What’s all the buzz about a pre-workout snack?

As Registered Dietitians, we know that diet is crucial for athletic performance. Imagine that your body is like a sports car. A fancy sports car needs premium fuel in order to reach maximum horsepower.

If you give it the regular-grade gas, the car will still run, but it won’t accelerate as quickly and your gas mileage will go down. Our bodies work in a similar way. If you fuel your body with poor-quality food you still get energy and can run, lift weights, and shoot a basketball, but you won’t truly reach your maximum athletic performance until you fuel your body with top-notch fuel. 

Your pre-workout snack or meal turns into the energy that you use during your performance. I know, sometimes it might seem like you’re too busy, but that shouldn’t stop you from grabbing a snack – there are tons of options for a pre workout snack on the go! 

workout snack

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What Should I Eat Before a Workout?

What you eat before a workout depends on a few factors:

  1. How long you have between eating and working out.
  2. How long the workout will be.
  3. How intense the workout will be.

We will dive into examples in just a bit, but essentially if your workout is very intense, longer in duration, or you don’t have much time until you workout then your snack should be very simple and mostly carbohydrates.

Components of a Good Pre-Workout Snack

Carbohydrates  

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are a key ingredient for a pre-workout snack. Protein usually gets all of the glory when it comes to sports nutrition but carbs are just as, if not more, important!

Carbs are digested very quickly and get turned into energy for your muscles.

Even your brain needs carbohydrates! Without enough carbohydrates in your diet, you can start to feel sluggish and unmotivated. 

Protein 

Protein is necessary for maintaining and building muscle mass. This is because you create tiny tears in your muscles during exercise and protein helps build new tissue to repair those tears. As a result, we get muscle growth! More muscle means more strength and a faster metabolism.

We all hear about eating protein after a workout but it’s also beneficial before a workout so that protein is already in your system and ready to repair your muscles. 

Snack Timing

Generally speaking, if you have plenty of time to digest your pre-workout snack then it should be well balanced with mostly carbs, a bit of protein, and even a small amount of fat is ok. If time is running short then grabbing an efficient carb snack that is low in fiber, protein, and fat will likely leave you feeling the most energized and the least sluggish.

While how long it takes to digest foods depends from person to person, two hours is a good rule of thumb for when to draw the line between something well balanced and that more efficient snack.

Exercise intensity and duration can also affect our snack choices. When exercise starts the body focuses and directs its energy towards working muscles and away from processes like digestion. So the longer and more intensely we exercise the more drastically their body redirects energy and blood flow. If food is left in the digestive tract when this process occurs it can cause discomfort and, in some cases, vomiting.

Try these ideas for healthy pre-workout snacks for energy 2+ hours before your workout:

Workout Snack

    • Banana (carbs) + Peanut butter (Protein and fat)
    • Apple (carbs) + Peanut butter (Protein and fat)
    • Fruit (carbs) + Greek yogurt (Protein)
    • Granola (carbs)  + Greek yogurt (Protein)
    • Toast (carbs) + Peanut butter (Protein and fat)
    • Oats (carbs) + Peanut butter (Protein and fat)
    • 2 Toast (carbs) + 2 egg (Protein and fat)
    • 2-3 slices of whole-grain bread (carbs) + 2-4 slices of lunch meat (Protein)
    • Cereal (carbs) + milk (Protein)
    • Low-fat granola bar with at least 7g of protein 
    • Peanut butter (Protein and fat) and jelly sandwich (carbs)
    • Clif Bars*
    • Bonk Breaker*

    These snacks earn their title as best pre-workout snacks because they’re affordable and have enough carbohydrates and protein to keep you full but they aren’t too heavy to slow you down.

If you find yourself experiencing any discomfort or are getting close to that 2 hour cut off, you can make some of the following adjustments:

    1. Use white or potato bread instead of whole wheat
    2. Reduce fat intake by selecting a non-peanut butter option.
    3. Pick lower fiber fruits like banana, pineapple, or dried fruits.

Super Quick Energy Workout Snack:

If you are on your way to the gym or practice and need super quick energy, you can try eating just a simple carbohydrate source. These have fast-acting carbohydrates and are easily digested.

If you have more time to digest, definitely make sure to try one of the snacks above, but we all need something super quick sometimes!

 

 

A quick note on Gu: Stomach cramps, GI distress, or vomiting can result from use without proper hydration. 

How Much Do I Need to Eat?

Your goal is to eat enough to give you energy to sustain your workouts but not too much to cause a stomach cramp. How much to eat in your pre workout snack (or meal) depends on the length of your workout and where your workout falls in your schedule. 

Length of Workout 

The longer your workout is, the more energy you’ll need, right?

So, the longer your workout, the more carbohydrate (quick-energy) you should eat. 

If you’re eating…

Time before workout

Grams of carb

30 minutes

15 grams 

1 hour

 30 grams 
1 – 2 hours

45 grams 

2 – 3 hours

60 grams 

 

The goal is not to eat too much to slow your workout because: 

  1. You are likely going to feel uncomfortably full 
  2. Your body will not be able to use the energy from this food yet (because it is still being digested)! 

When Not to Eat a Pre Workout Snack 

Pre workout snacks are crucial if your last meal was over 4 hours ago.

However, if you ate a balanced meal for lunch at 1 pm and you’re working out at 4 pm, an extra pre workout snack may not be necessary. Also, if you aren’t hungry and ate more than 3 hours ago, consider topping off the tank with some electrolyte mix or juice to fuel the workout.

Or, if you are waking up at 5:00 am to squeeze in a morning run before work, eating a snack before can slow you down. In this situation, it would be better to focus your nutrition in your post workout meal. 

What Should I Eat to Lose Weight? 

The first thing to consider is the purpose of your workouts. For competitive athletes it’s usually not advised to try to lose weight during the season. If you’re a competitive athlete with weight goals, book an appointment today to get a safe plan in motion.

For recreational exercise, you may think that not eating before exercise will help lose weight. But actually, if you don’t fuel enough before an exercise and start your workout hungry, your performance suffers and you end up not burning as many calories during your workout.

Having a light pre workout snack will get you through your workout and you won’t be starving after exercise which could lead to overeating! 

What Not to Eat Before a Workout 

We don’t see dietary fat as a part of the pre workout snack equation because fats take longer to digest, so if we eat a meal high in fat right before a workout it could result in an unpleasant stomach cramp.

A small amount of fat is okay before exercise, like the fat in 1 tbsp of peanut butter, because it will be just enough to keep you full but not uncomfortable.

Fiber also takes longer to digest and can lead to discomfort if eaten right before exercise, so it’s best to aim for low-fiber carbohydrates. 

Hydration 

Remember to hydrate throughout the day, and especially the hour before your workout!

water bottles

Interested in more sports nutrition blogs? Check these out!

If you have any questions about fueling for an activity or sport, contact us or call us at 301-474-2499 to meet with one of our wonderful dietitians for personalized nutrition help!

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-Blog reviewed and updated by Blair Solberger MS RDN LDN Feb 2024

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