Food and Nutrition

Sorry, Protein Bar. Banana Is the MVP of Pre-Workout Snacks

Photo: Stocksy / Sonja Lekovic
When you think of workout snacks, one word typically comes to mind: protein, protein, protein. People load up on whey powders, munch on nuts or grass-fed beef jerky, or stash some protein bars in their gym bag. Protein is the watchword, friends.

But we've all been wrong about our pre-workout nutritional needs this entire time. Because today I learned that the best snack to eat before exercising for energy, endurance, and recovery has nothing to do with anything protein-related at all. Apparently, we should all be eating a banana before we work out.

Wait, why bananas before a workout?

The TL;DR version: the banana's nutritional profile is just what the RD ordered for a snack that provides the energy required to get through those tough, sweaty workouts.

“A medium banana is nutrient-rich, providing 24 grams of carbohydrates—14 of which are sugar and three of which are fiber,” says Kelly Jones, MS, RD “The fiber in bananas, along with the gram of protein, keeps the rest of the carbohydrate from being absorbed too rapidly, but there isn't so much that the food will sit in your stomach."

The banana is the perfect balance of fast-acting carbs to give immediate energy and fiber to allow that energy to last your entire workout. “The energy you absorb into the bloodstream—ingested as both fructose and starch—is able to either get to muscle cells or maintain blood sugar levels, depending on how much carbohydrate the person already had stored in the muscles,” she says.

Cardiologist Tamanna Singh, MD, says a banana is a great pre-workout snack because it's got loads of nutrients and is easy to digest.

“When it comes to pre-workout food, I typically recommend eating a small snack about an hour before exercise to improve energy, performance, and mental clarity while exercising," says Dr. Singh, clinical cardiologist and member of the Sports Cardiology Center in the Robert and Suzanne. "But bear in mind that if you have a longer workout and/or more intense sweat session planned, you will likely need more pre-exercise fuel than that. I recommend choosing simple carbohydrates, which are faster forms of fuel and much easier for your body to access during exercise compared to fats or proteins. These take longer to digest and utilize, which can also cause some gut discomfort.”

Another great thing about bananas is that they are super easy to eat on the go," adds Nora Minno, RD, CPT, registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. "They are clean with no dripping juices and they come in their own packaging. No need to put in a plastic bag or Tupperware, you can just throw a banana in a gym bag or easily take it on the go without having to worry about extra trash or containers."

Need more reason to love bananas? They're a form of natural sugar, which is pretty good for you:

Bananas also provide potassium, vitamin B6, and even some vitamin C. Potassium is an electrolyte, which can help replenish depleted levels lost through sweat. Plus, “potassium is an important nutrient for regulating fluid balance,” adds Jones. “Those who regularly endure moderate to intense exercise for several hours are those most likely to lose small amounts of potassium in sweat and benefit from extra ingestion of the nutrient via foods such as bananas, potatoes, nuts and seeds, greens and legumes."

“The balance of sodium and potassium in the body is most important for heart health via regulation of blood volume and muscle contractions as well,” she says. Bananas also provide some antioxidants and other beneficial compounds such as phenolics, carotenoids, and phytosterols to support your heart and lower inflammation that can come immediately after strenuous exercise.

Bananas are also great to eat after a workout, says Minno.

"Carbohydrates help replenish glycogen stores after exercise," says Minno. "Glycogen is basically stored carbohydrates in the liver or muscles that can be used to fuel intense or prolonged workouts, so ensuring that your stores are replenished post-workout are essential to set you up for success for your next workout." 

So do I...just eat a plain banana and call it a day?

Yes, you can absolutely just throw a banana in your gym bag and be done with it. But if you're looking for a slightly more interesting pre-workout snack, Jones and Minno have some easy ideas:

  • Go classic and pair your banana with nut butter (almond, peanut, macadamia, and cashew are all fair game), and add some cacao nibs for antioxidants and sweetness.
  • Make a banana toast with nut butter by spreading 1 tbsp of nut butter of your choice (peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter, etc) on a piece of whole-grain toast and top with sliced banana. Option "Add a drizzle of agave or honey if you need a little extra glucose for your workout," says Minno.
  • Fill a bowl with half a cup of unsweetened granola and top with sliced bananas and your go-to milk or alt-milk. or more intense workouts
  • Jones also loves making banana "nice cream" mixed with cocoa powder and honey. Grab a scoop or two before you leave for the gym and you're good to go.
  • Slice some banana into some cooked oats and top with chia seeds and a dash of maple syrup.
  • Make a peanut butter banana smoothie for a portable pre-workout snack you can sip on. Below is Minno's go-to recipe, but feel free to do what you'd like.
    • 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
    • 1/4 cup plain greek yogurt
    • 1 tbsp chia seeds
    • 2 tbsp hemp seeds
    • 1/4 cup oats
    • 1 tbsp cocoa powder
    • 1 frozen banana
    • 2 tbsps pitted dates

So yes, a banana before a workout is secretly the best thing you can do for your exercise routine. Besides, you know, actually having one that you love in the first place.

What if I don't like bananas?

Eating a banana before a workout comes with a lot of benefits, but none of them are worth it if you don't like eating them or are dying to switch things up. Minno says dates are a great alternative.

"Dates are a great source of easily digestible carbs, potassium, and contain fiber," says Minno. "Three dates provide about 60 calories, 141 mg of potassium, and 1.8 grams of fiber. They are easy to eat plain, in a smoothie, and also taste great with a little nut butter."

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