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What we eat before and after exercise can make a big difference in how we feel while working out and the benefits we see afterward. The right pre-workout foods can help boost energy and endurance during exercise, aid in recovery, and help us meet our long-term health and fitness goals. There are a lot of options out there and a lot to consider. Everything from macros to the timing and size of the meal can impact your workout and overall health and wellness.

The power of protein

Protein is an essential macronutrient. When digested, it breaks down into amino acids the body uses to build and repair muscle. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, for building muscle and maintaining muscle mass, people who exercise should get between 1.4-2 grams of protein per kilogram per day. Lean protein is best to avoid unhealthy saturated fats. Go for lean meats, like chicken and turkey, and plant-based proteins, like chickpeas and lentils.

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Carbohydrates for energy

Carbohydrates are quickly broken down into glucose, which the body uses for energy. Other macronutrients (protein and fat) can provide energy, but carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that can be broken down rapidly enough to fuel intense physical activity. While you can get carbohydrates from many sources, it is best to skip things with refined sugar and go for healthy options, like quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, fruits, and starchy vegetables.

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Hydration essentials

To reach the adequate daily intake of water, men should drink about 15.5 cups or 3.7 liters of water every day; for women, it's 11.5 cups or 2.7 liters. Because exercising leads to sweating and sweating leads to fluid loss, people who exercise should drink even more. Research shows that hydration can maximize performance and recovery, so staying hydrated with plain water or electrolyte-rich drinks before exercise is critical.

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Timing your pre-workout meal

One recent study looked at the timing of carbohydrate-heavy meals for quick energy before exercising. Researchers found minimal effects when a pre-exercise meal was eaten 5, 15, 35, 45, 60, or 75 minutes before exercising, but meals ingested 30 minutes before exercise lead to better performance than those eating 120 minutes before exercise. That said, they concluded that exercising fed had a much larger effect on performance than exercising after not eating, as long as the meal was consumed within 90 minutes of the start of the workout.

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Fats for fuel

Including healthy fats in your diet can support sustained energy, which you may need to help you get through your exercise routine and have enough energy to get through the rest of your day. Fat is also necessary for absorbing some essential vitamins, specifically vitamins A, D, and E. Vitamin A helps support a healthy immune system and bone health; vitamin D is necessary for building and maintaining healthy bones; and vitamin E is an antioxidant and supports the immune system. When choosing fats for your diet, go for foods with unsaturated fats, like seeds, nuts, and avocados.

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Quick snacks vs. full meals

When it comes to portion sizes, how much you eat depends on when you plan to exercise. Too much food before you workout can leave you feeling sluggish; too little, and you might not have the energy you need to finish your workout. According to the Mayo Clinic, eat large meals at least three to four hours before exercising and a small snack one to three hours before.

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Plant-based pre-workout options

Getting enough protein to support an active lifestyle can be challenging for someone vegan or vegetarian, which is why it can be helpful to know what plant-based foods pack the most protein. If you are vegan or vegetarian, some plant-based foods with more than 20g of protein per 100g include pumpkin seeds (approximately 30g), lentils (25g), uncooked baked beans (22g), and tempeh (20g). Tofu (17g), rolled oats (17g), and uncooked quinoa (14g) are also good options.

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The role of supplements

Pre-workout supplements can play a role in providing energy and endurance during a workout. Some common ingredients that may be found in these supplements include beta-alanine, caffeine, and creatine. Beta-alanine and caffeine can help maintain high-intensity exercise for more extended periods. Creatine is synthesized by the body to provide energy for the muscles, and supplements can enhance exercise capacity by making more creatine available. It is important to remember that supplements are not regulated, and taking more than the recommended doses can lead to significant health problems. Talk to your doctor before using supplements.

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Pre-workout foods for weight loss

Eating and exercising go hand in hand, and to lose weight, it is crucial to pay attention to both your diet and your workout routine. Stick with whole grains, like oatmeal, brown rice, and quinoa; lean proteins, like chicken, pork, and fish; and plenty of fruits and vegetables to ensure you get all the vitamins and nutrients you need. Go for unprocessed foods whenever possible, and make sure your diet includes protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates.

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Foods to avoid before a workout

It is best not to eat too much before a workout. When your stomach is full, your body uses more energy for digestion, energy you might need in your workout. Plus, some foods can lead to gas, bloat, or other GI discomfort. Generally, it is a good idea to avoid high-fiber vegetables like broccoli or cauliflower; foods with a lot of refined sugar that can cause a sugar crash; steak or other tough protein that takes a long time to digest; and spicy food, which can cause reflux.

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The Impact of caffeine

Some research shows that caffeine can have small to moderate benefits when it comes to exercise, including increased muscle endurance, muscle strength, and jumping, sprinting, and throwing performance. Energy drinks and supplements have also been shown to enhance aerobic and anaerobic performance. But there are some downsides, too. Caffeine can be habit-forming, leading to trembling, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping. Taking too much caffeine can have severe symptoms, including changes in heart rate, rigid muscles, and hyper-reflexes and cause hallucinations, seizures, and agitation.

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Pre-workout hydration tips

There are a few things to remember about hydration before working out. As far as what to drink, go for  water and sports drinks are good choices. Sports drinks can be a better choice if you will be sweating a lot or working out in hot weather because they replace lost electrolytes. For every 20 minutes of activity, adults should try to drink between six and nine ounces of fluid. Hydrate well before your workout by drinking about 24 ounces or 700 ml of sports drink about two hours before and between 16 and 24 ounces or 500 and 700 ml after.

Pre-Workout Foods and Drinks for Maximum Performance Close up of young Asian woman pouring water from bottle into the glass on a coffee table at home. Healthy lifestyle and stay hydrated

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Special considerations for intense workouts

No matter what kind of exercise routine you do, you have to give you body the energy it needs to do the job. For intense workouts, try to have a balanced meal a few hours before you plan to work out with a high amount of complex carbohydrates and some protein. Oatmeal with some protein powder or scrambled eggs on toast are good options. Then, about an hour before you work out, have a healthy, high-carb snack, like almonds, fruit, or toast with peanut butter. These meals will ensure you have the carbohydrates you need for quick bursts of energy and protein to sustain you long-term.

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Pre-workout nutrition for endurance athletes

Endurance athletes must ensure they eat the right foods to give them fast energy and keep them going throughout their workouts. High carbohydrate diets are recommended for endurance athletes, but protein is also an essential part of their diet, both day-to-day and after exercising. Protein intake is important for these athletes to support recovery and maintain muscle mass.

Light, Fluffy and Buttery Scrambled Eggs on Toast LauriPatterson / Getty Images

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Post-workout nutrition

Post-workout nutrition is essential for rehydration, refueling, and repair. These, along with rest, are what some researchers call the 4R's approach to optimizing post-exercise recovery. First, you should rehydrate, replacing any water and electrolytes lost during exercise. To refuel and repair, eat foods with complex carbohydrates to replace depleted glycogen stores and protein to support muscle repair and growth.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.