Some people like to take a supplement, or drink a specific energy booster, or sometimes even munch on some candy before they exercise. The theory is that you can maximize the efficacy of your workout by giving yourself some extra oomph to get through your sweat session with gusto with the right pre-workout snack. I figured I would run a one-woman experiment on what to eat before I work out, testing a few of the most popular options and seeing how they actually worked for me.
What should your pre-workout fuel include?
According to National Academy of Sports Medicine, the ideal combination of ingredients in a pre-workout food or drink would include “caffeine, beta-alanine/sodium bicarbonate, electrolytes, amino complex, and creatine.” Though this combo is science-backed, it isn’t necessarily a universal list (and pre-workout supplements in general haven’t been exhaustively studied, and many are mislabeled). “The best pre-workout food or snack should include, without exception, 20 ounces of water plus protein and carbs,” Leslie J. Bonci, MPH, RD, previously told Well+Good about what to look for in pre-workout food.
It's important to note that your pre-workout fuel choice depends on your fitness goals, what you hope to gain from the supplement or food, and the time of your workout. For instance, you don’t necessarily need an amino-acid-dense protein shake before a Yin yoga class.
“You have to evaluate based on what kind of workout you’re doing—that matters a lot,” Lisa Mastela, RD, MPH, registered dietitian and founder of Bumpin’ Blends, tells me. “A banana’s gonna give you a totally different effect than a pre-workout supplement.”
If you’re training for an endurance event or have specific goals that entail strenuous strength-training or HIIT workouts, then this is an area you’ll want to take more seriously. But if you’re just looking for a little boost? You might be satisfied with a banana or shot of espresso.
My experiment on what to eat before I work out
With all this in mind, I headed into my experiment. The controls: the same 30 minute Pilates workout, taken at the same time of day (8 am), by the same exerciser (me). The variables: a different pre-workout fuel choice each day. I went with the most popular options: a banana, a pre-mixed pre-workout supplement powder, a shot of espresso, and candy (specifically, Justin’s Peanut Butter Cups). I also did the Pilates class without any pre-workout food (day 0) so all my notes are based on a comparison to that “benchmark” setting.
Of course, my body is different from yours, so I also consulted Mastela on each fuel choice to get a broader perspective on each one’s benefits and limitations. And as with anything, it’s smartest to consult with your own doctor, dietitian, or coach to figure out what’s going to serve you best. As Mastela puts it, “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution here.”
Day 1: Banana
The most basic of the bunch is perhaps the humble banana. The pre-workout banana and I go way back, to my early days of working out and running, in which I’d have some peanut butter on a banana (or PB banana toast) before heading out for whatever movement the day had in store.
Bananas are the W+G proclaimed GOAT of pre-workout snacks. They’re naturally rich in the electrolytes magnesium and potassium, and can provide your muscles with a boost in glucose that can help you power through a workout, says Mastela.
“This is a whole food, which in general is an excellent choice,” she adds. “You could also use this as a post-workout snack, or blend it with some kind of protein to get even more benefits—again, depending on your goal.”
My banana experience
I don’t typically eat before a morning workout, but the banana was light enough that I didn’t feel overly full or uncomfortable. I also assume this digestive experience cued my body to shake off the sleepiness a little bit more, as if eating something told my body, “We’re awake now!” which helped me feel more present in the earlier half of the Pilates routine. (The science around this is a bit contradictory, so this is purely speculative.)
Though uneventful, I’m counting this as a win. I felt good, with no adverse side effects to report on. A point for team banana!
Day 2: Candy
As it turns out, a bit of candy before exercising is a popular pre-workout choice. And for good reason.
“Like bananas and fruit juice, a piece of candy can give your muscles a dose of glucose, which translates to quickly and easily-accessible energy for your workout,” says Mastela. “You’ll have more energy, more power, etc.”
Some people might give the idea of eating candy some side eye. Mastela, however, says a piece of candy isn’t a huge deal, especially if you’re regularly exercising. “For the most part, sugar is sugar,” she says, “Whether that’s from fruit or a piece of chocolate.” However, she points out that candy obviously has artificial ingredients, which aren’t optimal for your health. “The other pre-workout options are likely better because of this—you don’t want a ton of high fructose corn syrup.”
Also, she notes that quantity matters: “You don’t want to overdo sugar,” she adds. “Sugar before a workout might give you more energy, but ultimately, what’s your goal? Because if you have too much sugar in your bloodstream, it’s still gonna get taken up by your fat cells if you don’t work out hard enough. And if you’re working out with a ton of sugar pumping through your bloodstream, you’re not releasing any of the stored sugar in your body.”
My candy experience
For this experiment, I opted for some of the Justin’s Peanut Butter Cups I brought with me from the States (yes, I brought some American candy). Mastela told me this was a great choice—so I immediately patted myself on the back for choosing a “healthy” candy—because it has a mix of protein (peanuts contain all of the branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs), carbohydrates (sugar), and electrolytes (from dark chocolate and salt).
I anticipated feeling more jittery or alert than I was with the banana, but it ended up being an identical experience. A little bit to eat, a little bit of sugar, not super full, but present and “powered.” Will I eat candy before every morning workout? No. But it was fun to feel like a kid eating my grown-up Reese’s for breakfast before doing Pilates.
Day 3: Pre-workout powdered drink
The packaging of pre-workout supplements always makes me think AXE body spray has suddenly became a jar of watermelon-flavored powder. But serious weight lifters swear by them.
“These types of supplements are great if you’re weight lifting or doing something that requires a lot of power,” said Mastela. “If your goal is to lift heavier, go harder, build muscle, or to push yourself past yesterday’s limit, then supplements are a great way to do that.”
She says that taking these supplements before major strength workouts may help you gain weight through increased muscle mass. But they’re not for everyone. “If you’re just doing day-to-day workouts for your health maintenance and mental health, these supplements do absolutely nothing for you,” she says. “It could even give you heartburn depending on the supplement, as some are fizzy, or contain artificial sugars and sweeteners, or have lots of citric acid.”
She notes that any kind of supplement can have adverse effects, and it depends on your body. She says to watch out for “puffy face (water retention), and any kind of systemic inflammation.” If any of that happens she suggests switching to something natural, like a shot of espresso with a teaspoon of sugar, instead.
My pre-workout drink experience
In general, I am supplement sensitive—I vomit if I take vitamins on an empty stomach, get acid reflux from some protein bars and shakes, so in general, I avoid supplements. But I have friends who absolutely rely by their pre-workout drinks, so I did a bit of research and chose a popular brand that ticked the aforementioned boxes: It contained a mixture of caffeine, electrolytes, beta alanine, BCAAs, and a natural sweetener.
At first I felt a boost of energy, but eventually got hit with what many other consumers have experienced: itchiness, and an uncomfortable tingling sensation. It was enough for me to not be able to focus on my workout, but fortunately it went away after about 30 or so minutes.
Perhaps if I spent more time using this supplement, my body would adjust to the beta alanine (the source of the itching), but for me, it simply isn’t worth trying again, given my health goals and the other available options. If I ever start training for an endurance event again, I’ll be sure to let you know how that goes and if I change my tune!
Day 4: Espresso
The most European of the options is just a shot of espresso. I had a bias with this one going in, as it tends to be my personal favorite, but I did my best to remain objective.
There are pros and cons to espresso. While it’s simple, easy to make, and delicious (assuming you like coffee), it also lacks nutritional value. There are no amino acids, creatine, protein, sugars, or electrolytes. If those are on your must-have list, espresso alone won’t cut it. (And it definitely doesn't take the place of a real breakfast.) If you’re simply trying to harness the power of caffeine, however, then rock on… and please proceed.
Mastela points out that coffee or espresso can be an ideal choice: It’s a well-documented performance enhancer, thanks to the ability to aid your muscular strength. “If my goal is to build muscle and get stronger, then coffee with a little bit of sugar before a workout is what I’ll reach for, and then add in the protein and BCAAs and carbs afterward with a recovery food or drink,” she says.
If you’re caffeine-sensitive, it’s also helpful to know that an average shot of espresso contains about 64 mg of caffeine. For context, pre-workout drinks contain multiple times this amount (between 150 and 300 mg).
My espresso experience
Let’s be honest, this wasn’t my first espresso rodeo. I’ve been having a bit of coffee before many a workout (and have even documented it here at Well+Good!), so my positive results weren’t the least bit shocking.
If I’m doing a morning workout and feeling a bit groggy, the caffeine (in a small dose) helps me to feel more alert so I can focus on my body and get the most from my time exercising. Despite not adding sugar to my coffee like Mastela suggested, I personally felt best with this option. This could be a bit of confirmation bias, but this one gets the ultimate yes vote, IMO.
Which is the winner?
In the end, figuring out the best option for your body requires your own experiment! Remember, evaluate your situation:
- What are your fitness and health goals?
- What type of workouts are you doing?
- What time are your workouts?
- Do you have sensitivities or allergies?
“The main takeaway,” Mastela says, “is that all of this really depends on your goals, the results you want, and what you need in that particular moment and that particular workout. The results are going to vary so much from person to person, so try this yourself and see what works for you.”
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