#Health & Fitness

Fuel for Your Workout: Which Foods Work Best

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Fuel for Your Workout: Which Foods Work Best

You need the proper nutrition to really get the most out of your fitness regime. 

If I motivate myself enough to actually pull on my workout gear and then walk all the way to the gym, I’d better be getting a worthwhile workout. Unfortunately, my body doesn’t always see it that way. Sometimes, even once I get myself there, I just can’t shake feeling lethargic or distracted by thoughts of fresh, toasty bagels.

That got me wondering—are there certain types of food that will keep me going without being too filling, or leaving me hungry and tired halfway through? Should I choose what to eat based on what kind of workout I’m doing? I had a suspicion that my mid-workout slump was connected to my pre-workout snack (or lack thereof). And should I be eating something different to fuel up for an easy yoga class as opposed to a hardcore running session?

Turns out, the answer is yes. “Depending on heat and humidity, your needs vary, as well as the type and intensity of exercise you’re doing,” says Mark Jellison, a certified strength and conditioning specialist.

According to Jellison, the difference in calories burned (and the pre-workout calories I need) is enormous depending on the intensity and type of exercise we’re doing. “If the everyday gym-goer recognizes this and consumes calories accordingly, then she’ll most likely meet her fitness goals,” he says.

Size and Type: Go Complex
An effective pre-workout meal should weigh in at a caloric size that reflects the workout type—whether it’s yoga, an hour of hardcore kickboxing, or a weightlifting session. It should also be composed of foods that break down slowly, supplying the body with a steady stream of energy and nutrients.

“A solid pre-workout meal should be full of slow-burning, complex carbs, like whole grain bread, cereal, fruits, and veggies,” says Lindsay Segal, a graduate student in the physician assistant program at Samuel Merritt College. Complex carbs are the body’s main source of fuel, so they should make up about two-thirds of the average pre-gym meal. They keep blood sugar steady and provide protection from a pre-stretch energy crash.

What to fill the rest of the meal with? “Definitely stay away from any simple sugars, like a candy bar or soda, the hour before you hit the gym,” Segal says. (I’m thinking this could be the culprit of my workout-killing spike and crash.) Instead, mix in some protein. Fatty foods, on the other hand—especially processed, saturated fat laden ones—take longer to digest and suck up more of your body’s energy doing so.

Timing: Size Matters
Now that we’ve got the general food type established, what about the timing—when do we eat all the complex carbs and protein? It depends on the meal size and the types of food in it. Different factors affect how quickly the meal will break down, like whether it’s liquid or solid (liquid digests faster), or if it has some healthy fats (fat needs more time to break down). Any protein also needs time to digest, so when muscles contract, the protein’s amino acids are in our blood, ready to get to work. A more snacky meal, like a banana and peanut butter or a protein shake, usually takes one to two hours to digest, but a larger meal, something in the 500 to 600 calorie range, will need a full two to three hours. Anything longer than three to four hours and blood sugar levels will drop, meaning low energy … and low workout motivation.

Pilates or Yoga: Eat Dark Chocolate
“The number one mistake among everyday fitness enthusiasts is that they overestimate how much they work out and underestimate the amount of food they consume,” says Jellison. This means something low-impact (and low-calorie burning), like light yoga or Pilates, doesn’t call for a carb-loading session. (Guess I’ll need to look for a new pasta night justification.)


A snack that’ll give a bit of an energy kick with a low-cal impact is ideal, since this type of workout isn’t a huge calorie-torcher. A piece of fruit, like an apple or orange, gives a carb boost to keep us energized through the downward dog, but weighs in at under 100 calories—making that lean, lithe Pilates body possible. The good news is that since there’s not a lot of bouncing around involved, a bit of sugar, like in dark chocolate, can work beforehand—a boost of energy for relatively few calories. (One snack-sized dark chocolate square has 70 calories.)

Cardio: Eat Oatmeal
I have a really hard time eating before a morning run. I always figured training on an empty stomach would help me burn through all those chips I ate the night before, but, turns out, that’s just not how it works.

“You use up your glycogen stores in about an hour,” says Segal. “Then your body turns to fat stores and muscle tissue as it searches for a new source of energy.” The last thing I want is for my workout to leave me with less muscle than I started with.

To properly fuel your body for a cardio session—to really take that run up from a painful jog to a feel-great sprint—munch on something simple. A small, low-fat snack that’s also low in fat and fiber (to avoid mid-run bathroom dashes) and has a bit of protein with mostly carbs, will steadily provide energy through the workout. I started eating a bowl of oatmeal about an hour before my runs, and I swear they’re faster and a whole lot more enjoyable. (A 1/2 cup of oatmeal has about 150 calories.) If your workout is midday, try a more substantial meal before hitting the gym, like a turkey sandwich on high-protein sprouted bread (non-processed and no added sugar, so you won’t face that blood sugar spike), and some veggies like tomatoes or pickles. I have to admit, the experts are right on this one. Tackling my late night chip-and-dip binge will have to be done separately.

Weightlifting: Try a Protein Bar
Weightlifting requires not only the carb-based energy, but a good supply of protein in the blood stream, so when muscles contract, amino acids are already in there ready to repair the tiny tears that result from muscles breaking down.


A 2001 University of Texas study showed that weightlifters consuming amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and carbs before their workout increased protein synthesis (muscle production) more than lifters who did so only after their workout.

“My solution is a protein bar once or twice a day with between 20 and 30 grams of protein,” says Jellison. He chooses a bar with very low or no saturated fat. “Some have heavy chocolate coatings which add useless calories.”

While whole foods are almost always a better choice, a well-chosen bar is a solid option when you have limited time—they’re packed with a balance of essential nutrients on top of protein and carbs. “Look at the ingredients and the order in which they’re listed,” Jellison advises. “An energy or protein bar that has twelve or more grams of sugar might as well be a candy bar.” (Most Luna Bars weigh in at 170 calories and are low in added sugar.)

Whole food options with good combinations of protein and carbs include yogurt, which activates enzymes that provide quick energy needed for lifting (8 ounces of low-fat plain yogurt has 130 calories) or high-protein cereals (1 cup of Kashi Go Lean has 140 calories).

Jellison, also a decathlete training for the 2012 Olympics, emphasizes making informed choices as the basis for effective eating.

“Some simple, general knowledge of food is a must,” he says. “The more natural something is, the better your body will recognize it as fuel and use it efficiently.”

When in doubt—or when finding myself with limited options—I’ll just try to stick to the basics transcending all these categories. Complex carbs and protein = good. High fat (as in fatty meats, donuts, fried food, or candy bars) = bad, and means a long and often uncomfortable digestion. The way I see it, getting to the gym is hard enough, so why self-sabotage before I even get there?