By Stephanie Howe, PhD and sports nutritionist.
The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition related activity.
We all know the importance of fueling well before a hard effort or long workout, but what about for a lighter workout? Do you really need to think about fueling before a Pilates class or a quick spin class? And if so, what should you eat?
Is a Pre-Workout Snack Necessary?
Let’s start with the first question. Yes. It’s important to fuel your body before doing any sort of movement, especially if you haven’t had a meal in several hours. Take, for example, the noon yoga class. You had breakfast at 6 a.m., worked for a few hours, and now finally get to take a break to move your body. You could just power through, but you may end up ravenous afterward and likely get less out of the activity. Rather than just go through the motions with low energy, it’s best to have a light bite up to 30 minutes before the session. That will ensure you won’t be distracted and can focus and enjoy the activity.
The goal of a pre-workout nosh isn’t to fill you up — it’s to give you a little energy between meals. That said, traditional pre-workout foods might not always be the best option. Instead, something that’s a little lighter will sit better when consumed right before you head out for a casual bike ride, go for a walk or jog, or join a yoga/Pilates class, to name a few.
What Makes a Good Pre-Workout Snack?
Ideally, look for foods that contain a mix of carbohydrates with moderate amounts of protein and fat. The carbohydrates will give you a boost of energy while the protein and fat will help provide some staying power. Foods too high in protein or fat might feel heavy in your stomach, as adding protein and fat may slow the absorption of energy into the blood stream, leaving you feeling sluggish. Look for snacks with ~100-200 kcals and somewhere between 4-10 grams of protein per serving. The amount depends on the activity. For shorter or lighter-intensity activities, the lower end of the range might be enough. For longer or more moderate-intensity exercise, something with a little more energy like ~150-200 kcals is ideal. The best way to find the option that works for you is to try a few different foods and see what you like best.
Here are some of my favorite options to consume 30-60 minutes before an activity:
Good Pre-Workout Snacks
For light activities or workouts less than 60 minutes, such as a Pilates class or a pick-up game of basketball:
- Banana + 1 tbsp. peanut butter: It’s no coincidence that a banana is a pre-workout favorite. It’s a simple carbohydrate that sits well before any activity. Add some peanut butter to provide some fat and protein and make it a more well-rounded choice.
- Handful of almonds & chocolate chips: This is an easy, quick snack that tastes great. The almonds provide some good protein and fat while the chocolate gives a quick boost of sugar (carbohydrates). Plus, the combo is delicious!
- CLIF BAR® Minis: These snack-sized energy bars are formulated with a blend of carbohydrates, fats, and plant protein to fuel those shorter or lower-intensity workouts.
- Graham cracker topped with peanut butter: The graham cracker is a tasty, easy-to-digest carbohydrate, while the peanut butter provides the fat and protein to top it off.
- Cappuccino made with 2% milk or oat milk: When you are craving a warm beverage, opt for a dairy or plant-based milk beverage pre-workout. Milk provides a perfect mix of some carbohydrates with a little fat and protein.
For moderate-intensity activities or workouts greater than 60 minutes, such as a vinyasa yoga class or moderate-intensity spin class:
- One package of instant oats: Oats are a simple, quick carbohydrate with small amounts of fat and protein. This is a good choice when you want something a little more substantial but need to make it quick.
- Rice cake topped with hummus or avocado: If you want something savory, a rice cake topped with hummus or avocado provides a savory carbohydrate with some fat from the avocado or hummus. Sprinkle with sea salt for some extra flavor.
- Toast topped with almond butter and drizzled with honey: Toast sits well pre-workout while the almond butter provides some fat and protein. Drizzle with honey for a little sweetness and added carbohydrate boost.
- Smoothie made with yogurt and frozen fruit: Blend up any frozen fruit — berries, bananas, mangoes, etc. — along with a ½ cup of 2% or plant-based yogurt for a cool treat pre-workout. The yogurt adds some fat and protein and the frozen fruit adds great flavor and energizing carbohydrates.
These foods all provide some energy pre-workout and are light enough to be consumed right before a workout. You don’t have to plan ahead and eat these foods 1-2 hours beforehand, which works well with a busy schedule and for spontaneous activity. Even for lighter activities, proper fueling helps you get the most out of the workout and enjoy it. Think about how you feel when you’re hungry… are you able to concentrate? Probably not as well as you normally would. The same goes for an activity. You will be more engaged and able to focus on the task at hand rather than your rumbling stomach as long as you’re fueling yourself properly.
By prioritizing your food intake surrounding activity, you can ensure you’ll get the most out of each session, stay energized, and prevent that dreaded HANGRY feeling. No rumbling tummies during that next yoga class or sweat session!