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Q: Are pre-workout snacks really necessary?
What to eat before a workout, when to do it, and if we need to do it are questions I get all the time. If you’ve been here for a while, you might know I’m a big fan of eating before workouts not just to help provide the body with usable energy and improve performance, but to also support the muscle protein synthesis that happens after a workout to make us stronger. Exactly what and when to eat depends on the type of workout, how much time you have, time of day, and most importantly, the individual. I’ll break it down a bit more.
Fueling for morning workouts
After an overnight fast, our energy tank is close to zero and needs some gas to get you going (yes, sleep is the only “intermittent fast” you need). What you eat depends largely on how much time there is before the workout, and your body.
30-60 minutes before: aim for an easily digestible carbohydrate, like a banana, toast with jam, or a handful of dates. If you wake up hungry or need a little more staying power, adding some nut butter for a little protein and fat to any of these options can work well
1-2 hours before: more digestion time calls for a bit more substance to help give the body a more lasting energy and prevent mid-workout hunger pangs. Protein and fat take longer to digest than carbohydrates, and it’s ok to add more to your meal or snack if you have the time. Scrambled eggs and toast, oatmeal with berries and nuts (or nut butter!), or a whole wheat bagel with cream cheese can all work.
The caveat here is that some individuals simply cannot tolerate a morning meal before a workout, and that’s ok. Short workouts on an empty stomach are fine, as long as your body feels ok and you prioritize a post-workout meal soon after you’re finished to refuel. For longer workouts and endurance training that exceed 60 minutes, it becomes more important to have something in the tank before you begin. Trial and error are key when it comes to figuring out what you can eat and when to feel your best.
Fueling for afternoon and evening workouts
Now, we already have some energy in our system from prior meals. The upside of this is that we may have more stamina, and the downside is that digestion is occurring and those with sensitive stomachs must time eating and workouts accordingly.
Early afternoon workouts: if you’re working out after lunch has digested, you may not need a snack. This depends almost entirely on the individual in terms of digestion, type of workout and what you had for lunch. You may not need a snack if the workout is within 1-2 hours after lunch, you’re not feeling hungry yet or it’s low impact; however, if you’re hungry, an easily digestible snack like dried fruit, pretzels, or an English muffin can work.
Late afternoon/early evening workouts: if more time has gone by after lunch and you’re working out before dinner, a snack may be more necessary so you don’t go into your workout on a near-empty tank. The guidelines above for mornings can apply here too, depending on how much time you have between your snack and workout. Experimentation and listening to your body to see what sits well with your stomach is helpful.
Type of workout
In general, more vigorous workouts like running can make you feel more sensitive to food in your stomach and contribute to nausea and indigestion during the workout. If this is your workout of choice, try giving yourself more time for digestion or having something very light prior to the workout. A sports drink, gel or chew may be better tolerated if consumed closer to the workout time and add an extra energy boost if the workout is going to be longer in duration.
It all depends on you
No matter the recommendation or guidelines, you know your body best. What one person tolerates or needs before a workout can be drastically different from the next. There is no “right” answer here, because our bodies are so unique. Getting to know yours and what suits you best is important to help reach exercise and sport-related goals. This may take some time and experimentation, and is a great reason to work with a registered dietitian to help you learn what may work best for you.
For more information on working with me, please visit my website.
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