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Before we begin, there's one thing you need to know: The best food to eat before a workout depends on when you're going to eat it.
If you're an early riser who goes to the gym on the way to work, you won't have enough time between leaving home and arriving at the gym to really digest a full breakfast. Your pre-workout snack is going to have to be really light. On the other hand, if you're working out in the middle of the afternoon, your workout is going to be fueled by your choices at lunch and you'll have a couple of hours to digest your food before hitting the gym. That means a different pre-workout meal from the one you might choose if you were scrounging around the kitchen at 5:30 a.m. on the way to the track.
The closer to your workout, the more you want to focus on eating carbohydrates rather than fat or protein. Carbohydrates are digested in the small intestines, whereas fat and protein are broken down in the stomach. This means cramping and indigestion are more likely when you work out with a belly full of fat- or protein-rich foods.
The rule is this: The less time until the workout, the less you should eat. This makes sense: It takes time to digest food, so you don't want to scarf down a huge breakfast right before getting on the treadmill. Those planning to run the marathon on Sunday usually eat a huge dinner on Saturday night. But those planning to go for a three-mile jog at 5:30 a.m. may be fine with just an orange eaten about 20 minutes before.
With that in mind, I've prepared a list of my five favorite all-around pre-workout snacks. These work just fine whether you're an early-morning exerciser and need something light or you're about to head out for a workout in the late afternoon and are just looking for a little extra energy to combat the 3 p.m. crash.
With a smear
This is one of my favorite snacks, period. I take some hearts of celery and fill in the groove with some organic almond butter or peanut butter. This snack really travels well in Tupperware and makes a terrific pre-workout snack. Why? The celery has fiber and nutrients (including calcium and vitamin A) and a ridiculously low 6 calories per medium stalk. The nut butter has protein and fat. The overall calories are low, and this really fills you up without slowing you down, providing great "slow-release" energy for a terrific workout.
The double A
Simply put, an apple with almonds. The apple is the perfect food for a pre-exercise snack. The sugar load is moderate, it contains valuable pectin fiber which slows the entrance of that sugar into the bloodstream, and it's a nutritional powerhouse containing vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Combine it with about a dozen almonds, which add some fat and protein. They'll further slow the entrance of the sugar into the bloodstream for sustained energy and keep hunger away.
Whey to go
Whey protein is my favorite kind of protein powder. Not only is it extremely high-quality, bioavailable protein; it supports the immune system by providing the building blocks for glutathione, arguably the body's most important antioxidant. And studies indicate that whey protein may boost weight loss efforts. According to one French study, eating whey before exercise supports fat burning and may help with gaining or maintaining lean body mass. I suggest a whey protein shake made with either water alone or with frozen berries. The berries add fiber, nutrients and some extra carbohydrates, and make for a more delicious drink.
Here's a tidbit of info that you might enjoy: In my book The 150 Healthiest Foods on the Planet, I asked 16 nutrition experts to contribute lists of their 10 favorite healthy foods. Berries, especially blueberries, made the list of more experts than any other food. Berries are loaded with phytonutrients, antioxidants and fiber, and are low in sugar. Mix a bowl of berries with a piece of string cheese for the perfect pre-workout snack. The string cheese has 8 grams of protein, some fat to keep hunger at bay and only about 80 calories. And it's an excellent source of calcium.
TG: too good
The initials of this snack stand for turkey and grapes. It's a perfect match of protein, carbs and low calories to take the edge off your hunger and prime your exercise pump. Four small slices of deli-packaged turkey contain only 87 calories but give you more than 14 grams of protein, plus some of the cancer-fighting mineral selenium to boot. A cup of grapes adds some carbs to the mix together with phytochemicals. Go for fresh turkey whenever possible as the packaged kind is high in sodium, and choose red or purple grapes because they have more antioxidants.
Obviously there are other choices besides my five favorites. In a pinch, I'll use a protein bar, though you'll want to watch the sugar content and look out for the presence of trans-fatty acids. One of my favorites is Atkins Advantage, though there are others you may like as well. Hard-boiled eggs are another secret weapon in the search for portable protein that combines nicely with a little fruit (such as an apple).
Remember: What you eat after the workout is even more important than what you eat before it. That's when your muscles are hungry and your depleted glycogen (muscle sugar) stores need replacing. The "golden hour" after the workout is the time when those muscles soak up nutrients most effectively. Choose what you eat after the workout with just as much care as you choose that pre-workout snack.
Reviewed by Geralyn Coopersmith, M.A., CSCS