When it comes to the best foods to eat before the gym, it's safe to say the abundance of information online can be relatively confusing.
From high carbs to no carbs, what should you eat before the gym to give your body the fuel it needs to exercise at a high intensity?
Nutrition is generally overlooked when it comes to going to the gym, and can be a difficult topic to understand when it comes to deciding what is best for you. After all, we're all different, and there's no one-size fits all approach.
In this article, we'll look at whether you should eat before the gym and what the best types of food are to eat before your workouts.
We'll also answer some of the most common questions about eating before the gym, along with a list of 6 fantastic snacks that can help fuel the toughest of gym workouts.
Before we delve deeper into this topic, it's important to consider a few personal factors when determining what you should eat before working out.
These factors will help you better decide your food choices, and how you plan what you to eat before working out, along with your general eating habits for your meals throughout the day.
Factors that may determine how you fuel your workouts include:
Current calorie intakes or dietary goals, such as keto or low carb
Eating habits, such as fasting for periods of the day
Training phase and workout intensity/duration
These above factors may help to determine what to eat before a workout, in line with your goals.
As always, before making any changes to your diet, it is best to consult with a registered professional or doctor.
How Long Before Working Out Should You Eat?
When we exercise, our body uses three different energy systems depending on the workout's intensity, speed, and length. Without going too in-depth about these energy systems, they all overlap to create energy to keep your body performing at its best as the demand we place on it varies.
Two of these energy systems (anaerobic and aerobic) rely on glycolysis, whilst the third is for much shorter bursts of energy, called the ATP-PC System.
The anaerobic and aerobic systems use carbohydrates and fats to replenish energy stores and allow the body to continue exercising and retain the ability to carry out daily functions.
The energy used here is from eating and digesting food, mainly from carbohydrates and fats.
So why is this important to know?
Your body can start extracting small amounts of energy from low glycemic carbohydrates, such as fruit, grainy bread, and oats, within 15-30 minutes of consuming the foods. Elevating your blood glucose levels and beginning to store this energy in your muscles, in the form of glycogen.
However, to fully digest these complex carbohydrates, it can take multiple hours – and there's nothing worse than training on a full or bloated stomach.
So when is the best time to eat?
To maximize gains, this study highlighted the positive impact of consuming a meal 1-2 hours before training to maximize training performance.
In general, it is best to take in a larger amount of calories 2-3 hours before working out while adding in any smaller snacks closer to your training time.
If you're an early starter and like to train 1st thing in the morning, then a complete meal of complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats the night before should leave you in good stead as you head out early to the gym the next morning. If not, then a small snack en route should keep you going until breakfast time.
What Should I Eat 30 Minutes Before A Workout?
So, we've established that proper nutrition and a comprehensive diet plan will allow you to eat well in advance of your workouts and is typically the best approach when it comes to eating before your workout.
But what if you haven't had a chance to have a big meal? Or you are simply hungry and feel better heading into a workout knowing you've got some energy in the tank...
Eating 30 minutes before a workout can aid in providing immediate glycogen (energy), replenishing any loss in energy stores since your last meal time, and can help prime the metabolism.
Eating too little or too much can have a negative impact on your performance and how you feel – so finding a personal balance of quantity and nutritionally dense foods could have a positive impact on your workouts.
6 Snacks To Eat Before A Gym Workout
Now that we understand how eating before the gym can affect how we feel and our performance, we'll now give you some snack ideas of foods to eat before a workout.
Consuming light snacks are a great way to bridge the gap between your last complete meal and your training session.
Remember, as we prepare for intense exercise and get closer to our workout time, our food choices should consist predominately of carbohydrates to help provide energy throughout the session.
Fresh fruits; banana, apple, orange, etc.
Whole Grains, such as bread or bagels
Smoothie (made up of low-fat, moderate carbohydrates)
Trail mix (small portion)
Low-fat yogurt with toppings
Nut butter (small portion)
Choosing a good combination for your pre-workout snack can give you immediate and lasting energy. Combining quality carbohydrate snacks such as bananas or oats with a small portion of fats can help keep you feeling satiated for longer.
The length of your training and its intensity will help determine how much you should consume before a workout.
As a rule of thumb, if your training length is shorter than 90 minutes and at a low intensity, the carbohydrate requirement is minimum, and higher protein options can be explored.
If your training is at a higher intensity or for a more prolonged period of time – eating high-carbohydrate foods can help with your performance and energy levels. Here is a great study on this particular topic that discusses intake amounts in relation to specific exercise requirements.
Is It Better To Eat Before Or After A Gym Workout?
This is a common question amongst gym goers.
Eating before and after a workout serves different purposes and benefits your body in different ways, from fuel for energy to fuel for recovery.
Before A Workout:
Eating before a workout ensures you have sufficient energy to perform at a high level for the duration of the activity. And if you don't supply your body with a balanced amount of energy.
Dependent on the time and digestion duration of the snacks consumed pre-workout, they may also help contribute to post-exercise recovery – as the body will still be digesting the food after the gym session has finished.
After A Workout:
Following exercise, your glycogen stores will need replenishing, and the body will need to begin repairing broken muscle tissue.
If training fasted, or if significant time has passed since the last meal (4-6 hours+), then nutrient consumption post-exercise would be beneficial if muscle retention or growth is your primary goal. (study)
You may have been told that consuming protein straight after a workout, is known as the 'anabolic window,' where you must consume protein within 30 minutes of exercise to benefit. This timeframe is inaccurate and has no hard studies to back up the claims that circulate on the gym floor. This study looked at muscle size and strength in relation to immediate post-exercise protein intake and found no significant correlation.
There's also evidence that a protein-rich meal 1-2 hours post-exercise is 'likely sufficient for maximizing recovery.'
So, to conclude, adequate protein intake throughout the day is the best approach. However, if you are training fasted, then there is an increased chance of greater muscle breakdown, and therefore consuming protein post-exercise may help in recovery.
The food choices you make before a workout will most likely reflect those of your calorie intake or current fitness and health goals – however, it's important to remember that to get the most out of your training, studies support the idea that pre-exercise carbohydrate intake can help maximize your training performance.
And don't forget, eating after the gym can help continue the recovery process and begin to replenish energy stores ahead of your next training session.
So whether it's gains or performance, nutrition plays a key role in how you prepare and recover.
Got a go-to snack? Share it with us in the comments below.
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WRITTEN BY: CHRIS BECK
Chris Beck is Senior Editor at Gymshark, with a passion for writing informative conditioning and health content. Chris is an experienced Personal Trainer, and also holds qualifications in Nutrition, Sports Performance, and is a certified Crossfit Level 1 Trainer.