Dear ETR: “What is a good pre-workout snack?”

“I greatly appreciate Kelley Herring’s articles in ETR and Total Health Breakthroughs – and her great recipes. (Many are standard fare on my weekly menus.)

“Kelley’s article regarding post-workout fueling was another good reminder of a ‘don’t’ for people working to get fit. My question: What is a good pre-workout ’snack’? I get up early in the morning to work out, and having to eat something immediately before that will likely give me a side ache or stomach ache. What is the best approach? Eating too little leaves me feeling lightheaded and limp. Eating too much and ugh!”

Audry Morell
Pompano Beach, FL

Hello Audry,

Thank you for the compliments – and for a great question!

Eating a little something before exercise is a great way to maximize your workout. It boosts performance and improves stamina, helps prevent low blood sugar (which saps energy and can cause lightheadedness), and fuels muscle and liver carbohydrate stores to provide lasting energy for the duration of your workout.

But if you don’t get the balance right, you’ll wind up feeling full – not fueled for your workout – as you found out.

The type of snack you should have depends on several factors: your metabolism and digestive system, as well as the type of exercise you’ll be doing. Because everyone’s metabolism and digestive system is unique, listen to your body to find your own balance and timing. You may also find it helpful to keep a journal of your snacks, workouts, and how you feel.

Meanwhile, here are some guidelines:

1. Blood flow to your belly for digestion means less to your muscles for fuel. It can also mean that you’ll feel bloated during your workout. Yuck! Aim to have a solid meal or snack 45-90 minutes before your workout. And allow more digestion time before intense exercise (like circuit training) as opposed to lower-intensity exercise (like Pilates).

2. If you have difficulty with digestion, go with a liquid snack instead of something solid. Liquids take less time to digest, and so can be enjoyed 30 minutes before your workout.

3. While sugary snacks will give you a quick boost, you will experience a drop in energy when your blood sugar levels stabilize. Don’t rely on too much fruit, and stay away from quick-converting sugars in general – especially before your workout.

4. Eating carb-heavy foods before a workout can interfere with performance and cause stomach discomfort – mainly because the body is still working to digest the carbs.

5. Opt for slow-burning low-glycemic carbs. A study published in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Nutrition found that women who ate low-glycemic carbs before a workout burned 50 percent more fat during the workout. Wow!