We all know a car can’t run on empty. It will literally stop, stall, and stay put until someone somehow fills the tank back up with gas (or, in a more modern example, someone plugs it back in!). If a car is just low on gas, or low on a charge, it will run, but not as efficiently.
We, as humans, relate to this! We’re far more complicated beings, of course, but we also need fuel—in the forms of food and hydration—to keep going! While, to some extent, we technically can run on “empty” (i.e. after a few hours without food or drink), that doesn’t mean we always should. And if we make a habit of doing that often and consistently, we’ll eventually stall, too.
Do you eat before you workout?
I’ve worked in sports nutrition for over a decade, and had my fair share of personal experiments with pre-workout foods and drinks. I’ve also heard a wide variety of what works well for my clients. There isn’t a perfect pre-workout food or drink, there isn’t one solution that will fit for everyone! But I stand firmly on the hill that yes, it’s a good idea to eat something before you workout (and, of course, that stance is supported by sports nutrition guidelines). Even, or maybe especially, if that workout happens first thing in the morning!
I’ll add some tips below for how to ease into this if you’re not currently eating before exercise. First, let’s talk about what to eat.
Here are some things that will help you decide what to eat before you workout.
How long has it been since your last meal or snack? I recommend eating at least an hour before exercise, but many people are fine with a shorter time window (some may even have a pre-workout snack as close as 15 minutes before). If you’ve recently had a meal, you’ll probably want to give yourself that full hour before you start moving.
What type of exercise, or movement, will you be doing? Activities like swimming, running, or anything with a lot of jumping or jostling, will probably feel best when you’ve given yourself 30-60 minutes to digest a pre-workout meal or snack. Again, this is really individual! I can eat a banana and head out the door for a run 10-15 minutes later, no problem. Gentler activities—like hiking or walking, cycling, yoga, or even strength workout—may provide a little more flexibility with pre-workout meal timing. You could eat something 10-15 minutes before, or of course, up to an hour before.
What kind of intensity are you hoping to bring to your workout? My general guideline is to give yourself a little more digestion time, and a bigger portion of your pre-workout meal or snack, for increased effort/intensity. Those workouts (e.g. HIIT, a speed workout while running or cycling, a fast-paced or heated yoga class, etc.) will feel much better with fuel in your system, but you want to give that food/drink time to digest (30+ minutes) before you get going.
What time of day are you exercising? The time of day you prefer to exercise will help determine what you’ll eat. Again, if you’re exercising first thing in the morning, your pre-workout food is probably the first thing you’re eating that day. If you wait and workout in the afternoon or evening, you can time pre-workout food around your most recent meal or snack.
This isn’t always the same, day to day. For example: I definitely prefer to exercise in the morning, but with three little kids at home, that doesn’t always happen! Sometimes I’ll do an evening indoor cycling ride, or strength workout, or yoga class. So in the morning I may eat a piece of toast or a banana, or maybe a snack bar, and then head out 10-20 minutes later. In the afternoon or evening, I’ll consider when my last meal was and then have something small 15-30 minutes before exercising.
Tips for how to eat before exercise:
Based on the conversation thread where I asked what you’re eating before exercise, I see that some of you have trouble eating before an early morning workout. Other people just weren’t sure what to start with! So, here are a few ideas.
Here’s my go-to tip for those very early workouts: Put a snack on your nightstand (or near your bed) with a glass of water! Eat it as soon as you wake up, and then get ready for your workout/day. That will give you at least 10-15 minutes for it to digest! I do this often.
Start with something small! If you’re not currently eating anything right before you workout (meaning, within an hour), start with something small like half of a banana, half a piece of toast, a glass of your preferred juice or sports drink mix, etc. Maybe that’s what will work best for you, or maybe you’ll gradually increase that based on the questions above (intensity, length, type of movement, etc.).
Experiment with a few options! Refer to this conversation thread, and take what you like, leave what you don’t. I always tell clients to have a list of pre-workout foods that they like, and know will work for them. Having one go-to option is great, but having a list of options gives you flexibility!
I stand firmly on this “eat before exercise” hill because it gives your body fuel to do what it can do best, and more efficiently! And because I see so many people who aren’t eating enough throughout the day—feeling fatigued, sore for days from workouts that weren’t that hard, experiencing slow recovery, and even noticing other health impacts of low energy intake—and part of the solution to that is giving your body fuel to use for your workouts!
Eventually our extra fuel reserve (i.e. our body’s storage of carbohydrates, proteins and fats) runs out—why try to function on that “Low Fuel” warning light all the time? Again, we technically can “run on empty” (i.e. a few hours of fasting), but that doesn’t mean we should.
What do YOU do before your workouts?
Comment below with your favorite pre-workout foods and/or your challenges with fueling before exercise, and let me know if these tips are helpful. And join us for the October Pre-Workout Fueling Q&A here!