Working out takes energy. And the source of energy for the human body is, of course, food. So should you eat something before you work out—and if so what, when, and how much? It’s a common question in the fitness world and a source of much debate.
We’re not dietitians, so you won’t find any answers here like “Eat X and Y to lose Z” or similar specifics. We also don’t know precisely what you’re trying to accomplish—gain muscle? Lose fat? Maintain your weight? The more specific your goals, the more you’ll want to research plans that fit your needs—and perhaps even talk to a nutritionist. But we know enough to offer you a snack-size version of the current nutritional recommendations. Here are some essentials:
- Without food, you’ve probably got enough fuel in the tank to last an hour.
Our bodies store energy, in the form of the substance glycogen, derived from carbohydrates, in our liver and muscles. Generally speaking, when we exercise, glycogen is broken down into glucose and released into the blood stream as a source of fuel. The liver-and-muscles “tank” generally has enough glycogen in it to fuel an hour of moderate to moderately-high intensity activity. Your mileage may vary, but at some point the tank will go empty.
- A pre-workout snack can keep you going beyond the hour mark.
Digestion takes energy, so nobody recommends having a huge meal before you work out. But having a small snack roughly 90-30 minutes before you work out means that your body will have a source for additional glucose when your glycogen stores begin to run low.
- Some carbs and a bit of protein make a great pre-workout snack.
Since carbohydrates are easily broken down to yield glucose (energy!), it’s reasonable to assume they would be the best pre-workout choice. (The body can convert fat—and even protein—into energy, but it’s a less efficient.) But not all carbohydrates are created equal—a piece of bread is a better choice than a carrot, for example, because it has more calories overall and less fiber, a form of carbohydrate that doesn’t yield any energy. Also, there’s some evidence that a small amount of protein is useful as a pre-workout snack. (It’s a HUGE part of post-workout nutrition, but we’ll get to that another day.)
- A pre-workout snack is usually small.
Think half an apple. Or a container of yogurt. Maybe a slice of peanut butter toast and half a banana. Keep it simple, roughly palm-sized.
- There’s no right answer except the one that works for you.
You may discover you don’t need any additional food to get through a workout. Or you may find you depend on a pre-workout snack to keep your energy up. The modern consensus is that your fuel needs depend on a lot of variables, most of which revolve around your body and your habits. So don’t get too worked up about pre-workout eating. Consume what you need to perform your best on a consistent basis.