The Best Pre-Workout Snack Revealed

In order to meet exercise goals, it’s important that people properly fuel their bodies before a workout. But which macronutrients—carbohydrates or protein—should you prioritize?

When it comes to exercise, there’s plenty of discourse online about the best ways to see results. On TikTok, some creators recommend drinking protein shakes or taking pre-workout supplements, while others swear by “carb loading” before athletic events.

Making sure the body is fueled properly both before and after a workout can both improve performance and speed up the recovery process. However, it can be a challenge for each individual person to figure out the amount of protein and carbs they should be eating and when to eat them for optimal performance.

Here’s what experts had to say about how these macronutrients affect your body and the best nutrition practices both pre- and post-workout.

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In terms of how to best fuel your body and provide a boost of energy before a workout, carbohydrates are the way to go, experts said.

Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of energy and are for our bodies what gas is for a car. Essentially, carbs—which can take the form of sugars, starches, or fibers—are sugar molecules that, when broken down, help the body function.

“When we eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose and stored in your muscle and liver as glycogen,” said Kristin Grimes, RDN, CPT, a personal trainer and registered dietician based in Denver, CO.

It’s important that these stores are full leading up to any kind of exercise—this ensures a person will have the sustained energy they need to have a productive workout without getting fatigued.

“Muscle glycogen is used to fuel muscle contractions, while liver glycogen helps maintain blood glucose, fueling both your brain and muscle,” Grimes told Health.

As a rule of thumb, it’s best to consume about 1–2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight about one to two hours prior to exercise. That means a 150 pound individual would need at least 68 grams of carbohydrates before exercise. If someone typically exercises right after they wake up, they can eat about 30 grams of carbohydrates—such as a banana or dried mango—a few minutes beforehand.

Consuming carbohydrates prior to a workout is especially important if someone’s engaging in moderate or high-intensity exercise. During low-intensity workouts, muscles rely on fat for energy. However, these more intense workouts require higher amounts of energy, which the body can only get from carbs.

Running is a great example of this—the types of meals or snacks a person eats before exercising should vary based on their specific workout, said Stephanie Darby, RD, a registered dietitian and nutrition coach for female runners.

“Long-form endurance workouts such as marathon training benefit most from simple carbohydrates with a little protein and fat,” she told Health. “Shorter duration or higher intensity cardio-focused workouts benefit most from carbohydrate-only fueling.”

Carbohydrates are also beneficial for resistance or strength-based training—research shows that carb intake before and throughout resistance exercise promotes stable blood sugar levels and higher glycogen stores.

But for these types of workouts, in particular, carbohydrates may not be enough.

“Strength-focused workouts benefit from a balance of carbs and protein before and after workouts to promote muscle synthesis,” said Darby.

Consuming 20–40 grams of protein along with a carbohydrate source has been shown to increase muscle glycogen stores, decrease muscle damage, and stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

However, while eating small amounts could be helpful before certain workouts, consuming too much protein could lead to gastrointestinal side effects such as constipation or bloating, which isn’t ideal during a workout.

Having the proper nutrition after completing a workout is just as important as what you eat before exercising. After hitting the gym, it’s important to eat both carbs and protein to replenish muscle glycogen and start to repair and build muscles. And it’s best to do so as soon as possible.

“Muscle glycogen is replenished the fastest immediately after exercise, so aim to get your post-workout nutrition within an hour after your workout,” said Grimes.

It is ideal to eat a high-carbohydrate snack within 30 minutes of exercising, which helps replenish energy stores and prevents low blood sugar. In the hours after a workout, adults should also consume about 20 to 40 grams of protein to help build muscle and repair tissue. This also jump-starts the recovery process so that you are ready for another workout sooner.

In general, it may be easier to consume smaller, more frequent meals and snacks that include both protein and carbs rather than trying to fit in enough macronutrients in just one or two larger meals.

Beyond just protein and carbs, hydration is also an essential part of the recovery nutrition equation.

“Prioritizing fluids with electrolytes before, during, and after workouts depending on intensity and individual sweat losses is important to maintaining hydration levels,” Darby added.

Though there are rough estimates as to how many grams of protein and carbs a person should eat before and after a workout, they’re just ballpark numbers—a certain level of trial and error is required, as everyone tolerates macronutrient compositions differently.

However, when it comes to finding what works for you, it’s best to start off by keeping things simple.

Before a workout, choose carbohydrates that are low in fiber and easy to digest. Toast with peanut butter, oatmeal, cereal, or bagels are good options to try, Darby suggested.

And after exercising, people can reach for easy protein-rich and carb-rich snacks such as smoothies with Greek yogurt or protein powder, chocolate milk, or eggs on toast. Because some people may not have an appetite right after a workout, liquid supplements, smoothies, and bars can also be helpful.

In order to find what works for you, pay attention to your energy levels during a workout and your recovery time afterwards—both are helpful clues to know if you’re eating enough to support your workout goals. If you find you’re “hitting a wall” during a long run or aren’t able to lift the heavy weights you did a few days ago, it may be time to adjust your pre- and post-workout nutrition.

It’s also important to remember that what you eat beyond the scope of a workout also plays a role in overall athletic performance. Consuming adequate calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fat on a daily basis helps effectively fuel both your brain and muscles inside and outside of the gym.

Even though it’s generally best to focus on carbs before exercise and both carbs and protein after, each individual responds to foods differently. For specific advice and individualized recommendations, be sure to consult a dietitian.

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