What Should I Eat Before My Workout?

Q: I’m never quite sure what I should I eat before I work out. What’s best?

A: Food is certainly a factor when it comes to exercising effectively, no matter the time of the day. Your energy level depends on the fuel you have in your body—namely, glycogen, a form of sugar that results when carbohydrates break down.

Some people can exercise soon after they wake up, without eating beforehand, and feel just fine when they’re done. If that’s you, there’s nothing that says you have to grab a bite before hitting the gym (although you should have breakfast soon after). Generally speaking, though, if you’re working out right after your alarm sounds, your blood sugar levels are low from fasting all night while you sleep—too low for you to sustain your effort throughout your sweat session.

Eating carbohydrates—even if you’re not hungry yet—can help, as they give you energy to move effectively through your workout. Though it’s ideal to eat something an hour or two before you exercise, that’s not practical in the early morning, so try to eat or drink a little something 10 or 15 minutes before hitting the gym or heading out on your run. Half a banana or a glass of fruit juice mixed with water (pure juice may be too much for you to process quickly, causing cramps) can be enough to sustain you.

If your routine falls midday, consider a light lunch that combines carbs and protein (the combination promotes muscle growth and improves your performance) about an hour before that helps you power through without sitting too heavily in your stomach: try a bowl of shredded wheat cereal with nuts and low-fat milk, or almond butter on apple slices along with a hard-boiled egg. If you need something more substantial, a veggie burger with some low-fat cheese is a good option. Many exercises opt for whey protein shakes. Aside from the fact that they are, obviously, high in protein, they are easily digested and contain the amino acid leucine, one of the top muscle-building nutrients. (Other high leucine foods are milk, eggs, peanuts and chicken.)

Exercising post-work but pre-dinner? A late afternoon snack will help tide you over and give you the boost you need to make it through that spinning or circuit training class. Again, aim for a mix of carbs and protein: Try a bowl of fruit with some yogurt or a banana with one tablespoon of peanut butter. If you aren’t able to fit in your workout until after dinner, however, allow more time after you eat (three hours, if possible), since it’s likely you’ll eat a bigger meal.

Of course, it’s also important to hydrate. Keep a glass of water at your bedside to drink if you wake up in the middle of the night (unless you’re dealing with an overactive bladder), and continue throughout the day, downing a glass of water before your workout and drinking three to eight ounces every 15 to 20 minutes during your session.
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