When asked about her diet, gold medal-winning gymnast Nastia Liukin answered: “My mom always told me to treat my body like an expensive car—to put the best fuel in it.”
Liukin’s mother (a former world champion gymnast in her own right) is spot on: The way you fuel your body greatly impacts athletic performance. If you’re dedicating a few hours a week to fitness, the odds are pretty good that you already make thoughtful food choices. But nailing your pre-workout meal—anything eaten in the three-hour window before exercise—can have a huge impact on how your workout feels and how effective it is.
Generally speaking, you want to have the most nutritious food possible. But depending on what you’re up to, what’s considered “best” can vary. We’ll break down why it’s so important to get a few calories in before a sweat session, what you should eat, and 10 easy recipes.
Typically, eating 30 minutes to three hours before exercise is best. While it takes at least 24 hours to fully digest food, that window of time is long enough for your stomach to settle. It might seem counterintuitive to eat before exercise (which many people do to burn calories), but getting a little fuel in your body actually makes a huge difference in the effectiveness of your gym sesh. If you’re working out in the morning right after waking, it’s OK to skip your meal as long as you ate dinner the night before. Otherwise, it’s important to fit in at least a few calories before you head out. Here are just a few of the benefits.
Calories fuel the body, and we can’t function without them. Our bodies and muscles prefer to use glycogen, a type of carbohydrate that we get from food, as energy during exercise these glycogen stores get depleted as we walk, run, lift, and move, and we have to constantly build them back up. You feel the best during your workouts when the muscles are full of fuel—exercising with low glycogen levels inhibits athletic performance. That’s why marathoners carbo-load the night before a race, ballerinas suck on sticks of honey backstage while waiting for their entrance cue, and Olympians always have food in their gym bags.
When given the choice, your body will pick glycogen as its preferred fuel. But if glycogen levels are low due to excessive exercise or calorie-cutting, your body will start using muscle mass for energy. In turn, muscles may stop growing, or even shrink—eating before gym sessions helps prevent this.
The process of building muscle sounds a little scary: muscle fibers literally break apart as you exercise. But when the body starts to rebuild them, is when they get physically larger and stronger. Help the body recover more quickly by eating protein before a workout; as you digest, the amino acids inside will slowly release into your bloodstream and encourage muscle repair.
Fueling your body is clearly important. But you can’t just eat whatever you want before a workout class and expect to kill it. The ideal pre-workout meal or snack will contain carbohydrates, fat, and protein (in other words, a giant cinnamon roll won’t cut it). But different types of exercise require specific nutrients—you’d eat differently for a short, weight-heavy CrossFit session than you would for a 20-mile long run.
The best way to decide what to eat is to examine the duration and intensity.
After you decide how many calories you’ll need, choose the right macronutrients for your specific workout.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is insanely popular for two reasons. First, it’s been scientifically proven to burn fat more quickly than other types of exercise. Second, a 10-minute HIIT session can be just as effective as 45 minutes of moderate-intensity activity.
You don’t need a huge meal before a HIIT workout because it’s so short. It’s more important to focus on getting carbohydrates in, because they’ll act as the quick energy you need. If you’re really hungry, you can have a little healthy fat to hold you over until you’re finished with your sweat sesh—a fruit and nut bar is an easy option.
If you’ll be doing heavy lifting, your pre-workout meal should focus on protein, which supplies amino acids your body needs to repair muscles. That will improve your recovery time and increase lean muscle mass. For extra explosive power, throw some carbohydrates into the mix. They’ll give you the energy needed for strong clean and jerks and Kipping pullups.
Sprint intervals—running at an all-out speed for an allotted amount of time—are downright exhausting. In order to get through your workout and do it well, you’ll need a dose of easily digestible carbohydrates before lacing up your sneaks: toast with jam, a small amount of oatmeal, or fruit are great options. Plus, eating a smaller meal won’t weigh you down when you have to push your body to the limit.
To fuel a run that will last longer than an hour, an equal combination of protein and carbohydrates is best. Your body will burn through the carbs first, then use the protein for sustained energy. For long training runs, it’s preferable to eat a meal a few hours before. Try a smoothie with fruit and protein, a few scrambled eggs on toast, or quinoa porridge with fruit to help you power through the miles.
Then, take in an additional 150 to 300 calories during every extra hour that you’re out running—try sucking on raw honey, chia-based energy bars, or even making your own fuel bites!
Usually these types of classes are about an hour in length, and although you’ll work up a sweat, you might not be totally exhausted by the end. That’s because moderate-intensity workouts combine cardio and resistance training (lifting weight or doing bodyweight exercises) in pretty equal parts, and don’t typically require that you “max out” your energy like in a HIIT or sprint workout. Core work plays a huge role in these exercises, so you don’t want to eat anything that will make you feel too full before you head into the studio.
You don’t need to get in a ton of calories to get through a moderately challenging yoga or Pilates class, so keep your snack small. A banana, a latte, or even half a green juice are totally sufficient.
Most meals before a workout are relatively simple—smoothies, porridge, toast, or an energy bar. But instead of reaching for prepackaged snacks and meals that might contain processed ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, make them at home! It’ll save you money, and you can prepare a big batch for the week ahead. Here are some of our favorite recipes.
Whether you’re gearing up for a 20-miler or heading to a sweat-inducing interval spin class, getting in easily digestible carbohydrates is necessary.
Fruity Bulgur Wheat Porridge
Overnight oats are great, but this sweet take on tabouli is more creative—honey lends a subtle sweetness to fresh fruit and bulgur wheat.
Quinoa is a complex pseudo grain (it’s actually a seed!) loaded with protein and carbohydrates. Mix in your favorite jam for a sweet, carb-y kick and give peanut butter and jelly the breakfast treatment.
Caramelized Banana Toast
A slice of gluten-free or whole wheat bread slathered in buttery ghee is good. But when you throw some almond butter and caramelized bananas on top it’s the perfect—and next-level delicious—fuel before a long run.
Japanese-Inspired Avocado Toast
Avocado toast is one of those healthy meals that nearly everybody likes (at least according to Instagram). And as energizing pre-workout snacks go, it can’t be beat—try it with nori and coconut aminos for extra muscle-building amino acids.
Tahini Granola Breakfast Cookies
Live your best life—eat cookies for breakfast. Really, these are more like healthy, cookie-shaped granola bars that are easy to eat on-the-go. Carbohydrates from tahini, rolled oats, and honey help heal tired muscles.
Carrot Cake Oatmeal
Single-serving packages of oatmeal are easy and might taste good, but tend to have a ton of added sugar—that’s not ideal, especially right before a workout. Thank Merce Muse, our food editor, for this genius recipe that tastes just like carrot cake and relies on just a touch of maple syrup for its sweetness.
When you’re looking for a combo of protein and carbs—key for many types of exercise—there are so many options. Here are a few tasty ideas to get you started.
Toasted Coconut Bars
In about 30 minutes, you can make a week’s worth of pre-workout bars that are loaded with healthy fats, vegan protein, and energy-boosting carbs. Oh yeah, and they taste like cookie dough.
Baked Eggs in Tomato Cups
Here’s a light and easy, low-cal breakfast that won’t weigh you down before you get sweating. Plus, it’s easy to take with you as you dash out the door on your way to class.
Sweet Potato Hash Brown Waffles
If you’ve ever overcooked a sweet potato, you’ve probably noticed how the sugars caramelize and ooze out onto the baking sheet. Those natural sugars make perfect fuel for exercise and give the potatoes extra flavor.
Banana-Chocolate Chia Parfait
Chia seeds are an athlete favorite because they’re loaded with protein and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Here, we use them two ways—whole and blended—to make a layered chocolate and vanilla pudding treat. Topped off with sweet (and easily digestible) smashed banana, and you’ll be ready to tackle your workout with full force.
At the end of the day, the important thing is that you feel amazing while you’re exercising. Experiment with some of these different recipes, and see how they affect you. If you feel energized, strong, and fast, then you’re on the right track!
Photo credit: Paul Delmont, Alicia Cho
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