The Best Pre-Workout Fuel

Health Professional
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I am often asked by my clients if it’s wise to eat before a workout, and if so, what to eat. It’s critical to fuel your body properly prior to working out, since working out on a completely empty stomach can lead to fatigue and lightheadedness, caused by low blood sugar. Here are some things to consider before your next workout:

Eat the right combination of foods

Your muscles store carbohydrates as glycogen, so eating high quality carbohydrates before your workout will help ensure that your muscles have adequate glycogen stores to sustain your workout. The best pre-workout meal is a combination of healthy carbohydrates and protein. The calories in your pre-workout meal should consist of at least 50 percent carbohydrate. Foods rich in high quality carbohydrates include whole grains, oats, brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Stick with what you know

Prior to your workout, particularly if it is a race or competitive event, stick with foods that you eat on a regular basis. This is not the time to try a new or unusual food, as you will not know how your body will react to digesting it. Avoid very high-fiber foods prior to exercise since they are harder for your body to digest.

Hydration is key

While we know that it’s important to hydrate during exercise, making sure that your body is adequately hydrated prior to working out will ensure that your muscles will not become dehydrated and cramp while you exercise. Water is the best thing to drink before, during, and after exercise. People who don’t want to work out with food in their stomachs can opt for something as simple as milk prior to a workout, as it contains a good combination of easily digested carbohydrates and protein.

Pre-workout snacks and mini-meals

Before your next workout, try one of these snacks or “mini-meals” to keep you going strong:

Fruit smoothie

fruit smoothie

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Try blending some fresh fruit along with yogurt for added protein. Avoid adding additional sugar to keep a good balance of healthy carbohydrates and protein. The fruit will provide you with instant carbohydrate for energy while the protein in the yogurt will aid with muscle recovery after your workout.

Bananas and Greek yogurt

bananas and yogurt

Bananas are an excellent pre-workout food since they are a good source of easily digested carbohydrate. Bananas also contain potassium which helps to prevent muscle cramping.

Oatmeal with fruit

oatmeal with berries
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Combining steel-cut oats with nonfat milk and fruit will provide a great balance of carbohydrate and protein for your early morning workout.

Whole-grain bread with almond butter

almond butter
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The healthy carbohydrates in the bread along with protein from the almonds combine to make this a quick snack you can eat while on your way to the gym in the afternoon.

Cottage cheese and fruit

cottage cheese and fruit
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Combine low-fat cottage cheese with any fresh fruit for a great pre-workout snack or breakfast that’s packed with protein.

Nuts and berries

nuts and berries
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Combine your favorite nuts, such as almonds or pistachios, with berries for an energy-boosting snack that is also rich in antioxidants. Berries contain anti-inflammatory properties, which can aid in muscle repair and recovery.

Apple slices with peanut butter

apples and peanut butter
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This is another easy snack that you can eat on the go that combines protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats to keep your energy going throughout your workout.

Cookies…for breakfast?

If you have time on the weekend, whip up some healthy snacks that you can eat throughout the week before your workout. Here is one of my favorites:

oatmeal cookies
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Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies

3 cups old-fashioned oats

1 ½ cups white whole wheat flour

4 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp salt

1 ripe avocado, peeled and mashed

½ cup brown sugar

1/3 cup olive oil

1 cup plain, low-fat yogurt

2 large eggs

2 cups pitted and chopped dates

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line four baking sheets with aluminum foil and spray with non-stick cooking spray. Combine the oats, flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in a medium bowl. Cream together the oil, avocado, and brown sugar in a large bowl; stir in yogurt and eggs. Add oat mixture to avocado mixture and stir until combined. Stir in dates.

Using a ¼ cup measure, transfer the mixture onto lined baking sheets, spacing the cookies 2 inches apart. Bake for 18-22 minutes, until golden. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Makes 24 cookies.

The Bottom Line

Each person differs in what kinds of foods they can tolerate before a workout.  It also depends on the intensity of your exercise: it may be easier for you to eat right before lifting weights in the gym than it is to eat prior to a 5-mile morning run. But fueling your body each day with the right combination of healthy carbohydrates and protein is the key to maintaining your energy levels during your workout and promoting quick recovery afterwards.

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Carmen is a registered dietitian who specializes in weight management and nutrition therapy for chronic disease. In addition to nutrition counseling at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Carmen teaches undergraduate health and wellness courses and provides corporate wellness seminars on exercise and nutrition.