How To Fuel Up For A Fantastic Workout

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It’s 6 a.m. — time to pound out a run before work, but you haven’t eaten since that small bowl of cereal and milk at 8 p.m. A big breakfast won’t sit well, but you’re hungry. What should you do?

A lot of active people wonder what — if anything — they should eat before exercising. Many of them aren’t getting the nutrients they need for optimal performance and well-being.

Thankfully, the science of sports nutrition has a lot to say about pre-exercise fueling. Here are a few nuggets of truth to help you feel your best while getting the most out of every workout:

Exercising on an empty stomach doesn’t burn more fat. It turns out that you burn about the same amount of fat whether you eat first or not; but if you’re not adequately fueled, you won’t have the energy to work out as hard so you’ll gain less fitness and burn fewer calories. Plus, you could even lose muscle. In a nutshell, working out hungry is counterproductive on several levels.

Eating right every day is the best way to fuel for fitness. A diet rich in complex carbs like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, along with lean protein sources and mono-and polyunsaturated fats is the foundation for your best fitness and sports performance. No matter what your pre-race or pre-workout meal consists of, you won’t perform optimally if the rest of your diet is full of junk food or lacking major nutrients.

Activity and timing matters. Longer or higher-intensity workouts require more fuel than shorter or lower-intensity workouts; and the more time before exercise, the more you can eat. For example, if your long-distance run is 3-4 hours from now, you can generally eat a normal meal, but make it heavier on carbs and lighter on fats to help ensure adequate digestion before you hit the pavement. If your workout is coming up sooner and will be less than 60-90 minutes, your meal should consist mainly of carbs for easy digestion. If you’re rolling out of bed and will be out the door in 10 minutes, choose a small, easily digestible snack like these:

  • A cup of applesauce and a slice of toast with jam
  • A leftover slice of thick-crust veggie pizza, light on cheese
  • A Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Zing Bar with a small banana
  • A raisin-bran muffin with a cup of orange juice
  • A blueberry-banana low-fat yogurt smoothie

Depending on individual differences, you may need to eat more or less than the examples shown. The general guideline is to eat or drink 2 calories of carbs per pound of body weight within 5-60 minutes before exercising (1). To convert carbohydrate calories to grams, divide carbohydrate calories by four. Example: for a 140 pound person, this means shoot for 70 grams of carbohydrates (140 x 2 = 280 carb calories. 280 divided by 4 = 70 grams of carbs). 

Streamlining your pre-workout fuel routine will give you the energy you need to achieve the level of performance you’re aiming for. Need help designing a meal plan that works for you? Meet with a registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition.

We’re curious — what are your favorite go-to pre-workout or pre-competition snacks? Please share.

  1. ACSM, ADA, and Dietitians of Canada, 2009 – cited in Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, 5th edition, 2014.

Beth Shepard, MS, ACSM-RCEP, ACE-PT, has a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Arizona. Beth is an expert in fitness and health promotion and a certified wellness coach, helping people thrive by adopting sustainable lifestyle changes. She and her family love to hike, bicycle, and try new sports.

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