What to eat before a workout

Keep reading to learn what to eat before a workout to enhance your fitness routine and adopt a healthier lifestyle.

If you are looking to adopt a healthier lifestyle or enhance your fitness routine, you may be wondering what to eat before a workout. Proper nutrition is crucial for optimal workout performance.

“What you eat can directly impact your energy levels, muscle function and overall fitness outcomes,” said Marisa Faibish, M.S., R.D., CSSD, LDN, lead performance dietitian at Norton Sports Health Performance & Wellness Center. “Giving your body the proper fuel it needs not only improves your physical performance but can make you feel better, too.”

In this article, we will discuss six important elements involving what to eat before a workout: an overview of pre-workout nutrition and timing of your meals, plus how protein, carbohydrates, snacks and hydration impact exercise.

 1.      Pre-workout nutrition

Proper nutrition before a workout is necessary to give you the strength, energy and endurance you need to power through physical activity. Consuming the right kinds of foods before exercising can improve your blood sugar levels, focus and endurance.

It is important to have a well-balanced diet with foods to help fuel your workout. Marisa suggests the following guidelines:

Three hours before a workout, consume foods that are high in carbohydrates (including simple carbs 30 minutes before a workout), moderate in protein and low in fat.

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We will dive more into each of these nutrients and their impacts below:

Carbohydrates for energy

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are your body’s main source of energy. Complex carbohydrates provide a steady release of energy and help optimize your body’s blood sugar levels. Complex carbs include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Just before a workout, you should consume simple sugars, which include fruit, fruit juice, fruit snacks, granola bars and sports drinks.

Protein for muscle support

Protein enhances exercise performance and provides your muscles with the necessary amino acids for muscle growth and repair. Lean-protein foods include chicken, turkey, fish, tofu and Greek yogurt.

Healthy fats for sustained energy

Healthy fats can enhance endurance and nutrient absorption, plus encourage the production of hormones that aid in muscle repair and recovery. Foods with healthy fats include avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil.

When it comes to what to eat before a workout, fueling your body with the proper combination of high-carbohydrate, moderate-protein, low-fat foods three hours before exercise, combined with simple carbohydrates 30 minutes before a workout for quick energy, can enhance your energy levels, muscle function and overall performance. 

2.      Timing of meals

What you eat before a workout, as well as the timing of your meals, can make a significant difference in your performance. In this section we will discuss the ideal timing for pre-workout meals, strategies to avoid digestive discomfort and the importance of post-workout nutrition to enhance your recovery.

Ideal timing for pre-workout meals

Timing your meals properly can help optimize your energy levels without feeling too full or sluggish during your workout. You should eat a balanced meal high in carbs, moderate in protein and low in fat around three hours before working out. This can allow for enough time for adequate digestion and provide a steady release of energy without feeling overly full. If you don’t have that much time, opting for a smaller snack rich in carbs and protein at least 30 to 60 minutes before physical activity can help improve your energy levels for your workout. Right before working out, simple carbs and simple sugars can help “top off the tank” for quick energy.

Balancing meals to avoid digestive discomfort

Eating a large meal right before a workout can cause digestive discomfort during exercise, including bloating, cramps, nausea and sluggishness. Avoid consuming big or heavy meals soon before physical activity, and opt for lighter, easily digestible foods instead. Experiment with different meal timings and types of meals to figure out what works best for your own body and workout routine.

Post-workout nutrition and recovery

What you eat after a workout is also important as it supports muscle recovery and can replenish your electrolyte levels and glycogen stores. It is ideal to eat a combination of simple carbs and protein after working out. Marisa suggests a 3-to-1 ratio of simple carbs to protein during this time.

“After that quick snack post-workout, then we can incorporate a meal with complex carbs, fats and proteins,” she said.

Simple post-workout food combinations may include a protein shake with fruit, Greek yogurt with fruit and granola, a turkey sandwich, and rice bowls or pasta with protein to encourage muscle recovery.

3.      Protein intake

Protein is crucial when it comes to muscle growth, muscle repair and overall exercise performance. When you work out, and especially during resistance training, very tiny tears occur in muscle fibers. Protein provides the necessary amino acids to repair these microscopic tears, which can lead to muscle strength and growth over time. Without enough protein, your muscles can struggle to recover effectively, which could slow down the recovery process. Protein-rich foods should be incorporated into your regular diet and eaten throughout the day to support your physical health and overall wellness and to reduce the risk of sports injury.

Sources of high-quality protein

High-quality, lean-protein options are rich in amino acids and lower in saturated fat and cholesterol. Options to support muscle repair and growth: chicken breast, fish, turkey breast, cottage cheese, beans, legumes and eggs.

Timing of protein consumption

While it is important to eat protein throughout the day, timing your protein consumption for workouts can enhance support for your muscles, particularly after exercising. You should aim to consume a meal or snack rich in protein within 30 to 60 minutes after you finish your workout. This timing can help jump-start the muscle repair and recovery process, setting you up for improved future workouts.

4.      Carbohydrates for energy

Carbohydrates are one of the most important elements of what to eat before a workout. They are considered your body’s primary source of fuel, making them a major part of your pre-workout nutrition routine. Carbs can help you exercise at higher intensities for longer durations. Not eating enough carbs can cause you to feel fatigued.

Simple carbs vs. complex carbs

There is a time and place for both simple carbs and complex carbs, according to Marisa. Simply put, simple carbs can be consumed around exercise, while complex carbs should be consumed throughout the day.

Complex carbs include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. They contain fiber and other nutrients that can provide longer-lasting, consistent fuel for your muscles and avoid a “crash” of energy.

5.      Nutrient-rich snacking

Nutrient-dense snacks can provide your body with the essential nutrients and energy it needs for optimal workout performance. Three hours before a workout, a turkey and cheese sandwich with a banana and low-fat chocolate milk can be a great small meal to help fuel a workout. A pre-workout snack can be two applesauce cups.

Throughout the day, healthy snacks such as Greek yogurt with fruit, a handful of nuts, a banana with peanut butter, or green smoothie with leafy greens and protein powder can help provide sustained energy outside of the three-hour window before working out.

Snack ideas for varying workout intensities

With a little bit of planning, you can help prevent fatigue by tailoring your snack choices to match the intensity and duration of your workouts. For shorter, less-intense workouts, opt for lighter snacks, such as a piece of fruit or serving of trail mix. For longer, higher-intensity workouts, opt for snacks such as avocado toast, cottage cheese with fruit, or a turkey and cheese sandwich.

6.      Hydration

Even though hydration doesn’t involve eating, it still plays a crucial role in optimizing your workout performance and overall health. Proper hydration helps your body function better, whether you are exercising or not, but it is especially important for physical fitness — when you are working hard and sweating — to help reduce the risk of dehydration.

It’s important to stay hydrated before, during and after your workouts.

“You should drink half your body weight in fluid ounces on rest days, and for every hour of exercise, increase fluid intake by 16 to 24 ounces per hour,” Marisa said.

Restoring electrolytes is another important aspect of hydration. Electrolytes are minerals such as sodium, potassium and chloride, which are lost when sweating during exercise. Sports drinks can reduce dehydration-related complications such as muscle cramps and fatigue.

Find the best fuel for your workouts

You can maximize your workout results through proper nutrition, along with making strategic choices that reflect your individual needs and preferences. Everyone is unique in their physical fitness levels and food preferences, but consistency is key when it comes to a successful nutrition plan that supports your fitness goals and overall wellness.

Prioritizing healthy, balanced and nutrient-dense foods when you consider what to eat before a workout can optimize your physical performance, encourage muscle recovery and improve overall energy levels. You should experiment with different strategies and listen to your body to find what works best for you.

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