6 Pre-Workout Snacks to Keep You Moving

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For most of us, a balanced meal 4-6 hours ahead of a workout provides enough energy to get through a 30-45 minute routine. But once we start adding intensity and duration, we need a bit more than breakfast or lunch to sustain the workload. That's because after about 60 minutes, we will have burned through the ready stores of glycogen stockpiled in our muscles and livers and begun to burn other sources — fat and protein.

Burning fat during a workout may sound like a good thing (and some researchers think it can be, occasionally), but it's inefficient. We run out of steam, intensity suffers, and fitness improvements come more slowly. As for protein, our bodies have much better things to do with such an essential ingredient than breaking it down and converting it to energy.

A small snack of 200 calories or fewer, 30-60 minutes ahead of a workout can give us just what we need to make the most of every rep. The International Society of Sports Nutritionists suggests a snack that has a ratio of 4-1 or 5-1 carbohydrates to protein. The carbs should come from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or other complex carbs that take a while to break down. The protein helps replace some of the protein burned during intense exercise.

Lots of small bites fit the bill. Here are six to get you inspired — and keep your workout motivated.

(All nutrient data are from the USDA database. cal = Calories, CHO = Carbohydrate, PRO = Protein, F = Fat, in grams.)

1. Banana and Peanut Butter

(1 medium banana: 105 cal, 27CHO, 1PRO, .5F; 1 TBS chunky peanut butter: 94 cal, 3CHO, 4PRO, 8F)

Take away the bread, and Elvis's favorite sandwich makes a pretty good pre-workout treat. There are plenty of carbs to avoid a late workout slowdown, plus potassium to keep electrolytes balanced and help prevent cramps. If peanut butter is impractical, a handful of almonds is a good substitute for the protein (but not the Elvis impersonation).

2. Protein/Energy Bars (in the Correct Ratio)

It's hard to beat the convenience of these, but watch out for sugar, which will give you the wrong kind of boost too soon in the workout. The goal is to have carbohydrates available at the end of the workout, not to replace glycogen at the beginning. Protein bars will be a little light on carbohydrates, but the energy bars such as those offered by sports drink manufacturers are usually at 4-1 or 5-1.

3. Oatmeal

(1 cup, cooked: 166 cal, 28CHO, 6PRO, 3F)

Who knew oatmeal had so much protein? Bodybuilders! Plus it's got lots of good, slow-to-digest carbohydrates and fiber, and little fat. Cook your own to avoid the sugary pre-packaged kind.

4. Nonfat Yogurt with Fruit

(1 cup, plain: 137 cal, 18CHO, 14PRO, .5F)

Not everyone's stomach can tolerate dairy during a tough workout, but it's hard to beat yogurt as a convenient source of protein. Add some fruit — perhaps a banana or an apple (95 cal, 28CHO, .5 PRO, .5F) — to boost the carbs.

5. Trail Mix

(1/2 cup: 346 cal, 34CHO, 10PRO, 22F)

Look for a good-quality trail mix with lots of dried fruit, and avoid the chocolaty chunks. Nuts pack a lot of protein — and a lot of fat. Fortunately, those fats are the "good" unsaturated fats that lower cholesterol and blood lipid levels. If your trail mix includes flax seeds and walnuts, you're getting Omega-3 fats that can improve heart health, too.

6. Half a Turkey Sandwich

(2-3 oz. turkey: 60 cal, CHO1, 13PRO, .5F; whole wheat bread, 1 slice: 69 cal, 12CHO, 4PRO, 1F)

Pack this ahead of time with your lunch, and it's almost as convenient as an energy bar. Packaged sliced turkey is usually higher in sodium and fat (the "bad" fat) than freshly sliced turkey from the deli or meat counter. A slice of tomato and a dab of mustard make this more delicious and won't slow you down.

After you've finished at the gym, your pre-workout bite helps your body rebuild its glycogen stores for tomorrow's workout. You can accelerate that process by drinking something that's in the same 4-1 or 5-1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio. There are lots of options here, including sports and recovery drinks, but none are simpler or more effective than an old favorite — a glass of nonfat chocolate milk.

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Guest's picture

As a marathon runner and yoga instructor, I caution anyone against the Trail Mix, without at least 3 hours time to digest. Great source of protein and fiber, but can also be very upsetting to the stomach without alot of time to process...word to the wise!

Andrea Karim's picture

Because I am a diabetic, I have to avoid eating lots of carbs, even right before a workout, because my body never uses them right and then I feel sluggish.

There is a protein bar that I buy at my local QFC called "Balance Carb Well" - it's pretty heavy, and I can only eat half of one at a time, but it does offer a decent amount of protein with minimal carbs. I also love peanut butter by itself, and I have carb-free protein shakes that are good to sip throughout my workouts. Since I do more slow movement (rock climbing) rather than hardcore cardio, I can usually get by without too many carbs.

Guest's picture
Dolu Delgado

I start out with fresh cup of coffee....and then water once I am done working out. Research shows that MODERATE consumption of coffee helps with your work out routine and also helps with prevention of memory problems.