Should I eat before a workout?
Whether you’re headed to your weekly rec soccer league game or a new HIIT bootcamp class at your gym, you likely wonder, “Should I eat before a workout?”
Heading into a workout properly fueled can help to lay the foundation for a solid workout. And, beyond working out without a grumbling stomach, the food you eat can help fuel your muscles. Selecting the right foods can help your performance (and body) reap the rewards.
That said, what to eat, how much to eat and when to eat it are all factors that aren’t always as cut and dry. The time of day you work out can influence your food choices. For example, if you’re exercising right after work, you might have a substantial lunch three to four hours before the workout (maximizing time for digestion) followed by a snack closer to the workout if needed. However, if you’re a morning person and work out before the rest of your day starts you may only have a small snack or drink before heading out the door.
While many fueling guidelines before sport are dependent on the intensity of your workout and your stomach sensitivity, there are some common mistakes we all can avoid making.
Avoid these three pre-workout fueling mistakes:
Getting too hungry
Even if you’re looking to drop a few pounds, heading into a workout session hungry can result in lower energy levels, and might not help you lose weight. In fact, it may cause you to have a sub-optimal workout followed by over consumption of food after.
Instead, have more energy so you can work out hard, by choosing a balanced meal (that includes carbohydrates, protein and fat) and aim to eat it with plenty of time to digest before hitting the gym. If you need a little something right before your workout choose something small, such as a piece of fruit.
How much you eat is definitely dependent on a number of factors including your size, fitness level and duration of your exercise. There was a time when it was advocated to only focus on carbohydrates as a pre-workout meal. We now know that having a meal that is more balanced to include both carbohydrate and protein can be a way to fuel your body. Regardless of your activity, avoid getting trapped in the carbo-load mindset and instead eat sensible portions and give your body enough time to digest.
Eating too much fiber
One component of carbohydrates, found in foods in varying quantities is fiber.
Fiber is found naturally in foods like oats, fruits and vegetables, and often added to snacks such as granola bars and cereals. It is recommended that you watch how much fiber you eat right before a big workout (like a race), as it can irritate your stomach (think gas, bloating, diarrhea) if eaten in too high a quantity.
When preparing your pre-workout meals or snacks try and choose foods that can settle comfortably in your stomach, such as piece of fruit or sports drinks that are a source of carbohydrate energy. You may find that these foods are easy to digest before your start moving—rather that making you too full with fiber.
So, what are good options to reach for before your workout?
Here is a list of my top five foods that are easy to stash in your gym bag or at your work desk:
Any fresh fruit will do but bananas are a favorite thanks to their portability. Eat alone 30 minutes before your workout or make it more of a substantial snack by adding nut butter. Bananas also offer your body potassium, an electrolyte required by the body and lost during exercise via sweat.
Rolled oats are a great option to have for breakfast when you’ve got some time to digest before heading to your workout (like a weekend morning). Because they are higher in fiber, you will want to give yourself some time to digest.
Dried Fruit and Nuts
For an easy grab-and-go option a few handfuls of dried fruit and nut trail mix can do the trick. It can be a good snack when you need something on the fly because you can get nutrients and energy for very little volume. Nuts and fruit can provide a combination of carbohydrates, good fats, and protein, but watch portion sizes. Calories in dried fruits and nuts add up quickly and so does fiber.
Gluten-free or 100% Whole Grain Bread with Nut Butter and Jam.
Sometimes you can’t beat a good old peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For a portable snack, pack a PB&J and eat it two to three hours before leaving the office and heading to work out. The peanut butter provides protein while the bread and jam can help to top off your glycogen stores.
For the times when food just doesn’t sound like the best option, consider a sports drink. Choosing a drink such as Vega® Clean Energy will offer you carbohydrates for energy you just might be looking for in the morning or after a long day at the office. It also has 80mg of caffeine coming from black and green tea extracts. Keep the container in your gym bag and shake one scoop in your water bottle before and you’ll be ready to go.
The bottom line
A hard workout, especially one significantly over 60 minutes in length, can deplete energy stores in the body. Proper fueling of balanced meals or snacks can be effective in helping support your energy levels during the workout.
And finally, practice makes perfect. You will likely find that some foods work great before your workout and others not so much. Practice your fueling just like you do your sport and never test it on game or race day!
Kim McDevitt, MPH RD
Kim McDevitt works at Vega as a National Educator. A runner, cooking enthusiast, plant-focused flexitarian, Kim has passionately built her career in nutrition. Noticing that her running performances were closely tied to what she was eating, Kim decided to study nutrition and pursue advanced degrees in Dietetics and Public Health, to better understand the power of food in performance. Today, Kim specializes in sports nutrition to enhance athletic performance and focuses on realistic and approachable ways for improving health through educated dietary choices within an active lifestyle.
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