Fitness enthusiasts and athletes alike are always aiming to improve their performance. And, let’s be honest, some days are better than others. Often times the cause of our rise or decline is obvious enough (a creeping lack of sleep, for example). Other times, not so much. But, if we take a closer look, we can see that major things—like what we eat before a workout—have a huge affect on our exercise. It makes sense—we shouldn’t fuel up for a yoga class the way we would for a marathon. Proper nutrient intake can be majorly impactful when it comes to exercise, and, sometimes, that protein bar isn’t going to cut it. Here’s how to properly fuel up for each type of workout.
For the purpose of this topic, we’re counting intense cardio as anything in the realm of running a 5K, 10K, or marathon; long-distance swimming, cycling, or doing a triathlon; et cetera. These are great displays of endurance that require weeks, if not months, of preparation. This preparation, of course, includes what you eat, right up to the days before (and day of) performance. “Endurance athletes exercise at a high level for a prolonged amount of time, using large muscle groups,” says Megan Casper, RDN, CEO and founder of Nourished Bite. This means that they need an adequate amount of fuel (à la carbs) to burn.
“At least 70 percent of your total calories should be from carbs, with 15 percent being from protein and the remaining 15 percent from fats,” says Dina Khader, MS, RD, CDN, MIfHI, and nutrition consultant. Ideally, your carbs should be unprocessed and the fats naturally occurring—think whole grain pasta or plant-protein pasta with avocado, not white pasta and olive oil.
This pre-race or pre-game focus on carbs is typically referred to as carb-loading. Doing so for one to seven days is shown to increase glycogen (aka energy) stores before the big day. This provides athletes with adequate energy to burn throughout their big exercise. “That’s what gives the muscles sustained energy. You don’t get depleted, as you would with a high protein or ketogenic meal plan,” Khader adds. In the days leading up to your swim, cycle, or run, focus on consuming complex carbs and healthy fats. Whole wheats, red quinoa, berries, avocado, butternut squash, and the like are a go.
We need to preface this by saying that “average cardio,” in this case, is any cardio exercise that isn’t long-term or quite as intense as, say, a marathon. That doesn’t mean that it’s not as vigorous, but rather, just not as long or dependent on endurance. Think of this as your typical running, elliptical, rowing, or stair climber routine, as well as a boxing or dance class.
“I guide my clients to consider fueling when, and if, they reach a 60-minute mark at an intense pace or a 90-minute workout at a moderate pace. With workouts shorter than that, staying hydrated with water and [satisfied with] a regular meal and snack routine suffices,” says Stephanie Bostic, PhD, RD. In other words, if you’re abiding by a normal gym schedule with workouts around 30 minutes to an hour long, place your focus on a healthy diet overall. No specific pre-workout meal necessary.
If you’re doing longer or very intense workouts (race training or a killer boxing class, for example), the meal or snack you eat beforehand should also be mostly carbs. Actually, it should look incredibly similar to what you’d eat to prepare for a race—the biggest difference being the portion sizes. “In this case, these types of [high carb] meals still help with endurance and not getting fatigued after your workouts. It’s definitely still healthy for people doing a lesser cardio workout. People should just be mindful of their portions—don’t do unlimited portions, but still put the focus on carbs,” says Khader.
Take note of how long you eat before your workout, too. We suggest eating two to three hours beforehand to allow your body to begin digestion, but sometimes that’s just not doable. If you’re in a crunch and need to eat less than an hour before your workout, go for a meal or snack that’s mainly carbs and some protein, that’s (and here’s the important part) easy to digest. Think toast, bananas, eggs, sweet potatoes, and healthy cereals.
Unlike cardio heavy workouts, preparing for a weight lifting session doesn’t require consuming a ton of carbs. As you’d expect, the emphasis when it comes to gaining muscle is on protein. What you may not expect, though, is that there’s a fine line between getting the right amount and too much. “My recommendation before strength training is always to make a protein shake or smoothie, but not one that’s too high in protein. For women, I usually recommend between 15 and 18 grams of protein. For men, anywhere between 20 and 25 grams,” Khader says. Any more than 30 grams at once (or consuming too much throughout the day as a whole) can actually stress your kidney and cause absorption issues, as well as storing excess protein as fat. Consuming too much protein can even lead to health consequences, like osteoporosis and kidney disease.
Luckily, there’s a simple formula for how much protein you should be eating per day, according to how you work out. It’s as follows:
Casual gym-goer: 0.5-0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight
Athletes: 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight
Bodybuilders and intense strength trainers: 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight
Notice how the typical gym-goer should be consuming half the protein a bodybuilder is. Considering the fitness world’s fixation on protein, it’s easier to overdo than you’d think. If you’re preparing to lift weights at the gym, go for meals and snacks that include healthy protein staples, like eggs, almonds, chicken, oats, quinoa, or a protein powder. Just don’t go overboard.
Yoga or Pilates
Contrary to popular opinion, yoga and pilates can be pretty strenuous. Throw in some bodyweight moves and turn up the heat and you’ve got a big workout ahead. This calls for some much needed carbs, as well as tons of hydration. “In the case of power yoga or hot yoga, I’d lean into carbs,” advises Khader. Since you’re likely to be stretching and bending about, we recommend referring back to those easy-to-digest carbs about an hour or two before getting into your flow. “Eating a light meal a few hours beforehand can be helpful to avoid both lightheadedness and [an] upset stomach,” Bostic confirms.
Hydration is also key, here, especially if you’re taking a hot class. On the regular, we should be drinking half our bodyweight in ounces daily. If you’re doing a hot or intense yoga or pilates class, though, try to hydrate a bit extra before and after class. This will account for all of the glorious sweat you lose. Consider not only water, but electrolyte infused drinks and water additives. “Electrolytes actually help us tolerate heat better, which can be very important, here. I suggest drinking these before, after, and even during your workout if you have a chance. That’ll minimize post-workout fatigue from the workout and heat,” Khader recommends.
Now that you’ve got your pre-workout nutrition down, take a look at the best snacks to grab post-workout.