Pre-workout nutrition makes a huge difference when it comes to reaching your max potential. The smart way to fuel up involves carbs. “Carbohydrates are fuel for your muscles,” says Alissa Rumsey, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S. “Without them, your muscles cannot work as hard.” A study published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism found that eating carbs 15 minutes before exercise helped study participants run 12.8 percent longer than when they had the placebo.
Eating a high-carb meal four hours before exercising could raise glycogen levels by as much as 42 percent, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
Here’s how to choose the good carbs to eat before a workout.
- The best exercise-boosting carbs include whole foods like whole-wheat bread, fruit, yogurt, milk, and starchy vegetables, says Rumsey. That unprocessed aspect qualifies them as “good,” or unrefined. These carbs take a slow-and-steady approach to releasing energy (that’s why a morning serving of oatmeal keeps you full until lunch).
- Refined carbs, on the other hand, are processed, which usually means they’re stripped of any beneficial nutrients by the time they hit your plate. Your body quickly absorbs these refined carbs, such as white rice, cookies, and pasta made with white flour, giving you an instant energy spike.
The type of carbs you want to eat depends on how long you’ve got before you plan to hit the gym.
- If you’re a few hours out, make yourself a meal with one-quarter to one-third of your plate filled with unrefined carbs, like sweet potatoes, beans, or quinoa.
- If you’ll be heading to the gym in an hour or less and you haven’t eaten for three or four hours, it’s time to load up on a carb-heavy snack with 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates.
While there’s plenty of science supporting the benefits of eating carbs a few hours before exercise, eating them within an hour of working out hasn’t been shown to boost performance. If your last meal was within the past four hours, you should have enough in your stomach to power through.
Finding out which carbs your body finds agreeable before a workout comes down to trial and error. “The choice of refined or unrefined will depend on your tolerance and how your stomach feels,” says Rumsey.
Don’t limit your carbo-loading to solid food. Sports drinks can do the trick, too. (For reference, Gatorade Thirst Quencher is right at the sweet spot of 6 percent carbohydrate concentration.)
No matter which pre-workout carbs you go for, try adding a hit of protein, too. Rumsey says, “Carbs are the fuel, while a small amount of protein helps to prime the pump to make amino acids available for your working muscles.”