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  • Writer's pictureMaija E

How to Fuel Up for Your Workout

Should you be drinking pre-workout before you hit the gym? What about a smoothie? Maybe you're the type to grab a coffee for a quick hit of energy.

There are many ways to get the energy you need to sustain a workout. Using pre-workout and coffee can give you the quick pick-me-up you need to push through those heavy sets. But there's a downside. Over time, your body will become accustomed to the caffeine. This means you will need to take increasing doses to get the same effects. Additionally, too much caffeine can give you the jitters, send your blood pressure skyrocketing, and make you feel dizzy and lightheaded.

So what is the best way to fuel up without the nasty side effects? The trick is to eat and hydrate throughout the day. Let's talk about the most basic part of this equation: water.


Stay Thirsty My Friend

How much water should you be drinking? The National Academies recommend 3.7 liters per day for men and 2.7 liters per day for women. About 20% of our daily water intake comes from food and other beverages. So what do you do if you're about to workout, but realized you haven't had anything but a cup of coffee all day?

Chugging a bunch of water right before you workout will not do much to help. You will likely become bloated and pee most of it out halfway through your warmup.

Your best bet is to drink 8 ounces of water 15 minutes before your workout. Every 15-20 minutes, take 2 to 3 large gulps. Continue to drink water after you finish based on fluid losses. Refer to the chart below for specifics.

Schrier, Meg Steffey MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. (2019). Sports Nutrition [PowerPoint slides].

Signs of dehydration include fatigue, nausea, headache, muscle cramps, lack of sweating, and vomiting.

You can tell if you are approaching dehydration based on your pee color.

Dark yellow? It's time to hydrate.




When it comes to the best pre-workout meal the answer is simple: carbs! Often vilified, carbs are essential for fueling our workouts. Carbs are usually associated with bread and pasta, but they are also found in fruits, vegetables, and beans. Ideally, you are incorporating some form of carbohydrate into all of your meals throughout the day. As long as your eating a full meal (one that includes a carbohydrate, fat, and protein source) within 2-3 hours before your workout, you are likely able to meet your body's energy demands.

If you are training hard for more than one hour, or aren't able to get a full meal in, use this method: Within one hour before working out, aim to eat .45g of carbs per pound of body weight. Example: A 150 lb person would eat 68g of carbs.

What does this look like?

1/2 cup granola = 32g

.5 oz raisins = 11g

1/2 cup yogurt = 9g

1/2 banana = 13g

Total = 64g carb

A little bit of protein can help to support muscle repair (although you're likely already consuming plenty at meals). Nut butters, trail mix or eggs are good options. Other pre-workout snacks include rice cakes w/ toppings (jam, Nutella and peanut butter work great), fruit (fresh or dried), granola bars, smoothies, or pretzels with hummus.

If you're eating minutes before your workout, go for a fast-digesting carbohydrate (think processed grains like crackers or pretzels, or fruit juice). You can also sip on a sports drink with 6% carbohydrate (think Gatorade) during workouts lasting longer than an hour. You can make your own sports drink by mixing 100% fruit juice, water, and a pinch of salt (the salt provides electrolytes lost in sweat).

Note: the closer you are eating to your workout, the less you will want to eat. Exact amounts are individual and will require some trial an error to figure out what works best for you.


Replenishing fuel stores after you workout is paramount for recovery. A well balanced meal (like the one pictured below) is enough to compensate for a moderate workout (anything under an hour, yoga, low-intensity cardio and lighter weight training). If you can't eat a meal within a half hour, opt for one of the snacks listed above, with a goal to eat a full meal within 2 hours.

For more intense workouts (heavy strength training, or workouts lasting over an hour), you'll need to be a bit more precise. Aim to eat .7g/lb of carbs immediately after working out and another .7g/lb within 2 hours later. This amounts to 102 grams of carbs (a total of 204 grams over the course of 2.5 hours). A 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein has shown to be beneficial. In this case, it would be 26 grams of protein, which is easily supplied by 4 oz of chicken, a package of tofu, or 3/4 cup of chickpeas. A protein shake is appropriate if you can't get a meal in.

And, as always, getting enough sleep and managing stress are essential to performing well in the gym. If we are tired and stressed out it isn't likely that we are going to want to lift weights. Additionally, higher cortisol levels (a stress hormone), can contribute to craving sweet and fatty foods, and weight gain.

Hiring a trainer can be a great way to stay accountable and to be sure you are maximizing your time spent in the gym. Spending all of your time on cardio machines isn't going to build muscle, address mobility issues, or increase strength.

If you're new to working out, or have tried exercising on your own without results, simply fill out a form to learn how you can work with us to reach your fitness goals.

Source: Schrier, Meg Steffey MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. (2019). Sports Nutrition [PowerPoint slides].

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