Power Fuel = Power Workouts

Showing up and putting in the time, but not seeing the results you want? Maybe your energy is drained, your workouts are lacking intensity or your general fitness level seems to have plateaued.

So, what gives?

Believe it or not, it could have nothing to do with when you’re in the gym. Paying attention to the fuel that goes into your body prior to exercise is just as important as the workout itself. So, what exactly does a pre-workout meal do for you?

Cynthia Sass, RD, CSSD, says pre-workout nutrition can make or break your progress. “Without proper fuel, you may not be able to work out as long or as hard, and therefore may not be able to train in a way that generates fitness results,” Sass explains.

General pre-nutrition tips

What you eat and drink directly correlates with the type of exercise and the amount of time you plan on working out. In other words: you want to fuel the activity to meet the needs. It’s simple: You want to fuel your body in a way that correlates with the intensity and duration of your workout. If it’s a shorter workout, you don’t need as much fuel; if you plan to go long or hard, what you put in your body will make more of a difference.

Sass, who works with professional athletes (including the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Yankees), recommends drinking two cups (16 ounces) of water when you first wake up, at least two cups two hours before exercise and one cup 15 minutes before exercise. During training, she says to drink half a cup to one cup every 15 minutes. Sass also recommends electrolyte replacements if you’re sweating heavily.

As far as what to eat, Sass says it really depends on the type of exercise, the length of time spent working out, and the timing of your last meal. “If you’re working out first thing in the morning, I think a banana about 20 minutes before the start of the workout is a great strategy,” she says.

And if you’re exercising a few hours after a healthy, balanced lunch, Sass says you probably don’t need anything immediately pre-exercise. “If the workout is very intense or lasts more than an hour, you may need to re-fuel during, with something like a sports drink, a gel or another product designed to not upset the digestive system and provide easy-to-absorb carbohydrates to keep going.”

But if the food you’re consuming at your regular meals just isn’t cutting it, or it’s been more than three hours since you last ate, you may want to opt for a small pre-workout snack to make sure you have the energy you need to give it your all.

Snacks that pack a punch

We need carbohydrates for energy and to fuel our workouts. So, when planning a pre-workout snack, make sure it includes a high-quality source of carbohydrates such as whole grain bread, fruit or oatmeal.

While protein is generally talked about as a post-workout necessity, it’s not a bad idea to include a small amount of easy-to-digest protein with your carbohydrates before working out. Sources of pre-workout protein include hardboiled eggs, protein powder, Greek yogurt and nut butter.

Generally, experts recommend that you avoid eating immediately before a workout; however, eating prior to an endurance event (half-marathon, bike race, etc.) tops off the body’s carbohydrate stores—especially if the training or race is in the morning. So make sure you are paying attention to the type of workout you plan on doing and the timing of your nutrients.

Pre-workout snack ideas (less than 2 1/2 hours before exercise):

  • Snack: A grain bowl made with lean protein, veggies, brown rice and avocado (at least 2 to 3 hours before exercise)
  • Snack: A small bowl of oatmeal made with water, flavored with a little pure maple syrup and ground cinnamon
  • Snack: A medium banana or apple with 1 tablespoon of nut butter (typically right before exercise)
  • Snack: Protein shake made with 1 cup of unsweetened almond milk, 1 scoop protein powder, 1/2 cup of berries and ice
  • Snack: Greek yogurt with 1/2 cup of fruit and 1/4 cup of granola
  • Snack: Peanut butter and oatmeal protein bars (1 cup of oats, 1/2 cup vanilla protein powder, 1/2 cup peanut butter and 1/4 cup honey mixed using hands and pressed into glass dish—let it sit in the fridge overnight and cut in the morning)
  • Snack: Hardboiled egg with strawberries and a small piece of whole grain toast

But before you head to the store to stock up on snacks, take a look at your overall diet and make sure you’re getting an adequate amount of complex carbohydrates, protein and fat through the day. The food you eat an hour or two before exercise will help, but it’s the nutrients you consume in a 24-hour period that will ultimately lead to better performance.