It seems like trying to figure out what to eat before a workout is a rite of passage, whether you’re logging miles, pumping iron, or tackling a HIIT workout. That pre-workout meal can make or break not only your workout, but your recovery, too.
There are important things to consider when you’re planning a pre-workout meal, says Dezi Abeyta, R.D.N., a Men’s Health adviser, and author of Lose Your Gut Guide. Perhaps the most important is the type of workout: Is it cardio or is it strength-training?
For those hitting the gym for a strength session, you might have a little more flexibility with what you can eat because you might be less likely to experience gastrointestinal issues—your pre-workout meal isn’t sloshing around in your stomach during deadlift repeats. Abeyta also points out that you might want a little more protein before a strength workout, than you would a cardio workout.
If you’re heading out for a run or swim, the focus of your pre-workout meal should be on carbohydrates, and foods that will sit comfortably for a longer session, Abeyta says.
In both types of pre-workout meals, the key nutrient is carbohydrates, specifically simple sugars, which will fuel and replenish your muscle’s glycogen stores.
As for what to eat? A good rule of thumb when it comes to what to eat before a workout, regardless of the type or duration, is to choose foods closest to their natural source, Abeyta says. In other words: minimally processed foods.
Abeyta takes a closer look at exactly how to fuel before your workout.
Get the Timing Right
Eat too soon before a workout and you might have stomach troubles. Eat too far in advance, and you won’t have enough fuel to get you through feeling strong. And like with all things nutrition, how soon you need to eat before a workout varies person to person.
For two to three hours before a strength-training workout, Abeyta emphasizes a balanced plate—anywhere from 20 to 30 grams of protein, 30 to 60 grams of carbs, and a little bit of fat.
“Get some color on your plate as well, fruits and veggies,” he says.
As you approach the start of your workout—30 to 60 minutes before—the focus should be on fast carbs—simple sugars that your body can use quickly, Abeyta says.
If you’re planning a meal before a cardio workout, the emphasis should be on carbohydrates, even if you’re eating several hours beforehand. That’s because cardio workouts tend to be longer, requiring your body to tap into your glycogen stores. For cardio workouts that last 60 minutes or more—like a long training run—Abeyta emphasizes the importance of mid-workout fuel with simple carbs, like an applesauce pouch.
Choose the Right Foods
The most important thing to eat before a workout is carbohydrates, specifically, simple carbohydrates, which are quickly absorbed into your body for energy.
Complex carbohydrates contain fiber, which could cause GI distress during workouts, particularly cardio workouts, Abeyta says. For example, oatmeal is an excellent source of carbohydrates a few hours before a workout, because your body will have time to digest it.
Quick-acting sugars are fruit, white breads and cereals, bagels, and honey, for example.
Protein also plays an important role before workouts because it will help your muscles recover after your workout. Sources of high-quality protein include nut butter, eggs, and cottage cheese.
Don’t Forget to Hydrate
If we’re being honest, it can be easy to let proper hydration fall by the wayside. But without drinking enough water and consuming enough electrolytes—imperative for muscle contraction, which includes your heart—your run the risk of poor performance and recovery, and dehydration.
Abeyta recommends consuming fruit or fruit pouches (yes, like baby food!) during a long run or ride, which will hydrate and provide electrolytes. You can also mix juice into your water, he says, for fast carbs and electrolytes.
While every person is different, aim to replenish 32 to 40 ounces of water plus electrolytes after a workout.
Avoid These Potential Problem Foods
Generally speaking, foods that take longer to digest—those high in protein and fat—can cause stomach issues during a workout, particularly cardio workouts.
“If you’re on a five-mile run, you don’t want to have gas,” Abeyta says.
It’s also important to consider what foods will help you perform and recover properly.
“You also want to ask, ‘Is this going to benefit my performance?'” Abeyta says. “I love tater tots, but it’s not a fuel source I’m going to have before I bust out a workout.”
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