Savvy Sports Nutrition: What To Eat Before a Post-Work Gym Session

Now that the 30-Day Healthy Living Challenge has ended, I miss interacting with my readers on a daily basis. I want to start a new series that focuses on my specialization and something that I would like to discuss more with my readers: sports nutrition.

I’m calling this new series “Savvy Sports Nutrition” because it’s applicable to everyday people who have busy lives but still want to get the most out of their exercise and eating habits. Sports nutrition is a broad term, and I want these posts to be applicable to the everyday individual. So, these sports nutrition posts will be for active people, like myself, who exercise frequently but don’t do it as a profession. Each week, I will address a different topic about what/when/why/how to eat in regards to exercise. Let’s begin…

post-work gym session

Before becoming a Dietitian, I worked in Ad Sales. I had a desk job with 9-6ish hours, so I hit the gym on my way home from work. But, as often happens at 6 o’clock, I was usually hungry for dinner before my workout.  I don’t like to work out on an empty stomach (I get a sloshy feeling), and I would try to combat my hunger by having a snack around 4pm. I would always try to choose a “healthy” snack that would ease my hunger but wouldn’t negate my workout.  Usually, I would have a few handfuls of nuts, but I wasn’t sure if this was the right choice. What if I had a piece of toast? Aren’t carbs “bad”? (I would think to myself). If I ate too many carbs before my workout, wouldn’t I just be eating back the calories I wanted to burn? I felt like these were topics that no one was talking about.  I’m sure many of you struggle with similar situations and thoughts, which is why I want to address these concerns.

First, let me explain the basics of how your body uses food for fuel. Pay attention because this will be the basis of everything I talk about in sports nutrition. There are three macronutrients (aka large nutrients) that we consume: carbohydrates, protein and fat. Each nutrient serves a different purpose.

  • Carbohydrates are our main fuel source for movement and brain function.
  • Proteins are building blocks for organs and muscles.
  • Fats are for storage and organ protection.

In general, carbohydrates are needed before a workout to give you energy and protein is needed after a workout to rebuild used muscles.

You are probably thinking, “That’s great…just tell me what to eat,” which is exactly what I’m going to do. Eating before a workout depends on timing and planning.  That means you must consider how far in advance  you are eating compared to when you will be working out.

This chart will help explain what I mean:

Snack Time Snack Composition Food Examples
2-3 hours before workout

(4pm for a 6pm workout)

Rich in carbs with small amount of protein and fats
  1. Apple or banana with peanut butter
  2. Whole Wheat toast with slice of turkey
  3. Crackers and cheese stick
  4. Vegetables and hummus
30-60 minutes before workout

(on your way to the gym)

High carbs, low protein and fat
  1. piece of fruit
  2. 8 ounces of juice
  3. few handfuls of cereal
  4. handful of pretzels, crackers or popcorn

So let’s go back to my example of snacking at 4pm before a 6pm workout or grabbing something on the way to the gym.  Was the bag of nuts the best option? No, because nuts are high in fat, and fat sits in your stomach for a long time before digestion. Anything with carbs would have been a better option because carbs are absorbed into the bloodstream quickly to provide energy during a workout.

Take Away Message: The one thing I want you to take away from this post is that carbs are your main fuel source before a workout.  Many people think carbs are bad for you and will make you gain weight.  For inactive people that eat a lot of refined sugars, that is true.  But for active people that need to fuel a workout, carbs are your friend.

Next time you need an afternoon snack before the gym, refer to my handy table.  Think about how far out you are from the workout and then choose a snack accordingly.



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  • Reply
    Nutty Nutritionist
    February 15, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Love this post Natalie! You sound exactly like my sports nutrition professor, haha.

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  • Reply
    Donna Fletcher
    March 5, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    I’ve kept this post in the back of my mind when I first say you post it. Today, is William’s first game of baseball season. He has a 2pm game, so I came back to this post to read up on what he should be eating right now.

    THANK YOU! Looks like it will be a small bag of gluten free pretzels on the way!

    • Reply
      Nutrition a la Natalie
      March 22, 2016 at 9:32 am

      Oh good. I’m so happy to help! I’m trying to develop more sports nutrition content, especially for parents!

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