Do you eat before you work out?

Guest post by Cynthia Lair, adjunct professor at Bastyr University and cookbook author.

Ever gone to the gym or for a morning run and just sort of pooped out halfway through because you forgot to eat breakfast? Or maybe you wolfed down a sandwich minutes before an exercise class and found your first 30 minutes of training were flat.

Though previously an overlooked part of performance, the importance of eating two to three hours before exercise has begun to be front and center. The timing matters. If your last meal was too long ago, there’s no fuel in your muscles to call upon. If you ate something right before, your body’s energy will go toward digesting the food, not fueling muscles.

Cycling working out in gym

Adults, teens and children who play sports need to heed the timing of when food is eaten to reap more benefits from exercise. Two to three hours before strenuous activity is best. This gives the body time to breakdown the nutrients and fuel the muscles. Even if you aren’t up for a big morning meal before a workout, having a quickly-digestible snack like a banana will prolong your stamina compared to eating nothing (or just having a cup of coffee!).

Say yes to both carbohydrates and protein

Conflicting advice about what food is right for fueling up continues to prevail. Some, like Tom Brady, swear that gluten-free, vegan eating is the key to success, while others insist that a diet high in animal protein and super-low in (or no) carbohydrates is best. Can they both be right? While these restrictive diets may help sell protein-enriched or vegan energy bars, the science of nutritional biochemistry doesn’t support restricting proteins or carbohydrates. Both are required.

For example, bodies need lots of oxygen for endurance events. That’s why respiration rates increase during exercise. One reason carbohydrates should not be shunned is due to the efficient way they use oxygen. They utilize less oxygen for every kilocalorie of energy produced than fats or proteins. Whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat bread and oatmeal are good pre-event meal choices because they are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber.

On the flip side, good quality protein, either vegetable or animal-based, is absolutely essential for building and repairing cells – important physiological activities for active people. According to the Seattle Times, quarterback Russell Wilson keeps breakfast simple with steel cut oats, fresh fruit, and an egg. Good choices Russell!

Eat well to think well

Enhancing performance applies to non-exercise events too. Preparing for a challenging presentation or a difficult exam requires the same attention to hydration and eating as a marathon. When I give educational lectures to athletes, I routinely ask, “When you haven’t eaten any breakfast or just a sugary pastry, what’s the consequence of that choice when you need to perform?” The self-reflective types in the audience pipe up and say, “I feel spaced out!” That’s correct. Mental functioning is the first to go. So, whether you want to answer questions clearly at a meeting or mentally anticipate how to shift body weight to avoid an injury, pre-event food choices play a critical role.

Here’s a perfect prep-your-body for work(out) recipe. Potatoes and corn add whole foods carbohydrates. Beans and chicken broth provide the protein. The addition of abundant end-of-summer produce like fresh tomatoes, basil, and green beans punch up the vitamins and minerals. Soup, with its slowly-simmered vegetables and broth, delivers nutrients in an effortless and enjoyable form. Slurp up and play on!

Big Mo Minestrone with garden fresh vegetables

Build momentum for your next game with a bowl of minestrone, which translates to “big soup.” See the how-to video for the recipe below. Recipe from Feeding the Young Athlete (by Cynthia Lair; Readers to Eaters, 2017).


Preparation time: 45 minutes
Makes 6-8 servings


  • 1 to 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp. butter
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 medium potato, diced
  • 1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen corn
  • 1 cup green beans, cut into 1 1/2″ pieces
  • 1 15-oz. can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tsp. chopped fresh parsley or oregano
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
  • Parmesan cheese to taste


In a large soup pot over medium heat add olive oil, butter, garlic and onion. Sauté until the onion is soft, at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the remaining vegetables.

Add carrots, celery, potato and sauté about 5 minutes more. Add tomatoes, oregano, salt and chicken broth. Bring heat up to a boil, then turn it down to medium low and let the soup simmer. Cover and cook 20-30 minutes, until potatoes and carrots are tender.

Add corn, green beans and kidney beans and simmer for another 5-10 minutes. Stir in fresh basil, black pepper to taste and serve with freshly grated Parmesan on top.

Cynthia Lair is the author of the popular cookbook Feeding the Whole Family (Sasquatch Books, 2016), which is in its fully-revised fourth edition. She has been on faculty for Bastyr University’s Department of Nutrition & Exercise Science since 1994. A third edition of her book, Feeding the Young Athlete: Sports Nutrition Made Easy for Players, Parents and Coaches (Readers to Eaters) was released in 2017.

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