We’ve all experienced one (or both) of the following workout struggles. The first: Feeling totally wiped halfway into your routine after skipping out on a pre-workout snack. The second: Fighting off stomach gurgles and cramps while you sweat because you ate something beforehand that’s just not jiving.
Your pre-workout grub is a make-it-or-break-it decision—and what you should munch on depends on what kind of workout you’re fueling for. Follow these nutritionist-backed guidelines to pick the pre-workout grub for an energized body and a happy belly.
Your workout fuel should be made up of two things: carbohydrates and protein. Carbs provide the energy we need to perform, while protein supports our muscles.
Our bodies turn carbs into energy by breaking them down into sugar (called glucose). Then, our small intestine absorbs that glucose and releases it into our bloodstream. Once that glucose is in the bloodstream, we can use it as immediate energy.
Without these carbs, the body might break down muscle for fuel instead, explains Leslie Bonci, M.P.H., R.D., C.S.S.D., of Active Eating Advice. Definitely not something we want, considering all of the ways building muscle benefits our health and well-being—like boosting our metabolism. Some stomach-friendly carb sources include bananas, granola, whole-wheat bread, and oatmeal.
Since protein helps our muscles repair and grow, you probably already know you need it after a workout. But for that same reason, you want it before you exercise, too. “If we have protein, which is the building material of muscle, already in our bloodstream while we work out, we can recover faster,” says Jonathan Valdez, M.B.A., R.D.N., C.D.N. That means your body is better equipped to preserve and build muscle than if you skip the protein before you sweat. Some protein options include deli turkey breast, Greek yogurt, and protein powder.
Now that you know what you want in your system before you hit the gym, there are a few things you don’t want: lots of fat or fiber, or anything fizzy. Fat and fiber take longer to move through your digestive system, and can make you feel like there’s a brick in your stomach mid-workout, causing cramps and sluggishness, explains Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D., C.S.S.D. Meanwhile, carbonated beverages (while we love them) leave some extra gas in our bellies, which can lead to discomfort and lots of gas-passing throughout a training session, adds Bonci. Try to avoid these three troublemakers for at least two to three hours leading up to your workout.
Tailor Your Eats To Your Training
One thing to keep in mind: Regardless of your ultimate fitness goal, you need a pre-workout snack to power your exercise. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, don’t skip it. “The number-one goal of a pre-exercise snack is to fuel the activity, not change body composition,” says Valdez. Think of it this way: If you’re too zonked to make it through that HIIT class or weight room date, you’re less likely to reach your goals.
Consider how long you’ll be working out for and what that workout will be. For moderate exercise that lasts a half-hour or less, 100 to 200 calories will do the trick. But if you’ll be working out for more than a half-hour or going hard, go for a 200 to 300 calorie snack to help keep you going, recommends Tara Collingwood, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D, of Diet Diva.
Generally, the sweet spot for a pre-workout snack is about an hour before you turn up the heat, says Bonci. From there, your carb-to-protein ratio will depend on whether you’re hitting cardio or the weight room and for how long.
If You’re Doing Cardio…
If you’re just taking a walk around the neighborhood or zoning out on the elliptical for a half-hour, a pre-workout snack probably isn’t even necessary, says Valdez. However, if that half-hour consists of interval training or a fast-paced run, you’ll benefit from some fuel. In this case, your 100 to 200-calorie snack can be mostly carbohydrates, says Sass. Go for a banana, a small bowl of oatmeal, or an orange.
If you’ll be doing steady cardio for closer to an hour (or more) you’ll want to nosh on a 200 to 300-calorie snack that packs between 30 and 60 grams of carbs, says Valdez. That could be a bowl of oatmeal topped with berries or a piece of whole-wheat toast topped with sliced banana.
If your extended cardio happens to be an intense cycle or HIIT class or involves sprints, add five to 10 grams of protein to that carby pre-workout snack to help your muscle repair, says Collingwood. Think a piece of whole-wheat toast topped with either hummus and cheese or an egg.
Related: Are You Doing Too Much Cardio?
If You’re Hitting The Weights…
If you’re going to be hitting a quick lifting session, you’ll want your 100 to 200-calorie snack to contain some carbs and some protein. Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., certified yoga instructor and owner of Keri Gans Nutrition, recommends a serving of chickpeas or edamame, which both pack plant-based protein and carbohydrates. You could also go for a banana with a tablespoon of peanut butter.
Before extended strength-training, your 200 to 300-calorie should consist of a 2:1 or 3:1 carb-to-protein ratio. Valdez recommends a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole-wheat bread, which lands in the range of 30 to 60 grams of carbs and about 15 grams of protein. Other options: six to eight ounces of plain Greek yogurt with between a half-cup and a full cup of fruit, or a scrambled egg in a whole-wheat tortilla.
Timing Is Everything
But what if you’re rolling out of bed and right into your workout? Or just totally crunched for time and realized you’re a half-hour out from your workout and haven’t fueled up? You’re in a bit of a pickle: Passing up on some pre-workout grub might sabotage your performance (and long-term results), while nomming on the wrong thing too close to gym-time might leave you with an angry belly.
If you’re fifteen to 30 minutes out from a cardio session, go for a quick energy boost from about 15 to 30 grams of easily-digested carbs, recommends Valdez. That might be half a banana with a little honey or a piece of toast.
If you’re rushing before strength-training, find a small dose of protein and carbs, Valdez says. A small protein shake or six ounces of Greek yogurt should do the trick without overloading your stomach.
Yes, Hydration Matters, Too
Better make sure there’s a glass of water alongside your next pre-workout snack! Hydrating before you work out helps your body prepare for the fluids it will lose from sweating and helps prevent muscle cramps from dehydration, says Bonci. Since it takes fluid about an hour to leave the body, Bonci recommends drinking about 20 ounces of water an hour or so before kicking into gear. If you don’t like water, she says you can even go for coffee or tea, just remember that coffee might make you want to hit the bathroom sooner, since it’s a stimulant.