Nutrition Articles

What to Eat Before You Work Out

Eating Before Exercise for Maximum Results

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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% 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 3 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 

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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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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

  • 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. - 5/22/2016 1:52:18 AM
  • Thanks some good tips and ideas to relieve eating boredom. - 5/18/2016 11:11:44 AM
  • 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. - 5/18/2016 11:05:58 AM
  • 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. - 5/18/2016 10:09:51 AM
  • 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. - 3/13/2016 3:12:04 PM
  • 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! - 2/7/2016 6:47:00 PM
  • CLAY10237
    That's a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo here for me. I have a normal healthy breakfast before going to the gym for a 50 minute moderate work out and drink water during. Also I have a "Tums" before starting for the heartburn, a little calcium, 5 calories. A normal healthy lunch about 2 hours later. I guess if you do a 100 mile bike ride, you need to know all that stuff. Most of us don't. - 10/13/2015 2:00:13 AM
  • FREDSHELTON19
    What about eating Sardines before working out? - 9/2/2014 8:23:13 PM
  • Whoops, looks like I've seen this one before, and already commented. I apologize for that. I can't edit it, so I have to add another comment just to apologize. :( - 8/27/2014 10:33:44 AM
  • Do NOT eat brand name Fig Newtons! Read the ingredients they contain trans fat. Try to find a knock off brand without the hydrogenated oil, you're working out to help your body, don't harm it with trans fat. - 8/27/2014 10:32:03 AM
  • LIFESTYLEWITCH
    I can not eat before a workout however I have to consume a good quantity of water before during and after otherwise I get so sick - 6/16/2014 2:44:41 PM
  • Read the label if you like the Fig Newton ideas. Most brands use trans fats, read the ingredients for any hydrogenated oils before buying. - 4/28/2014 11:53:22 AM
  • OMARCOO
    Hey ,I've only just recently been following your program , it's great
    actually , very useful post , and I would like to add my experiences on this topic :
    before exercise, you wish to have to eat carbohydrates to maximize the quantity of glycogen that’s saved for your muscular tissues. you do not need to consume much fat previous to train because it takes too long to digest. A good rule of thumb, is that you do not want your vitality drink or bar to have more than 2g of fat if you will eat it previous to and as regards to exercise time.
    and another thing : all the way through exercise, you must eat lengthy chain polysaccharide carbohydrates. that you can get these in sports activities “gels” and drinks. and for more information you can visit http://goo.gl/6XU
    Quc
    - 4/21/2014 7:35:31 AM
  • 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

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