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How Eating Right Can Energize Your Workout



It’s 5 a.m., and you’re stumbling out of bed to hit the gym. You barely have time to make coffee let alone eat breakfast. Do you eat an apple in the car? Make some oatmeal? Or exercise on an empty stomach?

The answer depends on your goals, the length of the workout and its intensity. Studies have shown that eating the proper foods before, during and after exercising can enhance a workout.


Exercising on a full stomach can make you feel nauseous, crampy or sluggish. As you work out, blood flows into your muscles; there’s less available to aid with digestion.

To avoid those sensations, plan ahead. “In general, it takes three to four hours for a full meal to digest,” says Sharon Collison, a registered dietitian and sports dietitian at the nutrition center at University of Delaware Health.

For early bird exercisers, waking up at 3 a.m. for a full breakfast is rarely an option. What’s more, some people prefer to exercise on an empty stomach.

Gill Daniels of Landenberg, Pa., for instance, tosses back two espressos with a little sugar before biking or spinning 10 to 12 miles or hiking 2 to 4 miles. “Water and food upset my stomach before a workout,” she explains. “My body can’t split the work of digestion and heavy exercise.”

However, some people feel dizzy, sick to their stomachs and easily fatigued if they don’t eat. Plus, you might feel more energetic and get more out of your workout if you eat an easily digested carb and some protein first.

Compare it to putting gas in a car before a trip. In the body, glucose is the fuel that keeps you going. It’s stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. When you exercise, you tap into the storage.

“Once glycogen stores run low, the exerciser will feel much more fatigued, exercise will feel much harder, and performance will be compromised,” Collison says.

If you only have 30 to 45 minutes before your morning workout, reach for something with carbohydrates and protein. Stay away from items that are heavy in fat and fiber, which are harder to digest.


Stay away from foods that are heavy in fat and fiber, which are harder to digest.// fotolia


Katie Mackie, a certified trainer at Fusion Fitness in Newark, is prone to acid reflux, which can flare up if she exercises on a full stomach. However, she still has something to eat, such as half of a banana, before going for a morning run or lifting weights.

Bananas are also a good source of antioxidants and potassium, which help combat muscle cramps.

Carol Arnott-Robbins of Wilmington, who gets up at 4:30 a.m., downs a protein shake with cold coffee and a little cinnamon before she heads out the door to exercise.

A protein shake is easily digestible, says Dr. Sheila Taylor of Christiana Care Health System, who is board-certified in family medicine and sports medicine. However, she recommends adding some carbohydrates for some quick, usable fuel.

You might also consider half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or oatmeal with low-fat milk and fruit.

Whatever the choice, consume it 30 minutes to an hour before the workout, and make sure your system is comfortable with the food, Taylor says. It’s not a good idea to try a new protein shake on the day of a race.

The same rules hold true if you exercise later in the day. Karen Stauffer of Wilmington, for instance, works out at 6 p.m.

But if your Zumba class is scheduled four or five hours after lunch, you might benefit from a snack an hour before the class. Mackie recommends a handful of almonds, an apple or a banana with nut butter.

No matter when you plan to exercise, drink up to 22 ounces of water an hour before your workout.


Recipe to try: Baked oatmeal breakfast squares

Serves 9 • Recipe courtesy of Christiana Care Health System

Depending on when you exercise, these tasty treats can help provide the energy you need to get through your workout. You can also eat them as a post-workout snack. Make them in advance so they’re ready to go. Each serving has 154 calories, 29 grams of carbohydrates, 207 milligrams of potassium and only 2 grams of fat.

Prep time: 10-15 minutes • Baking time: 35-45 minutes

Photo courtesy of the Christiana care health system


  • 2½ cups of rolled oats (not instant)
  • 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon of baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon of salt
  • 10 ounces (about 2 rounded cups frozen mixed berries or 1½ cups fresh mixed berries)
  • 1½ cups milk, skim or 2 percent
  • ¼ cup unsweetened applesauce
  • ¼ cup maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 egg or equivalent egg substitute


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat an 8- or 9-inch square pan with cooking spray.
  2. In a large bowl, combine oats, cinnamon, baking powder and salt.
  3. Thaw mixed berries (if frozen) and drain well. Cut large berries into smaller pieces.
  4. In a smaller bowl, mix milk, applesauce, syrup, vanilla extract and egg.
  5. Add the egg mixture to the oats.
  6. Stir to combine. Gently fold in the berries.
  7. Place oats and berries in the square pan. Evenly distribute the mix.
  8. Bake for 35-45 minutes or until the top is golden brown and the mixture has formed a solid cake. The center should be firm. Cool for 10-15 minutes before cutting into squares.
  9. To freeze squares, let them cool completely. Wrap each one in plastic wrap and store in a freezer-safe bag. Reheat in the microwave.



Drink water as needed during the workout to replace the fluid that you’re losing while you sweat. Think of water as a cooling system for your body. Having water handy keeps you from getting dehydrated.

Endurance athletes or those who exercise longer than an hour will likely need to replace sodium and electrolytes. This is where sports drinks can come into play.

Collison also follows the “three H rule.” “If you’re exercising in hot and humid weather and you’re exercising for more than an hour, then Gatorade or Powerade is better than water,” she explains. These drinks supply you with carbs and sodium as well as water.

If you’re exercising for less than an hour in an air-conditioned gym, reaching for a sports drink might add calories that you don’t need. (There are low-sugar and low-calorie versions on the market too.)

Drinks with coconut water deliver a boost of electrolytes, potassium and other nutrients. “The key is to get one that doesn’t have a ton of added sugar,” Taylor says.


These baked oatmeal squares are great for before or after a workout (see recipe above).// photo courtesy of the Christiana Care Health System



Depending on the duration and the intensity of your workout, you might need a recovery meal to refuel your glycogen stores and rebuild muscle tissue.

When Arnott-Robbins finishes her workout, for instance, she heads home to eat eggs, yogurt, oatmeal with fruit and flax or pumpkin seeds, or leftover fish and vegetables. Stauffer has dinner within an hour of finishing her 6 p.m. workout.

Since activities such as training for a half-marathon or marathon or cycling 30 to 60 miles drain glycogen reserves, you need to replenish them quickly. Collison recommends eating within 30 minutes.

Without a recovery meal or snack, you’re not building muscle; you’re potentially losing it, Taylor adds.

Choose your snack or meal wisely. If you’re trying to lose weight, you don’t want to eat more calories after than you’ve burned.

For a snack, Collison recommends half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk or Greek yogurt—which is rich in protein—with granola. Chocolate milk, she says, is an excellent recovery snack. It has about a 4-to-1 carb-to-protein ratio.

Giving your body what it needs to make glycogen is not a license to eat processed products and sugary snacks. Choose carbs such as whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oats and sweet potatoes.

Since everyone is different, and workouts vary, talk to a nutritionist or dietitian to find out which foods are best for your body. Many insurance plans will cover sessions with a registered dietician or nutritionist, Collison says. 

Most plans are accepted at the nutrition center at UD Health, which is open to the public. To schedule an appointment, call 831-3195.

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