8/5/2012 11:04:49 PM
  • STAYFIT16
    Nutrition shakes, also called meal replacement shakes, contain the nutrients and calories you would get in a low-calorie meal. Weight loss requires using more calories than you consume, either by reducing calories or increasing physical activity. Nutrition shakes are one way to reduce daily calories while providing the nutrients the body needs to maintain health. Consult your doctor about using nutrition shakes as part of your weight-loss plan.For more information about Health visit stayfitnutrition website. - 6/29/2012 2:45:36 AM
  • This article states two conflicting "facts". 1) you don't actually use the food you just ate during your workout, you use what is stored. and 2) make sure you get a snack with quick digesting carbs before you workout so your body has fuel readily available.

    This is kind of important body science....So, which is it? - 6/20/2012 1:47:56 PM
  • I almost skipped this article because I assumed it was geared more for "heavy duty" exercising/health
    y/fit people. This has helped me understand why I have such a hard time getting started. The first 15-20 minutes is so hard. I get dizzy, more tired, I feel so heavy and worry I am having heart problems because it scares me. I was recently diagnosed with asthma and thought it was related to that somehow. I had hoped my medicine would be the cure. I now believe that it is the low blood sugar problem you addressed in your article. I will follow your recommendations! I thank you so very much! I am actually, for the first time, looking forward to working out tomorrow! God bless you! SS - 6/12/2012 10:39:49 PM
  • LILBEARLEXI16
    For me, eating protein and sugar prior to and after a workout seems to curb cravings and help me not to overindulge in other high calorie snacks throughout the day. Example: I'll grab an apple and scramble an egg to put on toast, and have those with a glass of water before heading to the gym (about 30-40 minutes prior to actual hard work). Afterward, I'll eat half a grapefruit and enjoy a grilled chicken breast salad from Subway with lots of fresh veggies and little bit of oil and vinegar as dressing (dinner!). :) I've found that working a workout in before one of my main meals is very helpful. - 5/2/2012 1:04:07 PM