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What to eat before exercising

Posted by Elizabeth Comeau  January 23, 2012 10:37 AM

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On my playlist this morning: Moves like Jagger, by Maroon 5
What I did: Intervals on the treadmill (45 minutes)

If I had a quarter for every time a friend, family member, or coworker asked me what I eat before I work out, I'd be rich.

Or just have a ton of quarters.

This question is tough to answer because it involves many moving parts: What I like to eat, what I should eat, and how long it takes me to digest what I eat.

Since I wake up before the sun to exercise, I also wake up not terribly hungry (honestly, I'm still half asleep when I'm getting into my workout clothes). But I know I need to eat something so I don't feel faint or uber-hungry halfway through my routine.

Here's what I had this morning:
1 small banana.
1 small coffee.
1 tablespoon of peanut butter.
1 large glass of water.

Here's why I like to eat this combo before my 40-minute ride into work (where my gym is located).

I feel like the natural sugar in the banana helps to give me a quick burst of energy, while the peanut butter gives me a bit of protein to help keep me going. The coffee is my non-negotiable of the morning (new mom, remember, and slightly sleep-deprived?). And the water is to hydrate myself before working out.

That's what I eat currently. But I thought I'd get an expert's take on what I should eat.

Our Nutrition & You blogger, Joan Salge Blake, is a clinical associate professor and registered dietitian at Boston University in the Nutrition Program. She's also an author.

First, Blake said, you need to eat before you exercise "so that you have enough energy for optimal performance." So don't exercise on an empty stomach!

But, she said, it's equally important to leave enough time before your workout to digest whatever you consume.

"In general, larger meals (making you feel quite full) may take three to four hours to digest, whereas smaller meals (making you feel satisfied but not overly full) may take only two to three hours to digest. If you are having a small snack, you should allow about 30 minutes to one hour for digestion," she said.

She also said that everyone's different, so try experimenting with your eating and exercising schedule.

As for what you should eat, Blake said the consumption of foods "with both protein and carbohydrate before exercise, such as fruit and yogurt, or oatmeal, a few nuts, and skim milk, benefit the body by causing a greater increase in muscle glycogen synthesis than consuming carbohydrate alone." With more glycogen in your muscles, you can increase endurance. Another benefit of consuming both protein and carbohydrate before exercise is that it results in greater protein synthesis after the exercise is over, she said.

What are Blake's top suggestions for the key things to remember when reaching for food before your workout?

1. Allow adequate time for digestion
2. If you eat a large meal, allow 3-4 hours before exercise
3. For smaller meals, allow 2-3 hours
4. Allow a 1/2- to 1 hour to digest a small snack
5. Beware of eating a high-fat meal before exercise because it fat takes longer to digest, and it may cause stomach discomfort and sluggishness.

What do you eat before working out? How much time do you allow for digestion?

Staying fit is an important part of staying healthy. This blog will offer exercise tips from experts as well as share the personal journeys of Globe staff members committed to fitness. No matter your age or energy level, we invite you to join in and share your own story. How do you find time to work out? What are your daily challenges? Let us know and read along -- and together, we can all get moving.


Elizabeth Comeau is a social media marketing manager at She will be blogging about her personal fitness journey and using a device called a FitBit to track her weekly goals and progress (see below). Follow her journey and share your own. Read more about Elizabeth and this blog.

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