Eat These Foods Before Exercising, Says a Registered Dietitian
A registered dietitian unpacks what the best pre-workout snack may look like for you, depending on the time of the day.
Showing up to a workout hungry is rarely a good idea. The fatigue, cramping and irritable mood that can come from a lack of fuel can turn a workout from fun and productive to frustrating. When it comes to choosing the right pre-workout snack, it's key to identify a few important details.
The best foods to fuel with—as well as the timing of meals and other snacks—will depend on the type of workout and your desired goal. For instance, the energy (calorie) requirement for someone doing one hour of power walking versus someone doing one hour of trail running will look quite different. Trail running burns more energy than power walking, so you'll want to select a snack (or meal) that's a bit more caloric and nutrient-dense so you can sustain energy—and crush that workout.
Other factors that go into picking out the right pre-workout snack include age, sex, current eating patterns and your current level of physical activity. In fact, some people may not need a snack before a workout, whereas others may need to eat a mini-meal. Remember, nutrition is incredibly individualised, and figuring out what the right fuel is for you may take some time.
Whether you are working out first thing in the morning, mid-afternoon or in the evening, your chances of optimising your workout will increase if you are properly fuelled. Researchers have been working to determine if fasted workouts are just as good (or better) than fuelled workouts. A 2020 review published in the Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that fasting prior to a high-intensity training session should be avoided. Completing a 60-minute workout (or less) in a fasted state may be fine for some people, but if your workout is going to be longer than 60 minutes or high intensity, fasting could cause fatigue and hinder your athletic performance.
What's a good pre-workout snack to eat in the morning?
A cup of coffee (or tea) with MCT or coconut oil, alongside a ripe banana or dried dates, may serve as an easy snack to consume in the morning before an early workout. Medium chain triglycerides are a form of fat that is found in coconut oil and is easily absorbed and utilised for fuel in the body. A 2018 review completed by the International Society of Sports Nutrition cited that MCT can help you power through a moderate workout.
Though bear in mind that MCT oil can cause mild gastrointestinal distress for some people, so to help settle your stomach (and add an extra boost of energy), adding in easily digestible carbohydrates from fruit can help. And if you decide to keep your pre-workout snack light, it is important to replenish after your workout with a balanced meal that includes protein, healthy fat and fibre-filled carbohydrates.
Do you prefer a mid-afternoon workout? You may not necessarily need to fuel right before hitting the gym or pavement as long as you have eaten well throughout the day. In general, workouts lasting up to one hour can be properly fuelled by eating a balanced breakfast and lunch earlier in the day. The reason for this is that carbohydrates consumed earlier in the day will be stored as glycogen and utilised later during your workout. The biggest thing to bear in mind if choosing a midday workout is that the closer your workout is to your last big meal, the more strain that can put on your digestive tract.
How long should you wait to eat before your workout?
In short, if you're planning on working out later in the day, you'll want to allow yourself more time after eating a meal or larger snack. Eating something for lunch that includes a complex, fibre-rich carbohydrate (like quinoa or lentils) with protein and healthy fats about two to three hours before your workout should give your body enough time to digest—and absorb the nutrients—before your workout.
If you are short on time and plan to stack your meal and workout, it's best to keep food simple and give yourself at least 45–60 minutes to allow your food to digest quickly but completely. Some easy-to-digest pre-workout snack options include simpler carbs with protein and lighter amounts of fat such as sourdough toast with turkey and a slice of cheese, yoghurt with honey and fruit, or eggs with a flour tortilla and spinach.
If you want to eat a snack within 30 minutes of walking into the gym or hitting the pavement, keep it even more simple with something like a piece of fresh or dried fruit, apple sauce or coconut water. These options will digest quickly to give you quick energy, and they have little fibre, which will not interfere with your digestion while you're working out.
What's the best pre-workout snack to eat before an evening workout?
Evening workouts can get confusing and leave you feeling ravenous come dinner time. Rest assured, it's possible to ease through an evening workout—and not feel tempted to eat everything in the fridge afterwards—by choosing the right fuel. Two to three hours before your workout, opt for a "mini meal" with slow-burning carbohydrates, protein and fat. For example, this may look like half a vegetable-loaded sandwich, a fruit and vegetable smoothie with chia seeds and protein powder, or overnight oats with nut butter and fruit And if you're short on time, try a mixed vegetable and fruit juice and a handful of nuts, dried fruit with a tablespoon of nut butter, or half a high-quality granola bar.
A common theme when it comes to the best foods to fuel up with before your workout: timing matters. Complex carbohydrates and healthy fats are incredibly nourishing and can absolutely fuel a long workout, but consuming them too close to your workout may lead to an unexpected bathroom break. The reason? Complex carbohydrates need time to be digested because they're rich in fibre, and fats also need time to be digested. Foods with less fibre and fat can be consumed closer to your workout with less risk of GI distress. Trial and error is the key to really know what types of foods (and the timing of consuming them) are right for you.
Are there any specific beverages you should drink prior to a workout?
Food aside, beverages also can support your workout. Some individuals report improved performance after consuming caffeine prior to their workout. The International Society of Sports Nutrition's 2010 stand on caffeine supports some caffeine consumption (about one to two cups of coffee) prior to sport in order to improve elements of performance; however, it is important to bear in mind that over-caffeinating can lead to unwanted effects such as elevated heart rate, body jitters and tummy troubles.
Overall, water consumption is critical before, during and after working out. Going into a workout dehydrated can cause early fatigue, cramping and impaired recovery. Water alone, or with added electrolytes, can be helpful to consume at least 30 minutes before a workout.
What's the bottom line?
Fuelling before a workout is important, but remember, the type of fuel needed will depend on the activity, the length of the workout and the time the workout starts. Yoga classes and easy bike rides will not require you to consume as much fuel as a strength-training workout or long-distance run. You are the expert of your own body, so consider experimenting with different foods and the timing of when you eat them to see what works best for you.
Words by Sydney Greene, MS, RDN