IF YOU WANT to perform well in the gym, you need to be well nourished. Our food is our fuel, and the right pre-workout snack can mean the difference between a personal best on the deadlifting platform and procrastinating on the stretch mat trying to build up the energy to do something.
Our bodies burn calories to create the energy that powers whatever movements we subject them to. During an hour long weight lifting session, you could be burning up to 500 calories, depending on your size. Tack on some cardio, and that number will rise even further. Needless to say—incorporating a pre-workout snack into your diet plan will help you sustain your energy throughout your workout.
Not all calories are created equal, however. The body breaks down different macronutrients in different ways and at different rates. So, depending on what you’re doing for exercise, how long you’re spending in the gym, and how long you have to digest beforehand, what you want to eat to optimize your workout will change. Plus, you’ll want to find something that sits well in the stomach—no one wants to be queasy or bloated while pumping iron.
Bet you didn’t realize how much science is really behind your pre-workout snack. No need to fear, though—finding an efficient go-to option isn’t super difficult. Here’s how to up your pre-workout snack game.
Should You Eat Carbs Before A Workout?
Yes. Carbs are like bolts of energy that can power you through a workout. Data suggests that carbs can improve performance, just what the doctor ordered if a gym trip is right around the corner.
Not just any carbs will do. Fiber is solid (pardon the pun), but not ideal for a pre-workout snack as it sits in your stomach longer. We suggest simply carbs, like those in energy drinks, dry cereal, and the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Should You Eat Fat Before A Workout?
This is a valid question, especially among the Keto diet crowd. The answer, though, is no. High-fat consumption before a workout means more work for your body breaking it down. And that breakdown is more time consuming with fat (much like fiber). Worse, if you eat a bunch of fatty snacks and then workout right away, you run the risk of GI issues.
Should You Eat Protein Before A Workout?
Carbs are most important but a little protein is a good idea in a pre-workout snack. Some argue for packing the protein in right before or after a workout but the experts these days advocate for hitting protein targets over a larger scale of time, as in by the day, not hours or minutes.
How Soon Should You Eat Before A Workout?
If you’re eating a well-rounded meal three or so hours before a workout, you’re probably in good shape. This all depends on workout intensity, of course. Keep in mind that when exercising, more blood is used by your muscles that would otherwise be used by your organs to breakdown food. Translation? Give your body enough time to process nutrients before your workout, at least a couple of hours.
If you are pushed for time, go with something lighter like crackers or a banana. If you have an hour or so, get some more protein and fat in there, per yogurt, cheese, or a protein bar.
How Much Should You Eat Before a Workout?
Again, this is personal, but there are some general pre-workout intake amounts to consider:
- Eat one gram of carbohydrate per kilogram in body weight one hour before working out.
- Eat two grams of carbohydrate per kilogram in body weight two hours before working out.
- Eat three grams of carbohydrate per kilogram in body weight three hours before working out.
Do You Have to Eat Before a Workout?
Of course not. Listen to your body. We’re trying to avoid hunger during your cross-fit routine or swimming session, but we don’t want to go overboard. And if you’re already on a diet, keep that in mind and opt for something lighter if you do decide to fill the fuel tank a bit before your workout.
If you do decide to go with a pre-workout snack, here are some more ideas:
Try These Snacks if You’re Eating Less Than 60-Minutes Before Your Workout:
Simplicity is key if you’re running low on time. Here are a few quick options for when you need something, fast.
- Banana with peanut butter
- Cereal and milk
- Packet of oatmeal made with milk
- Chocolate milk and banana
- Chocolate milk and granola bar
Try These Snacks if You’re Eating More Than 60-Minutes Before Your Workout:
If you have a bit more time, you can get a little more creative with your pre-workout snack. You’ll also have more time to digest, so you can eat a bit more if you need more fuel.
- Peanut butter banana honey sandwich: Spread 2 Tbsp of peanut butter on two slices of whole grain bread. Top with sliced banana and a drizzle of honey.
- Fruit parfait: 1 cup of Greek yogurt, topped with 1 small handful of nuts, and 1 cup of berries. This combo offers protein from the yogurt, healthy fats, along with loads of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
- Fruit smoothie: Blend this to maximize your performance: 1 scoop chocolate whey protein (this one tastes incredible and uses no artificial sweeteners), 1 banana, 1 cup milk or water, 1 large handful spinach (trust me on this one), 1 Tbsp peanut butter, and ice, depending on the consistency you like
- Cinnamon banana overnight oats: Combine 1/2 cup whole oats with 1 cup high-protein milk in a jar. Stash away in your fridge and let it soak overnight. Top with one sliced banana, 2 Tbsp of raisins, and cinnamon to taste.
- 1/2 peanut butter and jelly sandwich with milk: Collison recommends Fairlife milk because it has more protein than regular cow’s milk.
- Cottage cheese: Add fresh or canned pineapple and whole grain crackers.
Done working out and hungry? Here’s what to eat.
Mark Stock is a food, drink, and outdoors writer from Portland, Oregon. He spent years making, selling, and sipping Pinot Noir in the Dundee Hills before a full return to his journalistic roots in 2016. In addition to Men’s Health, he writes for SevenFifty Daily, Sip Northwest, The Somm Journal, The Drake, Willamette Week, Travel Oregon, and more.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.
Paul is the Food & Nutrition Editor of Men’s Health. He’s also the author of two cookbooks: Guy Gourmet and A Man, A Pan, A Plan.