What to eat before you work out
Posted by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, FAND
Do you love your morning workouts, but hate to eat breakfast before heading out? Do you forget to have an afternoon snack before your evening run? One of the keys to good exercise performance is eating the right foods at the right time. Which is why it’s always amazing to me how many athletes simply don’t pay attention to what they eat (if they even eat at all) before they work out. After all, these are folks who should know better.
And yet, I run into athletes all the time who either don’t refuel properly or don’t fuel up adequately before working out. Some who work out in the morning say they don’t eat because they’re not hungry in the morning (translation: they’d rather catch a few extra minutes of sleep). Those who work out right before dinner figure their lunch meal has them covered, so they don’t bother with an afternoon snack.
Why You Should Eat Before You Work Out
People often liken the body’s engine to that of your car, so let’s stick with that for a moment. If you’re headed out on a road trip, it’s a good idea to start out with a full gas tank. Maybe you gassed up a couple of days ago and you’ve still got some fuel in the tank – but if you’re smart, you’ll top it off before you go so you don’t run the risk of running out. Same thing goes with your body’s engine. If you swim laps for an hour first thing in the morning, you might figure you’ve still got enough fuel in your tank from last night’s dinner. You might – but you’d probably be a lot better off if you topped off the tank before heading to the pool.
Your body relies on a good store of carbohydrate to maintain blood sugar while you exercise – but after an overnight fast, those stores could be running low. So eating before a hard workout can help provide enough fuel for working muscles. There’s a practical reason for eating before a long workout, too – it keeps you from getting hungry while you work out.
What You Should Eat Before You Work Out
Since carbs are so important to your body’s engine, your pre-workout meal should be relatively high in carbohydrate. A little bit of protein is good, too. It will slow digestion just a little bit – enough to allow the carbs to enter the bloodstream a little more slowly and steadily. On the other hand, you don’t want to eat a lot of fat right before you head out – it can slow digestion too much and leave you feeling uncomfortably full. And save your high fiber foods for afterwards, too, since they also take a while to work their way through your system.
As far as what specific foods you eat – there are no hard and fast rules. A smoothie made with fruit, milk and protein powder works well if you’ll be working out relatively soon after eating; a turkey sandwich and a bowl of soup at lunch will be pretty well digested if you’re going for a run in the mid-afternoon. If you work out in the mornings but you just don’t like breakfast foods, then eat whatever appeals to you. Most people don’t see anything ‘wrong’ with eating a bowl of cereal for dinner, so why should it be ‘wrong’ to eat leftovers for breakfast?.
When You Should Eat Before You Work Out
There are specific guidelines for meal timing – but in reality, you have to go with what feels right. Some people can eat as usual just before exercising, while others prefer a lighter load in the stomach. Generally speaking, the longer you have to digest your meal before you start working out, the larger and more solid your meal can be.
If you’re going to be working out within an hour or so of eating, then you’ll want a small semi-solid or liquid meal that will empty from your stomach relatively quickly. A smoothie, for example, would be light and easy to digest. If you’re going to work out in the mid-afternoon, a regular, well-balanced meal at lunch should have you covered. If you’ve got a hard workout scheduled right before dinner, you’ll need a light snack in the mid-afternoon – a carton of low-fat yogurt with some fruit would work.
How Much You Should Eat Before You Work Out
Some athletes like to know the specifics of what they should eat before a workout – and the guidelines are very specific. Most people just use the ‘trial and error’ method until they figure out the eating schedule that works for them.
For those of you who want to know the details, here they are: athletes are advised to eat between 1 and 4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight (or, 0.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight) one to four hours before exercising. The reason for the range is that it depends on how soon you’re going to exercise after eating. The longer you have to digest, the more you can eat at the pre-exercise meal.
- 1 hour to digest before exercise 1 gram carbohydrate/kg body weight
- 2 hours to digest before exercise 2 grams carbohydrate/kg body weight
- 3 hours to digest before exercise 3 grams carbohydrate/kg body weight
- 4 hours to digest before exercise 4 grams carbohydrate/kg body weight
See my post ‘What are carbohydrates and how many ‘carbs’ do you need?’ for a list of foods with their carbohydrate content to help you plan your meals
Don’t Eat More Than You Burn
One final note – if your workouts aren’t particularly vigorous or lengthy, this advice may not apply to you. Not everyone needs to fuel up before exercising. If your routine consists of a 30-minute brisk walk in the morning, that’s a great regimen – but it’s also not so intense that you need to top off your tank before you head out.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.
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