Get the Better newsletter.
Whether you’re an early-morning runner or a post-work spin junkie, having a little something in your stomach is key to fueling an effective workout.
“We’ve all heard the cliché that food is fuel, but it’s really true. I equate it to, if you don’t have gas in the tank, the car isn’t going to move,” says Natalie Rizzo, a NYC based registered dietitian and the founder of Nutrition à la Natalie. “Some people will go from lunch to dinner without eating; that’s 5-6 hours. In general, food gives you energy for exercise, so if you haven’t eaten you’re not going to have as much energy and not see as many gains from your workout as you want to.”
But it turns out that the wrong snack — or too much of the right one — can also derail your efforts.
“It’s great that you work out, but if you’re only at the gym for 45 minutes and 20 of that is spent in moderate intensity on the elliptical, you can maybe have a banana beforehand, but you don’t need a huge pre-workout snack and that’s what I see people do,” says Rizzo. “They fuel too much and take in more calories than they are even burning off. Most recreational athletes are trying to maintain their fitness, so they want to make sure they’re not eating more than they need, because you don’t want to be bringing in extra calories and gaining weight.”
In order to determine the right snack to fuel your workout, Rizzo recommends asking yourself these three questions:
1. How intense is my workout going to be?
First, look at the type of intensity. Low-intensity exercises like yoga or Pilates won’t require as much fuel. “With something like yoga, where you’re not really getting your heart pumping that much, the body doesn’t need the glucose or the extra energy to get you through those kinds of activities. It can rely on what you already have stored in your body,” says Rizzo. Moderately intense exercise like strength training or a relaxing bike ride burns up some carbs, and high-intensity exercise uses your carb stores — you may even need to replace carbs during exercise if it’s for extended periods, like running a long race, she adds. “Carbs break down really easily for cardio workouts — when your heart rate is really pumping, you’re breathing heavy and you can’t carry on a conversation. You need carbs for that kind of workout; It breaks down to glucose and gets in the bloodstream really quickly, which gives you energy.”
2. How far in advance of a workout am I eating?
The healthy carbs you need to fuel your workout depends on when you’re eating it. Rizzo’s rule of thumb is: 1-2 hours before, choose a more complex snack; 30-60 minutes before, stick to something simple. “If you’re eating two hours before exercise you want something that has some fiber in it, which we consider complex carbs; They take longer to break down in the system. Some good options include whole-wheat bread, quinoa leftover from lunch, a sweet potato, my Maple Tahini Energy balls that are made with oats,” she says. “If you’re eating something 30 minutes before you’re going out for a run or spin class, you want something that’s going to break down really quickly, which would be something like fruit, dried mango or dates. I know some runners who will do juice or a piece of white toast [before a long run] because they don’t have the fiber, so it breaks down more quickly.”
3. What portion size is right for me?
Now that you know what you’re eating, it’s time to decide how much, which is also contingent on how far out you are from activity. “Most of the time sports nutrition recommendations are for people who are collegiate or Olympic athletes and they’re eating 3000-4000 calories a day,” says Rizzo. “But in general, people like us who are going to spin class or running really only need 1800-2000 calories a day, and snacks are usually only 100-300 calories each.” If you’re a few hours out from your workout, aim for the higher end of that range, says Rizzo, “If it’s only 30 minutes before, it may be just 100 calories, like an apple or banana.”
The perfect pre-workout snack
If you’re looking a snack few hours before a workout, having a batch of these energy balls on hand will provide the perfect combo of carbs, protein and healthy fats to fuel an intense, endurance workout — like a spin class, HIIT workout or longer run.
“They are about 200 calories each. So I would suggest 1 or 1 1/2 (about the size of a golf ball) per serving before intense exercise,” says Rizzo. “You can make a big batch and store them in the fridge (the fridge hardens them a little) and grab one or two each day before a workout.”
The ingredients are a carefully chosen combo meant to fuel intense exercise. “I love oats because they are full of fiber and whole grains so they give you those carbs you need, but they are also gluten free so people who can’t tolerate gluten can still have them,” says Rizzo. “Tahini is allergy free for people who can’t do nuts and it has a little bit of fat and protein — if you have a few hours before your workout, you need a more well-balanced snack. You can make them with or without dark chocolate, but I like to add it for a little extra flavor. The chocolate and the maple syrup give you a little bit of sugar. People tend to be scared of sugar, but the carbs break down into sugar in your bloodstream and give you the fuel that you need. These ingredients will give you the extra energy boost you need for those more intense activities.”
Tahini Maple Oat Bites
Makes 10 servings
• 1 1/2 cup oats, separated
• 1/4 cup and 1 tablespoon tahini
• 3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
• 1 tablespoon flax seeds
• 1/4 cup dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips
1. Add 1/2 cup oats to food processor or blender. Blend until it becomes a powder consistency.
2. To a large bowl, add the oat flour, remaining 1 cup of oats, tahini, maple syrup and flax seeds. Mix with a spoon until well combined. (Editor’s note: Rizzo is a spokesperson for California Prune Board.)
3. Add the dark chocolate chips to the bowl and stir.
4. Using your hands, form small balls (about the size of a golf ball) and place on a parchment paper lined plate or cutting board. Put in the fridge for at least an hour. Store in the fridge until you’re ready to eat
Nutritional info (per energy ball): 205 calories; 10 grams fat; 6 grams protein; 6 grams sugar; 4 grams fiber
MORE TIPS AND TRICKS FROM A NUTRITIONIST
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.