Eating before a workout can be a precarious business. Too much food and you could end up with stomach cramps and indigestion, too little and you can feel like passing out in the middle of the gym. To figure out the right way to maintain your energy before a round of cardio, we asked Mary Jane Detroyer (opens in new tab)—a personal trainer, certified nutritionist, and registered dietitian based in New York City—for her tips on snacking before a workout and timing your meals.
First Things First: Do You Actually Need a Pre-Workout Snack?
It all depends on your body type, the intensity of your workout, and the last time you ate, according to Detroyer. Follow her handy guide below:
- “If someone goes to the gym and does 30 minutes on the elliptical at a very low intensity, and they’re not hungry, they probably don’t need a pre-gym snack. They’re just adding calories when they may not need them.”
- “If someone’s underweight and they know with their metabolism, they could eat all day long because they get hungry a lot, they’re definitely going to need a snack.”
- “If it’s someone who’s trying to lose weight, and they had a decent lunch, and they’re not really hungry and they’re not doing a crazy heavy workout, they can probably wait to go home and have a good dinner afterwards.”
- “If someone is going to be at the gym for an hour, they really don’t need anything but a 16 oz. bottle of water. Unless they ate a long time before and they’re starting to feel really hungry around 4:30PM, then they could have something small. This person needs to go eat pretty soon afterwards, too, not go have cocktails with friends.”
What Types of Foods Should People Snack On?
Detroyer recommends reaching for carbohydrates that range between 100 and 250 calories to accommodate everyone from a smaller person with a lighter workout to a bigger person doing a more intense workout.
Carbohydrates are what your body needs to perform any kind of physical exercise, even weight training, Detroyer notes. “You need to have something that’s going to get into the bloodstream and stay there throughout the workout. You wouldn’t want to have a lot of fat, too much protein, or too much fiber because those things slow the way the food is absorbed into the bloodstream.”
1. A piece of fruit: “It doesn’t really matter what kind of fruit it is. And you could have a few nuts with that, a very small handful just to tide you over.”
2. Fruit with a mozzarella stick: “It’s not a lot of fat, with just a little bit of protein—the focus here is on the fruit.
3. Whole grain crackers like Triscuits: “They have a little bit of fiber, and you could spread some type of cheese on them, like Laughing Cow. There’s not too much fat in there and there’s not too much protein, so it won’t slow you down.”
4. Crackers with a tiny little bit of hummus on them: “Aim for about a quarter of a cup. Hummus consists of beans, something with a little fiber in it. It’s going to give you some energy that will stick throughout the workout.”
5. Regular yogurt, instead of Greek-style: “A Greek-style yogurt is almost all protein, if it’s a plain yogurt. A regular yogurt has more carbohydrates in it, so it’s going to fuel your workout.”
6. Hummus with veggies or hummus with a cut-up apple: “Hummus has a little bit of fiber in it, and the carbohydrates from the fruit and veggies will help.”
7. A smoothie: “Most of them are too big and they have too many calories, but if you mix a cup of fruit with a cup of milk or soy milk, it’ll carry you through your workout.”
8. A small bowl of bean and veggie soup: “With this snack, you’re getting carbohydrates from the beans, carbohydrates from the vegetables, and the fluid and fiber will fill you up.”
9. A piece of toast with a little bit of peanut butter or almond butter: “This would work for someone who’s waking up and wants to eat something before working out later in the morning. It’s not a lot of calories. “
Timing Is Important
Because it’s key to avoid indigestion and discomfort while you’re sweating away at the gym, Detroyer recommends having food an hour and a half before the workout, so “the food will already be in your system and the energy will be in your bloodstream.”
And as for post-workout food? “Depends on when people eat after their workout and depends on the intensity of the workout, but a good rule of thumb is that the meal following a workout should definitely have protein in it. Because your body is now repairing and you want to make sure you have protein in your body to maintain and build muscle.”