Have you ever had a BBQ sandwich and then gone for a run immediately after it hit your belly? Of course not. Literally eating just before a run usually means figuratively running into a wall.

Yes, you need calories and carbs for energy. But not just any calories and not just at any time. A BBQ sandwich, for instance, absolutely has calories and carbs, but is it the right kind of meal to have before a workout? Simply put: the right kinds of calories (at the right time) can improve energy during exercise, help maximize a training session, and may even help reduce the muscle damage that naturally occurs during exercise.

Here are some meal plans to go along with your workout plan…

What if I only have 30 minutes before starting my workout?

This is the category most morning exercisers fall into: get up and go even when you don’t necessarily have a lot of get-up-and-go.

When there isn’t much time for digestion, the food you consume must be very simple to digest. Carbs are the go-to here: fruit, a slice of toast with honey, some liquid calories from coconut water, a couple of dates are examples of pre-workout snacks when time is limited.

Fats and protein take longer for the body to digest and require more oxygen to digest, too, which is why they aren’t ideal right before exercise.

I’m able to eat 1-2 hours before exercise. What should I have?

If you have over an hour to digest food, you should incorporate some fat and/or protein into your meal or snack.

This mix of macros provides more calories and allows the carbs to breakdown at a slow and steady rate leading into exercise (i.e., you don’t burn through all your carbs before you reach the gym).

Try adding peanut butter to your toast, combining Greek yogurt with your fruit, or grabbing a Quantum Energy Square in this time frame. All of these options provide a good base of carbohydrates with the right balance of protein and fat to get you ready for exercise. You like working out at 5 pm, after the office closes? Chow down on a Quantum at 3 pm and you’ll hit the ground running — literally —at 5 pm!

I prefer to have a meal before exercise. How long does that need to digest?

The more fat and protein present at a meal, the more time required for digestion. (Think about a big steak dinner, or a Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings and pumpkin pie: you’re gonna need a few hours before you’re ready to roll.)

A full meal that contains larger portions of carbs, fats and protein should be enjoyed about 3 hours prior to exercise.

If you’re a mid-morning or mid-afternoon exerciser, your breakfast or lunch meal would be the fuel for your exercise. And if three hours is too long to go, then eat a Quantum Energy Square as a snack about a half-hour before your workout. The nutrients and caffeine will add to the nutrients from your breakfast or lunch, and give you a boost of slow-burn energy, too.

It’s always about getting the balance right: the right amount of macros in the food you eat, the right amount of time to ensure your digestive process is on track get the most from those macros in every workout.

Your fueling strategy may look different day-to-day depending on your training schedule, so just make sure to plan ahead and think through the timing that will work best for you and help you get the most out of your exercise.


About the Author: Kelsey Hampton MS, CSSD, RDN, LD

Kelsey is a Texas-based dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition. As an athlete herself, Kelsey has a strong interest in how nutrition can influence all areas of sports performance and works with clients to help them use nutrition to optimize their training, racing and health. In addition to working in private practice with active individuals of all types and ages, Kelsey is also a professor of Nutrition at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and works with many of the student athletes on a 1:1 basis. Kelsey is a former collegiate swimmer who now runs and lifts weights for exercise, and enjoys cooking and creating new recipes.