By now, you probably know nutrition is important for optimal performance when it comes to working out, but it’s easy to put it on the back burner, especially when you’re short on time. Maybe you’re rushing to your barre class right from work. Do you really need to eat a pre-workout snack first? If you want to feel and do your best, the answer is yes.
However, having to plan one more thing can be overwhelming. Even as a dietitian, I struggle to get adequate nutrition for my workouts because of this. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. A pre-workout snack is all that’s needed. It’s what you eat before your workout that can make all of the difference.
And who better to offer pre-workout snack ideas than sports dietitians who specialize in tailoring nutrition for athletes to meet energy and recovery demands? Here are some of their favorite grab-and-go snacks.
Why eat a pre-workout snack
Here’s how it works. The energy needed to move your muscles comes from glucose, which is sugar that your body gets from eating carbohydrates. Your body stores glucose in your liver and muscles and will tap into that store when you don’t have fuel readily available from food you’ve just eaten.
If you have a pre-workout snack, you’ll have accessible fuel. On top of that, you’ve got your stored energy. More energy means you’ll be able to push harder and longer.
A pre-workout snack can also provide nutrients essential for recovery. Nicole Ibarra, RD, a registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition, suggests foods that fulfill that purpose. For example, “Greek yogurt with berries contains a high amount of protein, replenishes muscle glycogen, and contains antioxidants and leucine—an important branch chain amino acid for muscle protein synthesis,” she explains.
What to look for in a pre-workout snack
Carbohydrates should be at the foundation of a pre-workout snack, according to sports dietitian, Mandy Tyler, RD, CSSD, LD. “They provide the body with the energy needed to perform at its best,” she says.
While protein bars and shakes are all the rage, you may want to hold off until after a workout. “Protein is essential for muscle repair and recovery, but too much pre-workout can slow down digestion,” says Magill, who advises her clients to consume protein moderately before working out. “A smaller amount, around five to 10 grams, is sufficient to support your muscles without causing digestive issues during exercise.”
It’s also important to consider limiting foods that are high in fiber and fat because “these foods can take longer to digest and may cause digestive issues in some,” says Lexi Moriarty, RDN, CSSD, a certified sports dietitian and owner of Fueled + Balanced Nutrition.
What to look for in a pre-workout snack will also come down to the type of training you plan on doing. Endurance activities, like running or spin class, will require more carbohydrates than a strength training session.
When should you eat a pre-workout snack?
While you don’t want anything too heavy right before training, the longer you have before you exercise, the more you’ll be able to eat. “If I have one to two hours before my workout, I’ll opt for more of a mini meal—like half of a sandwich or Greek yogurt parfait,” Magill says.
On the other hand, should you be strapped for time—or have a touchy digestive system—Moriarty recommends prioritizing carbohydrates that are easy to digest and something you know you tolerate well. “If you have a sensitive stomach or need something within minutes of your workout, an applesauce pouch, a handful of dry cereal or raisins, 1/2 a Nature’s Bakery bar, or a sports drink with carbohydrates are some options,” she says.
Pre-workout snacks sports dietitians and RDs recommend
Convenience is the name of the game when it comes to pre-workout snacks—bonus if it’s portable, so it can be eaten en route. Another pro tip? “Keep a few snacks on hand in your gym bag to enjoy on the way to your workout,” Tyler says. That way, you don’t have to worry about finding something that works for you en route to exercising.
Fruit is a terrific source of carbohydrates for your pre-workout snack. Not to mention its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits for your recovering muscles. These specific fruits topped the list of recommended snacks:
- Bananas: A favorite of most RDs, bananas have a bit more carbs than other fruits. They’re also rich in potassium—an electrolyte essential for hydration.
- Dried fruit: Dried fruit has the same benefits as fresh fruit, but is more nutrient-dense. Per ounce, there are more carbohydrates and calories for fuel. Raisins, cherries, mangos, and other dried fruits make for a quick bite that is easy to pack.
- Applesauce: Those applesauce pouches aren’t just for the kids. You can keep these in the car or in your bag for a handy and simple pre-workout snack. No spoon necessary.
- Fig bars: Whole wheat fig bars, like Nature’s Bakery Fig Bars, are an easy way to get in carbs. And they come in a variety of flavors, like strawberry, blueberry, or apple cinnamon.
- Date bars: Growing in popularity because of their simple ingredients, snacks like Larabars, That’s It bars, and RXBARs, combine dates with nuts or other fruits to make a wholesome snack abundant in carbs.
- Granola bars: Usually made of oats, granola bars are high in carbs and well-suited for active people. “Before a run, I love a Clif Bar Mini for some quick energy with a little extra staying power,” says Sarah Schlicter, RD, CSSD, a registered dietitian and certified specialist in sports dietetics at Nutrition for Running.
- Pretzels: This is another carbohydrate-rich snack that is easy to digest. You can buy individual serving-size bags or save money by getting a larger bag and pre-filling snack bags yourself.
- Energy balls: Power balls or protein bites are becoming readily available in the snack aisle. Brands like The GFB and Frooze Balls make bite-sized snacks that can be easily stashed in your bag.
- Trail mix: Often containing carb-dense dried fruit, trail mix has the additional benefit of micronutrients and healthy fats coming from nuts and seeds.
- String cheese: While you wouldn’t want to eat just string cheese because of its low carb count, it makes a convenient protein add-on to a carb-heavy snack, like fruit or pretzels.
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich: Another snack that is loved by kids and adults alike, PB&Js can be whipped up in no time. It’s a basic combo that checks the boxes for pre-exercise fuel.
- Waffles: Pop a frozen waffle in the toaster and in a minute you’re ready to go. “A waffle with peanut butter has 18-20 grams of carbohydrates which can be used for quick energy before exercise,” Schlicter says.
- Bagel: Simple and straightforward, a bagel can be toasted and enjoyed as a quick source of carbs to sustain your endurance activity. You can spread peanut butter for some protein or a bit of cream cheese for added flavor.
Prioritizing a pre-workout snack may initially seem like an additional task, especially in the midst of busy schedules, but the quick energy and nutrition they offer can make a big difference to your energy during a workout (and recovery afterward). The key is to figure out which grab-and-go options work best for you and your performance needs, then keep them on hand in your car or bag so they’re easily accessible.