By Kelly Burch (Insider)
When it comes to healthy living, exercise and nutrition go hand-in-hand. But it can be difficult to know how to schedule your exercise, meals, and snacks around each other. Knowing the best foods to eat before a workout — and when to eat before a workout — can help you reach your fitness goals. Here's how.
Why it's important to eat before a workout
Although there has been some hype around fasted workouts (exercising on an empty stomach, usually in the morning), most experts agree that having a snack before working out is beneficial.
Getting in carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains is particularly important for most workouts, says Aja Gyimah, registered dietitian and founder of Kuudose, a digital wellness platform.
That's because carbohydrates provide a fuel source for your body, delivered in the form of a blood sugar boost. "If you think of your body like a car, carbohydrates are the gas," Gyimah says. "If you don't have any gas in the tank, you can't give it your all and you pretty much wasted your workout."
A 2018 report published in the journal Nutrition Today found that protein is also important to eat before strength training, like weight-lifting, and fats can help provide fuel for low-intensity workouts. But overall, the study authors write that, "current research still points to carbohydrates as an indispensable energy source for high-intensity performance."
The following foods are the best sources of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to eat before your workout:
If you're in a rush and only have time for a quick snack right before your workout, you should grab a banana.
"This is something that I always recommend to my clients who run straight from work to the gym," says Gyimah. "When you don't have a lot of time to digest food, a banana is a great option because your body digests it quickly and will provide carbohydrates for your workout."
Bananas contain about double the amount of carbohydrates as other fruits like apples and oranges, so they're a more substantial snack that can fuel a lengthy workout, she says.
According to Los Angeles-based personal trainer Andrea Marcellus, eating half a banana with peanut butter is a good way to incorporate some protein and fat into your pre-workout snack, which can help stabilize blood sugars throughout your workout.
2. Whole grains
"Whole grains are complex carbs that pack a lot of energy," Gyimah says. "The carbohydrates are also slower to be released into your bloodstream, so you won't have a blood sugar spike and crash."
This can help you sustain energy levels through an endurance workout longer than 40 minutes. The best examples of whole grains to eat before your workout include:
Whole-grain or multigrain bread
You may also want to incorporate fruits and vegetables along with your whole grains. For example, you can have brown rice or quinoa with peas, which contain protein, and leafy greens, which are packed with important vitamins.
To fuel their workouts, Gyimah tells her clients, "Before you go, you need the CHO" — the "c" is carbohydrates and the "HO" is water. Eating those vegetables or fruits, which are water-rich carbohydrates, can help your body perform at its peak.
Because they take longer to digest, Gyimah says you should try to eat whole grains about an hour before your workout. Marcellus recommends a half-cup to a cup of whole grains as a beneficial serving size.
When Gyimah was playing competitive volleyball in college, oats were her go-to pre-workout meal. "Similar to whole grains, they provide tons of energy and are slower to be released," she says.
Since oats can feel heavy and take a while to digest, it's best to reserve this snack for when you have more than an hour for digestion before a workout. Any type of oats — like steel-cut or whole — can provide a good pre-workout meal.
But when you're making oatmeal or oat-based cookies, just make sure they don't have lots of added sugar, especially if you're using packaged instant oatmeal. It's healthier to add some natural sugar from fruits, like berries or apples, if you want something sweet.
4. Yogurt and fruit
If you have about half an hour before your workout, yogurt and fruit can be a useful snack. "This is a great source of carbohydrates, some fluids, and protein as well," Gyimah says.
You should opt for an unsweetened yogurt for optimal health benefits. This provides enough fuel, without giving you excess sugar. And if you don't eat dairy, a plant or nut-based yogurt alternative, like coconut yogurt or almond-milk yogurt, can provide the same benefits, Gyimah says.
As with oatmeal, you should add fruit to your yogurt for a sweet, healthy source of water-rich carbohydrates — try bananas, berries, or peaches.
The best time to eat before a workout
Marcellus recommends having a small carbohydrate-focused snack within the hour before you workout — but try not to eat anything 15 minutes before you begin exercising, in order to give your body a bit of time to digest.
Proper hydration leading up to your workout is also key. "When you become slightly dehydrated from sweating, you can lose strength, focus, and cramp up," Gyimah says. "It's important to go into your workout well-hydrated."
You should sip water throughout the day and before your workout, but don't drink a lot right before — that might leave you feeling bogged down and bloated. Marcellus recommends drinking an 8-ounce glass of water within 30 minutes of the start of your workout.
It's okay to experiment to see what pre-workout eating routines work best for you, Marcellus says. Some people even enjoy doing fasted workouts, although research is mixed about whether this actually improves fat-burning.
Ultimately, whatever eating habits will give you the energy to perform your best are a good choice. "This is a very individual subject and each person needs to test themself and see how their body feels best," Marcellus says.