RAISE YOUR hand if you’ve ever been in this situation: Your fighting through the last few reps of your last set and you’re distracted by something that has nothing to do with your lift—a grumbling stomach.
And, if your hand is raised, you’ll know that it’s really freakin’ hard to workout when you’re hungry. It’s also especially frustrating if you feel like you’ve adequately fueled up before hand.
First off, know that you’re not alone. While some people can’t stomach the idea of eating during or immediately after a workout, plenty of others can’t wait to chow down afterward.
But you need adequate fuel to make your workout last. And, if you don’t, the results could spell fatigue, distraction, and possibly injury.
“There’s just not an easy answer,” says Sharon Collison, a board-certified sports dietitian at the University of Delaware.
That’s because, Collison says, the right snack depends on a variety of factors, including the type and intensity of your training, your training goals, the timing of your impending workout, and your individual tolerance for certain foods (read: the amount of GI distress you may or not feel during your workout). In fact, some people may not even need a pre-workout snack at all.
Despite all of this, there are a few things to keep in mind when determining when and what to eat before you hit the weight room or head out for a run.
Here are four things to consider, plus easy snack ideas that you can grab before training. Combine them with some water to help replace the fluids you lose while you sweat.
You got this.
Should you eat carbs before a workout?
Yes, you should absolutely eat carbohydrates as part of a pre-workout snack or meal.
Eating carbs before an endurance workout has been shown to improve performance, according to a review published in the journal Nutrients. That’s because when you’re grinding it out in the gym, your body requires a lot of energy, which primarily stems from carbohydrates.
And the right kind of carbs are important too.
While fiber is a type of carbohydrate and usually great for diet in general, you’ll want to avoid too much of it before a workout. Fiber takes longer to digest in your body, says Collison, which may lead to GI distress during or after your workout.
So go with simple carbohydrates like those found in energy drinks, breakfast cereal (dry), or a good old-fashioned PB&J.
Should you eat carbs before a workout?
If you’re asking this question because of the Keto diet, just know that eating a high-fat snack or meal directly before working out is trouble. It’s for the same reason that downing a bunch of fiber is a bad idea, says Collison. Your body needs extra time to process fat and if doesn’t get that time, it’ll rebel in the form gastrointestinal upheaval.
Should you eat protein before a workout?
A little is fine, but your body will still prefer simple carbohydrates as its main source of fuel during your workout.
There used to be this whole thing about the “protein window,” where researchers once believed that if you didn’t get your protein in an hour before or after a workout that your body wouldn’t use that protein to repair muscle. New science shows that as long as you’re hitting your protein targets over the course of your day, you’re fine.
How soon before a workout should you eat?
“I think it’s most important to have a well-balanced meal within 3 to4 hours of a workout that is at least of moderate intensity,” says Collison. “And then depending on hunger and/or how long the workout is, a pre-workout snack may be beneficial.”
If you do snack, you’ll want to give your body enough time to process all those nutrients before your sweat session. When you’re exercising hard, your blood moves to your muscles, meaning less of it will travel to the organs digesting your food. This can cause an upset stomach or even decrease your performance if you don’t time things right.
When you pair carbs with high amounts of protein, fiber, or fats, the digestion process takes longer. That means you can eat more protein and fat if you allow yourself more time process all that food. Collison suggests a banana or crackers if you have less than an hour before the workout. If you have at least 60 minutes, go ahead and add some cottage cheese.
How much should you eat before a workout?
Everyone needs a different amounts of food to feel satisfied, but Collison says it’s generally safe to go by the following rules:
- 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?
Not everyone needs to snack, says Collison. “The purpose of a snack is to keep you from starving from the next meal,” she says. As long as you ate a well-balanced meal several hours prior to working out, you will probably be fine. If you’re trying to lose weight, skipping a snack may be beneficial–as long as you’re not hungry, she says.
Snack suggestions if you have less than 60 minutes pre-workout:
- Banana with peanut butter
- Cereal and milk
- Packet of oatmeal made with milk: Collison says you can add raisins, chocolate chips, and fruit, but keep protein to a minimum.
- Chocolate milk and banana
- Chocolate milk and granola bar
Snack suggestions if you have more than 60-minutes pre-workout
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
- 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 [eanut 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.
Chris Mohr, PhD, RD is the co-owner of Mohr Results, Inc (MohrResults.com) a well-being consulting company
Melissa Matthews is the Health Writer at Men’s Health, covering the latest in food, nutrition, and health.