Nutrition Articles

What to Eat Before You Work Out

Eating Before Exercise for Maximum Results

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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.

If you are a moderate exerciser who tends to perform better with a pre-exercise snack, there are two ways to handle your needs:

1. Eat a small (100- to 200-calorie) snack about 30 minutes before you work out. This snack should include fast-digesting (high glycemic index) carbohydrates and very little fat (which digests slowly), so that you digest the meal quickly and the fuel is available during your exercise session. Here are some ideas:
  • Fruit juice
  • Fruit smoothie
  • High-glycemic fruits like pineapple, apricots, banana, mango and watermelon
  • Sports drinks
  • Pretzels or bagels (but not whole grain varieties, which digest slowly)
  • Energy bars (look for 3-5 grams of protein, at least 15 grams of carbs and very little fat)
2. Eat a nutritionally balanced meal 1-2 hours before your exercise. This is the best option for many people. The larger the meal, and the more fat and protein it contains, the longer you may need to wait before exercising. Ideally, try to eat enough calories to equal about half the calories you expect to burn during your upcoming workout. So if you burn about 600 calories during your workout, aim for at least 300 calories during this meal—or a little more if your exercise is “high intensity” (over 75% of your maximum heart rate). At least 50-60 percent of these calories should come from carbohydrates, which should keep your blood sugar and energy levels fairly stable during your exercise session. Include some protein to help prevent the breakdown of muscle for fuel and give your muscles a headstart on recovery after exercise. Some good food choices and combinations for this kind of meal include:
  • Fruit and yogurt
  • Nuts
  • Oatmeal
  • Cereals (with more than three grams of fiber) and milk
  • Trail mix with nuts and dried fruit
  • Hummus and raw veggies
  • Hard boiled eggs (or egg whites)
  • Cottage cheese and fruit
  • Half a peanut butter or turkey/chicken sandwich on whole grain bread
  • Whole grain crackers with nut butter or cheese
  • Whole grain fig (or fruit) Newton cookies
  • Milk (especially chocolate milk)
  • Tomato or vegetable juice
  • Yogurt smoothie (with added protein powder, if desired)
  • Most protein/energy bars 

 
As a moderate exerciser, you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to timing your meals and choosing your foods. The most important things are getting to know your body and how it responds to exercise, so that you can give it what it needs to perform at its best. Eating the right foods at the right times before you work out is essential to keeping your energy up, your workout performance high and your body in fat-burning mode.

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Member Comments

  • Depends on the workout
  • YMWONG22
  • Excellent ideas...thanks
  • MUSICNUT
    Thank you for an informative article!
  • I recently took a free online course from the olympic commitee on what to eat before and after exercise if it is around 60 minutes. For regular exercise,after the exercise not intense training what they advise is a peanut butter and jam sandwich after with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter and 2 tablespoons of jam or something with 50g carbohydrate and 20g of protein, before exercise it also advised to have a small amount of fast carbs.something with sugar if possible. I can not drink a lot of water before exercise as it will go through my body in 30 minutes. I drink a bottle of Gatorade before exercise,advised through this commitee and pharmacy to do this. I add some extra salt to it. The salt will help to keep the water in your system while you exercise. After and during I drink water.My electrolytes are low,sugar and salt in it helped raise my blood pressure to 100/65 so I can exercise. Without it it is 80/50 and can not exercise. I half to add at least a tsp. of salt daily to my foods to keep my blood pressure around 100.
  • This article gives you great ideas on what you eat before you workout!
  • KELLY_R
    The one time where I made very conscious choices to put in some calories before a workout was when I was training to do a half marathon. When my mileage during training increased, I found I really needed to give my body some quick-burn fuel to use. Usually my pre-training meal was 1/3 cup oatmeal with half a banana, some honey and peanut butter. I followed my longer mileage days with an electrolyte drink right after, then a normal breakfast when I got home.

    On a regular day-to-day basis, however, I don't go to extra lengths to make sure I've eaten something specific before doing a workout, as the exercise just isn't quite so lengthy nor intense.

    The only other time I make sure I'm good and fueled up is before long on a long hike - but then I also make sure I pack healthy snacks with me, too.
  • Wow.. Great article. Love all the awesome things to eat before a workout! Wish I could still run, ride and swim!!
  • LAMYNNJORLZ
    See, right now. I am kinda wanting to build my body up! I see other guys and they are built up and i feel insecure. With what you said about calories maintainance, i think i will watching out on this. Thank you so much! I am Lamynn From www.thespnz.com. I really like your motivational articles more.
  • Thanks some good tips and ideas to relieve eating boredom.
  • MS_GODDESS
    Since most of the time I exercise after work, I need a little snack to keep me from focusing on dinner! I find I do well with a little bit of protein and a little bit of complex carbs about 1 hours before. My favorite pre-workout snack is a small Fuji apple and a stick of string cheese.

    On Sundays, I do yoga/stretching in the morning and usually do that before breakfast.
  • I'm not a "morning" person, and I don't even think of food until I've been awake for at least 40 minutes. Since I'm diabetic I test first thing, then have my morning "drink" of warm lemon water and a cup of coffee containing 1 tsp. coconut oil and 1 ounce of low-fat milk. I make it a point to eat at least an hour before I go to Zumba and I find that I do best with eating an egg and toast or 1/2 c non-fat cottage cheese with a serving of fruit and a slice of toast along with a cup of black coffee. I also normally drink 16 oz of water when I take my vitamins, metformin, etc.

    I also discovered that a 15-minute warm-up on a stationary bike helps prepare me for the class. My routine works for me, and it took a lot of trial and error before I hit on the perfect combination of breakfast foods and exercise warm-up. Bottom line: find an exercise you love (so that you'll continue to do it) and really pay attention to how your body reacts to your pre-exercise routine so you can tweak your routine for an optimal performance.
  • CLAY10237 - "I guess if you do a 100 mile bike ride, you need to know all that stuff. Most of us don't."

    Everyone is different so you really shouldn't make a general statement like that. Some people, like myself, have issues with their energy level during mid to high intensity workouts.

    I take a 1 hour Zumba class twice a week. I had the hardest time with my energy level dropping after the first 15-20 minutes of class (exactly what the article above mentions). I also can't drink a lot before the class because all the jumping makes me need to pee! ha ha

    I've figured out that *what works best for ME* is to eat a small meal and a banana about an hour before class starts. The meal keeps me from becoming hungry during class and the banana keeps my energy level up for the full hour. I also drink 16-24 ounces of water throughout the class.
  • When I used to go to the gym, I ate oatmeal about 1-2 hours before my workout which seemed to keep me going for workouts of up to one hour. I am now working out at home and find getting in the exercise first thing after I get up ensures that I don't get sidetracked. I am finding that a big glass (about 24 oz) of warm lemon water and a small orange or 1-2 small clementines are enough to see me through my exercise session which will usually last 30-60 minutes. I do eat breakfast immediately after working out - I'm more than ready for it then!

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.

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