How many workouts have you spent dreaming of breakfast? Or worse, spent so full you just wanted to lie down and take a nap instead?
Timing your meals with your workouts wasn’t something I mastered for years as a collegiate athlete. I’d scramble to get to 5:30 a.m. swim practices, leaving no time to eat beforehand, or I'd chow down on something poolside and then feel horrible.
“It’s all about finding a balance,” says Brooklyn-based dietitian and nutritionist Shana Minci Spence, MS, RDN, CDN. “But if you’re going to work out, you need to eat something. People always forget that workouts burn energy, so you need to fuel your body right.”
The key is understanding your own body and what it needs. “It all depends on the person,” says Dr. Marcia Denis, PT, DPT, who specializes in sports medicine in South Florida. “You have to really think about, ‘Okay, what is my body doing and what’s going to work for me?’”
Below, Spence and Denis offer insights on how to time pre-workout eats, and which foods are best for the job.
Meet the Expert
Shana Minci Spence, MS, RDN, CDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist based in New York. In addition to helping private clients, she also creates a platform for open discussion on nutrition and wellness topics on her Instagram, @thenutritiontea.
Dr. Marcia Denis, PT, DPT (she/they) is a doctor of physical therapy, black spoonie, and powerlifting strongwoman from South Florida. She is the owner of @MovewithMarcia.
Time Your Meals Based on the Type of Movement
Finding that balance starts with planning around what type of workout you’re doing. Walking your dog, taking a dance class, and resistance training all require different kinds of fuel. “Listen to your body,” says Spence. “I always say wait at least a half hour after eating, even if it’s something small.”
For more intensive workouts, you’ll need to wait longer to give your body time to digest. “For a high heart-racing workout, I’m going to make sure that well before the workout I’ve eaten enough food,” says Denis. “It’s going to be more like a couple of hours before so that I can get enough carbs and protein, because I’m going to need that energy.”
That can be easy to achieve with a light breakfast if you work out in the mornings. But if you’re planning on moving later in the day, you’ll need to adjust your schedule. “It’s about knowing how you’ll feel,” says Spence. “Your metabolism doesn’t shut down—there’s nothing wrong with eating a meal after 7 p.m., for example. It’s okay to eat a small snack beforehand and eat your full meal after.”
Denis agrees. “You’re not going to sit down and eat a full dinner for an evening workout, but something quick an hour before. I always recommend meal prepping for those situations, especially for your post-workout meal, so you can set yourself up for success.”
The Best Foods to Eat Before a Workout
Plan on eating between two hours to a half hour before your movement, depending on what you’re doing. The more intense the workout, the more time and food you’ll need. “Find some form of carbs and protein to get your body going,” says Spence. “I’m all about the ‘eat anything’ philosophy, so find what works for you.”
Here are seven snacks our experts recommended to try:
- Water: Okay, this technically isn’t a meal. But hydrating well before your workout is just as important as during. “Any workout requires tons of water,” says Denis. “I’m always concerned about hydration.”
- Bananas: Bananas are often cited as great post-workout recovery snacks, but they’re also great for lighter meals beforehand. “For something like a vinyasa yoga class, I don’t want to have something too heavy with all that twisting and turning,” says Spence. “I like bananas because they give you quick energy and don't fill you up as much.”
- Toast with nut butter: For endurance-focused workouts, you’ll need more fuel. “I’m a big fan of doing whole grain toast with nut butter,” says Spence. “It fuels you without feeling heavy and it gives you the carbs that you need. Plus, nut butter has a lot of protein in it, and both are important for running or longer workouts.”
- Oatmeal or eggs: Don’t fear a full breakfast, especially if you give yourself enough time before the workout begins. “Oatmeal works for me,” says Denis. “It’s something carb-rich and protein-rich I can get energy from for my strength workouts.” Spence's go-to are hard-boiled eggs. “If I need a little more protein, it’s a little more filling.”
- Smoothies: But if a full breakfast feels like way too much, especially in the morning, you can drink your nutrients instead. “I don’t want to eat something too heavy, but that still has protein and carbs,” says Denis. “I usually make a smoothie with berries, bananas, oat milk or water, and some protein powder. I keep it simple.”
- Protein Bars: If you want to keep it lighter, you can always go for an energy bar. “I can’t wake up and consume eggs or peanut butter, even though those are great options,” says Denis. “A bar gives me quick carbs that sustain me for lighter workouts.” Just be sure to check the ingredients, and keep an eye out for added sugar. “Some bars you might as well be having a Snickers! I like Kind Bars because they work with my allergies. It’s just nuts, dried seeds, and maybe a chocolate drizzle,” says Spence.
- Greek Yogurt: For weight lifting or resistance training, it’s all about the protein. But it can come from unexpected places. “Greek yogurt or Icelandic skyr has a ton of protein in it,” says Spence. “It’s a much easier on-the-go snack.”