Body Fuel: What to Eat Before a Workout

Learn the what, when and why of pre- and post-exercise eating, including easy snack and meal ideas.
What to Eat Before a Workout

Just as you'd fill up your car's gas tank before a road trip, it's vitally important to make sure your body has the right fuel to sustain you during a workout.

So, what should you eat before going for a bike ride or heading to the gym? Use these guidelines and snack ideas to keep your engine running optimally.

Balance carbs with protein.
"A relatively high-carbohydrate, moderate protein, low-fat meal is best to consume before exercise," says Suzette Kroll, a registered dietitian at the Canyon Ranch Spa in Tucson, Arizona. People often underestimate the importance of the carb part of the equation when fueling up for exercise, especially strength training, says Bell-Wilson. "They assume it's all about protein. Protein is important for muscle building and repair, but in order to lift those weights you need carbohydrates for energy," she says. Choose carbs that are easily digestible and avoid high-fat foods—or large quantities of any food—just before working out because they don't digest well during exercise.

Time it right.
"Whether you're strength training or going on a run, you want to make sure you have something within four hours before the workout and then a smaller snack in the hour before," says Bell-Wilson. If you know your workout is only going to last 45 minutes, keep the snack small, she says. "If it's going to last 2 hours, then you're going to want to beef up that pre-exercise meal."

Carefully assess protein bars.
When squeezing a workout into a busy schedule, you may like the convenience of protein or "sports" bars. Make sure you choose carefully; according to Kroll, most bars are "glorified candy bars, often providing even more calories." To find the better ones, Bell-Wilson suggests choosing a bar that has about 200 calories, up to 5 grams of protein and 25 grams of carbohydrates. "If you find a bar that you really like, but it's high in calories, just eat half of it," says Bell-Wilson. "Save the other half for after your workout."

Don't eat more than you burn.
You just finish a heart-pumping, hour-long workout. You take a quick shower and then pass the gym's café on the way out. Watch out for those healthy-looking snacks. One smoothie or even a sports drink can replace all the calories you just burned, and then some. "It's important to realize that just because you worked out doesn't give you free rein in the kitchen," says Bell-Wilson. "The reward is that you went and you did it." If you exercise for an hour or less, your best bet is to grab a bottle of water and eat at your next scheduled meal. "If it lasts longer, plan to have a snack in your locker or on your way home," says Bell-Wilson.

5 Pre-workout Snack Ideas
1. Half a chicken, turkey or lean roast beef sandwich on whole-wheat bread
2. Low-fat yogurt with a sliced banana
3. Low-fat string cheese and 6 whole-grain crackers
4. Hard-boiled eggs, yolks removed and replaced with hummus
5. Skim milk blended with frozen fruit to make a smoothie

5 Post-workout Replenishing Meal Ideas
1. One or two poached eggs on whole-wheat toast
2. Bean burrito: a whole-wheat tortilla filled with black beans, salsa and reduced-fat cheese
3. Stir-fried chicken and vegetables (try pepper, zucchini and carrot) over brown rice
4. Whole-wheat pasta tossed with chicken, broccoli and eggplant
5. Whole-grain cereal or oatmeal, with milk and fruit (such as a sliced banana)

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