A Whole Foods Approach To Sports Nutrition: What Should I Eat Before a Workout?

Do your New Year’s Resolutions include kicking up your workout routine a notch? If they do, that is great! But equally as important as the workout is what you are eating. Proper nutrition is essential to getting the results you want in the gym or out on the playing field. With personal trainers selling supplements, CrossFitters pushing Paleo, and a new diet popping up every month, its hard to decipher what is actually healthy and what is just hype. Here are four expert tips to help you get the most out of a pre-workout meal.

  1. Don’t shun carbohydrates. I know we are constantly being told carbs make us fat. But it’s just not true. Eating more calories than we burn makes us fat. Carbs provide our body with a quick source of energy which is what we need while working out. Carbohydrates break down into glucose, which enters our muscle cells and gives us fuel to workout at maximum capacity. Good sources of carbs to eat before a workout are fruit, whole wheat bread, oatmeal, potatoes (white or sweet), and yogurt.
  2. Keep it real. Focus on whole, minimally processed foods as much as possible. For example, eat an apple rather than an apple flavored Nutri-Grain bar. Although I think bars serve their purpose, they shouldn’t be your number one go to. If you are “keeping it real” that also means tossing protein powders, “pre-workout shakes” and anything that doesn’t actually resemble food. If you can buy it at GNC, but not the farmers market, that is a good indicator that it is not a real food. Aside from shakes and powders having no nutritional advantage over eating a well balanced meal, there are risks associated with supplements such as kidney and liver failure. Although rare, it does happen and it is not worth the risk.
  3. Hydrate hydrate hydrate! It’s best to be well hydrated before beginning a workout. Try to drink 16 ounces of fluids a few hours prior to exercising and then 1 cup of water in the half hour before. If you are exercising for one hour or less plain water provides adequate hydration. If sweating heavily or exercising for prolonged periods of time a sports drink with carbohydrates and electrolytes is a better choice. Hydration needs are different for every individual and vary based on the type of workout you are doing. One of the best indicators of hydration is urine color; as my sports nutrition professor always said, your pee should be “light lemonade.” If it’s darker, you should start increasing your fluid intake before and during exercise.
  4. Timing matters. What and how much you should eat before working out varies based on how much time you have. If you are eating dinner at 5 pm and working out at 7 pm, it is likely that you don’t need any additional food. If you are working out straight after work at 5 pm and your last meal was at 12 noon, it is a good idea to have a pre-workout snack. Personally, if I’m working out after work I’m usually ravenous. So I eat an apple or granola bar on the way to the gym. I’m generally still hungry after that apple, but once I start working out I forget about my hunger and enjoy the sweat. This snack should mainly focus on carbs, but can have a bit of protein and healthy fats thrown in as well. If your workout is primarily strength based you will want to include more protein to aid with muscle recovery. If you do more cardio (like an hour long run) your snack should be mainly easy to digest carbs. Here are some good examples.

Pre-workout snack for cardio (<1 hour before workout): 1 banana or apple, 1 Tbsp nut butter, 1 cup of water

Pre-workout snack for strength training (<1 hour before workout): 1 cup Greek Yogurt, handful of berries or sliced fruit, 10 almonds

Pre-workout meal for cardio (2-3 hours before working out): 4 ounces baked chicken or fish, 1 cup brown rice, green salad with dressing, small dinner roll, 16 ounces water

Pre-workout meal for strength (2-3 hours before working out): 6 ounces baked chicken or fish, 1/2 cup brown rice, 1 cup roasted veggies in olive oil, 8 ounces water or milk

I hope this guide helps with your sports nutrition needs. Stay tuned for the next blog to learn what to eat after your workout.