It is important to fuel up before a workout in order to get the best out of your body. Going hungry could impact your endurance and lead to weakness or dizziness. However, you need to give your digestive system a little time to work after a meal but before intense exercise. Some people feel uncomfortable with any food at all in their stomachs during a workout. And what you eat is important, too. Heavy, fatty foods are only going to slow you down. We’ll break down the most important nutrients to get before exercise, and when it’s best to eat them.
Important Pre-workout Fuel
Carbs are your friends
Carbohydrates provide energy for the body. When eaten, they break down into glucose. As glucose enters the muscles, it is stored there in the form of glycogen. During exercise, those glycogen stores are used to fuel your activity. If you don’t have enough stored glycogen, you may feel weak and tired. Simple carbs are great before a workout because they digest quickly and restore glycogen to your muscles.
Good carb choices before a workout include granola bars, fruit (fresh or dried), oatmeal, Greek yogurt, crackers, rice cakes, or a piece of toast.
Protein helps, too
Protein can help to boost the effectiveness of your workouts, especially if they include strength training. Our muscles are built by straining them – in effect, we create microtears in the fibers that are then repaired during rest, leaving the muscle stronger than before. But the body needs protein to complete this process. Eating some before a workout means that it will be available after you finish to aid in recovery. But be careful not to eat too much, as this can bog you down considerably.
Healthy sources of protein prior to working out include nuts, Greek yogurt (also high in carbs), a slice of turkey, milk or soy milk, and hardboiled eggs.
Don’t forget the water
Even if you really don’t want to eat before your workout, you must be properly hydrated. Dehydration can sap your energy and cause muscle cramps or spasms. A good rule of thumb is to drink 2 cups of water in the 2-3 hours before exercise and then another 1 cup about 10-20 minutes before you head out. If you work out first thing in the morning, this might not be possible. Start sipping as soon as you get up, and then during your workout, aim for 1 cup of water for every 15-30 minutes of intense exercise.
However, too much water at once can also cause discomfort in the form of bloating and stomach cramps. If you simply remain focused on staying hydrated throughout the day, this shouldn’t be a worry. On the other hand, if you need to drink those 2-3 cups all at once before your workout, remember to leave yourself a little bit of time for the water to make its way into your cells and bloodstream, where it is needed. With no time to spare between drinking and exercising, we recommend sipping consistently throughout.
Timing Your Meals
Every body and every metabolism is different, so you’ll need to pay attention to how long your body needs after meals to reach that sweet spot where food isn’t still sitting in the stomach but you also haven’t used up all the fuel it provided. In general, that’s between 30 minutes and 3 hours post-meal. Depending on your schedule, it may not be possible to leave yourself 3 hours between a meal and a workout. In this case, eating a small snack is fine. It’s also ok to exercise on an empty stomach sometimes, but we’ll talk about that a bit later.
Good choices for people who don’t like to eat before a workout may prefer to sip on a healthy green smoothie, which provides nutrients (including protein) and hydration without weighing you down. Other super-light choices include a piece of fruit or a rice cake.
Working Out on an Empty Stomach
In general, we don’t recommend exercising on an empty stomach simply because you won’t be getting the most out of your time at the gym or on the trail. And exerting yourself when you’re running on empty can lead to dizziness, which can become a much bigger problem if you fall and hurt yourself. But as we said, everyone is different, and some people may feel more uncomfortable working out after eating than they do on an empty stomach.
Unless you have blood sugar issues, it’s okay to do a moderate workout on an empty stomach. However, you must fuel up pretty soon afterwards, and don’t forget to keep drinking water before, during, and after your session.
There are also a few studies that suggest working out on an empty stomach helps you to burn calories faster. It makes sense that the body will turn to burning fat sooner if it doesn’t have ready glycogen to use. But hold on – it’s not that easy. Though the body does turn to fat for fuel after glycogen has been depleted, fat takes considerably longer to burn than carbs. So you’ll need to find a safe balance in terms of a workout that is moderate in intensity and lasts at least an hour, yet does not put you at risk of fainting. If your workouts are short, intense, and aimed at muscle building, you may find that fasting beforehand diminishes muscle mass along with fat.
Suggested Pre-workout Snacks
Let’s face it, everyone is super busy these days. Assuming that you will find it hard to wait 3 hours after a full meal to hit the gym, here is a selection of healthy snacks that can get you fueled up without lying heavily in your stomach.
- Apple or pear dipped in 1 tablespoon of your favorite nut butter
- Dried fruit and nut mix with 2 tablespoons of fruit to one of unsalted nuts
- Lower sugar granola bar
- Greek yogurt, ¾ cup topped with ½ cup berries and a sprinkle of granola
- Rice cakes, 1 or 2 topped with 1 tablespoon nut butter
If you have stuck with us to the end, good for you! You obviously care about your health and making the best possible choices for your body. Though nutrition advice can be confusing, and even contradictory depending on who you ask, the good news is that you are truly at liberty to make any choice that works for you. Whether that is a full meal, a snack, or no food at all, your body will tell you what it needs to get the most out of your workouts. Just don’t forget to hydrate and have some fun with it!