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Before you hit the gym: Should you eat, or not? The answer is kind of complicated (and a little confusing). Some studies suggest exercising in a fasted state reduces weight, trims fat and improves body composition. Others, however, show fueling up before working out increases endurance and stamina, enhances performance and prevents fatigue. Both sides have merit – but if you’re bonking halfway through your spin class or squat routine, you probably need some pre-gym eats.
When you eat the right foods before you exercise, you can reap even more benefits from your usual fitness routine. Here’s how to better fuel your workouts, with nine foods and nutrients proven to maximize output, minimize fatigue, ease pain and speed recovery.
Carbs are crucial for energy – especially in the morning, when you need to replenish depleted glycogen (the form of carbohydrates stored in the muscles). So, if you’re planning to exercise when you wake up, you’ll want to eat some carb-rich foods before you do so. Hummus is an ideal combo of complex, slow-burning carbs for sustained energy without blood sugar spikes and ample protein to build muscles and repair damage. Plus, legumes are rich in resistant starch, which is shown to nourish beneficial gut bacteria, support immunity and lessen inflammation. T
Try: Spread hummus on whole-grain toast and top with avocado and scrambled eggs. Blend hummus with MCT oil for a creamy salad dressing.
2. MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides)
Derived from coconut oil, MCTs are easy to digest and rapidly absorbed. So, unlike other fats, they can be used by the body for immediate energy and are less likely to be stored as fat. In studies of athletes, taking MCTs before a workout significantly increased endurance, stamina and performance. Other research shows MCTs promote burning fat for fuel, improve body composition and trim overall fat (including dangerous belly fat).
Try: Stir MCT powder and chopped walnuts into oatmeal. Add a tablespoon of MCT oil and turmeric – proven to reduce inflammation and relieve pain – to coffee or tea.
Protein is critical for athletes, as it’s needed to strengthen muscles, heal damage and speed recovery. Eggs are a source of high-quality, bioavailable protein, and they’re rich in vitamins and minerals involved in energy and protein metabolism, cell growth and tissue repair. And eggs are high in the amino acid leucine – shown to promote lean mass – and choline, a vitamin-like nutrient that enhances fat loss without impacting muscles.
Try: Scramble eggs and sprinkle with turmeric. Mash hard-boiled eggs with avocado, instead of mayo, and spread on whole-grain toast.
4. Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes aren’t just colorful. They’re also packed with complex, slow-burning carbs to increase endurance and performance – especially during high-intensity activities that recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers. Sweet potatoes are also rich in inflammation-busting antioxidants and potassium, an electrolyte that regulates muscle contractions. Potassium can get depleted during prolonged exercise, leaving you open to cramps, low energy and diminished endurance.
Try: Steam sweet potatoes and toss with olive oil (an ingredient known to reduce inflammation and ease post-workout pain). Saute shredded sweet potatoes with eggs for breakfast hash.
5. Cherries and cherry juice
It’s not just foods that can benefit you before you exercise; certain beverages are also loaded with benefits. Cherries, for example, are loaded with antioxidants, like anthocyanins – which have been shown to tame inflammation, heal muscle damage and enhance recovery. And they’re great whether you munch on them in solid form or sip some cherry juice. One review found eating cherries before exercising measurably lowered inflammation and pain and prevented loss of strength during workouts. Other studies have found cherry juice protects against muscle damage and speeds recovery.
Try: Stir frozen cherries into yogurt (which is high in protein and immune-boosting probiotics). Mix cherry juice and green tea and freeze into popsicles.
Pomegranates are rich in antioxidants like vitamin C, anthocyanins and ellagitannins, which have been shown to dampen inflammation, minimize muscle fatigue and speed recovery. In one study, athletes who took pomegranate extract before resistance training had significantly less soreness, faster recovery. Another study found pomegranate improved strength and decreased pain. Plus, pomegranate antioxidants shore up immunity so you can fight off infections.
Try: Sprinkle pomegranate seeds over yogurt. Blend pomegranate juice with apple juice (an addition that’s high in quercetin to lower inflammation).
Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) contain three specific amino acids – isoleucine, valine and leucine – proven to be powerhouses for exercise. These amino acids increase muscle growth, reduce fatigue, retain muscle, minimize post-workout soreness and speed recovery. BCAAs also play a role in immune system function; studies show BCAA deficiencies impact immune response and decrease resistance to pathogens, and taking BCAAs mitigates exercise-related immune impairment and protects against infections.
Try: Blend BCAA powder with cherry and pomegranate juice. Stir BCAA powder into pancake or waffle batter.
8. Beet juice
Beets are rich in naturally occurring nitrates, converted by the body to nitric oxide – a compound that dilates blood vessels, enhances blood flow, strengthens muscle contraction and promotes endurance. They’re a serious fitness superfood! In studies of athletes, beet juice boosted blood levels of nitric oxide, increased power, lessened fatigue and significantly improved performance, especially during intense exercise with short rest periods. And beets are high in potassium, which helps ward off muscle cramps and weakness.
Try: Toss roasted beets with olive oil. Stir a heaping spoonful of beet juice powder into cherry juice.
9. Green tea
Research shows a pre-workout dose of caffeine sharpens focus and responsiveness, increases strength and power, boosts endurance, and amps up performance in both resistance and cardio training. But instead of coffee, try the calming compounds in green tea. Green tea can offset jitters and anxiety from caffeine, delivering sustained focus and stamina. Plus, studies show green tea enhances metabolism, promotes fat burning and improves body composition. And it’s rich in epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a potent antioxidant that minimizes inflammation and repairs damage.
Try: Stir matcha green tea powder into smoothies. Blend iced green tea with pomegranate juice and ginger (which is shown to lessen inflammation).
Looking for more fitness-ready foods? Keep reading and discover even more foods to eat before – or after – you exercise:
Featured recipe: Pea Hummus Bowl