Working out has a long list of benefits—from improved heart health and boosting your mood to better sleep—but many people don’t realize that those benefits are actually quite heavily impacted by what they consume prior to a sweat session. Fueling before a workout can not only give you more energy to actually kick ass at that cardio or pilates class—it can also help provide the mental clarity many of us need to power through.
Focusing on a snack that provides stable energy without stomach discomfort is key (this probably isn’t the time for your favorite fiber-filled cereal—more on that later). “The best pre-workout food or snack should include, without exception, 20 ounces of water plus protein and carbs,” says Leslie J. Bonci , MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN. “Having water before a workout can boost strength, speed, stamina, focus, and also decrease your risk of injury and dehydration, while protein—particularly before a strength training workout—can help to improve muscle protein synthesis and prevent muscle breakdown.” Lastly, Bonci says that carbohydrates are the primary fuel for the exercising muscles. In other words, carbs are what give us the energy necessary to actually do the workout.
But does that mean we should be chowing down on a full protein- and carb-packed meal immediately before hitting the gym? As you might have guessed, probably not the best idea.
“The ideal pre-workout snack should be hearty but not so filling that it’ll give you indigestion, and it’s ideally consumed about an hour before your workout, but 20 to 30 minutes is fine, too,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, author of The Smoothie Plan. “The recommendation is to get up to about 10 grams of protein along with one to two grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight for the recreational athlete. So, if you weigh 150 pounds, divide that by 2.2 to convert to kilograms—68—meaning you would need between 68 and 136 grams of carbohydrates before exercise.” To figure out where in the range your snack should fall, Largeman-Roth says to consider the length and intensity of your workout, as well as how much time you have to digest leading up to that workout. “An example of a snack with 68 grams of carbohydrates is a bowl of cooked oatmeal, plus a medium banana, and a teaspoon of date syrup or honey on top.”
Another super easy pre-workout option that Largeman-Roth highlights—especially if you’re heading straight from the office to the gym—are the Clif Builders Protein + Caffeine bars. “These bars work particularly well for strength training workouts,” Largeman-Roth says. “They also come in a delicious Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough flavor and has 65mg of caffeine, which is equal to a shot of espresso, plus 20 grams of complete plant protein. The caffeine gives you an extra boost before you conquer your workout and the protein helps you build and maintain muscle. The bar also contains 29 grams of carbohydrates to help fuel your workout.”
If you’re heading to a workout that’s more in the realm of yoga or pilates, Largeman-Roth recommends a cup of vanilla whole milk yogurt along with a teaspoon of honey and 1/4 cup granola. “This combo is quick, easy, and contains 51 grams of carbohydrates and about 10 grams of protein,” she says. A frozen waffle, toasted with a tablespoon of nut butter and half cup of sliced grapes or banana is great for a run, says Largeman-Roth, who notes that this snack has about 50 grams of carbohydrate and about six grams of protein.
“Lastly, energy bites are a fantastic thing to make and keep on hand for athletes,” adds Largeman-Roth. “You can pop one or a few before a workout, depending on how long or intensely you plan to work out. Try my recipe for my Ultimate Power Bites [included below]. I grab two before a three mile run. One bite contains 24 grams carbohydrate and roughly two grams of protein.”
Now that we’ve focused on the good, are there some less than obvious foods that can aggravate your stomach or drain your energy when it comes to pre-workout noshing? “Anything that is very high in fiber or fat can be irritating to your stomach and can even lead to cramping or diarrhea during exercise,” says Largeman-Roth. “And for many people, spicy food just won’t work pre-workout.” If you’re training for an event, such as a marathon, she also suggests not eating anything new before the race. “Stick to easy-to-digest carbs and protein and products that you’ve already road-tested—no pun intended!”
And don’t forget that post-workout fuel is just as important as pre-workout. “It’s important to focus on adequate hydration, both before and during a workout, and to focus on nourishment in the recovery phase,” says Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN. That post-workout nosh should include a mix of protein, carbs, and fat.
Ultimate power bites recipe from Frances Largeman-Roth, RD
1/2 cup puffed millet
1 cup puffed rice
1/2 cup diced pitted prunes
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/3 cup sunflower butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup honey
3/4 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1. In a large bowl, toss together the puffed millet and puffed rice. Add the diced prunes, chocolate chips and sesame seeds. Stir in the sunflower butter and honey. You should now have a nice sticky mess! Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
2. Place the coconut in a small bowl. Using a tablespoon, scoop the mixture and form it into one-inch balls with your hands. Roll the balls in the coconut and transfer to a container.
You can store the bites in the refrigerator for up to one week, or in the freezer in a zip-top freezer bag for up to one month, but we bet they won’t last that long.