Ample energy and a steady stomach are two keys to a great workout. But people often skip pre-exercise meals due to lack of time or not knowing what to eat, says Manuel Villacorta, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. No more excuses: These tummy-friendly options have ideal amounts of carbs and protein to keep you fueled, and they're easy to prepare on-the-fly.
A whole-wheat bagel with jam: "Simple carbs burn quickly, like paper, while complex carbs burn like wood and take a little longer to provide energy," Villacorta says. An easy-to-digest whole-grain bagel with jam or a drizzle of honey combines both types of carbs—a perfect way to fuel your workout from start to finish, he says.
Protein shake with added carbs: Premade protein shake mixes are an easy on-the-go snack, and a good way to reap protein's benefits while adding carbs to stay energized. Aim for a 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio with 10 to 20 grams of protein, advises Skyler Meine, strength and conditioning specialist and cofounder of IdealShape, a Utah-based fitness company. He recommends starting with a shake base of juice or water (milk can cause mucous), then adding oats and a banana or other fruit to provide carbs.
Oatmeal: It's great for those morning workouts, when you're running on empty but can't eat a meal 1 to 2 hours before exercise. It settles well and provides long-lasting energy, while added fruit will hit the bloodstream quickly to get you going, Meine says.
Greek yogurt: Greek yogurt contains substantial protein and carbs, and less sugar than the regular kind, Meine says. And unless you're lactose intolerant, it's easy on the stomach—ideal before intense activity or bouncing exercises like jumping jacks or plyometrics, which tend to spell tummy trouble after a heavy meal. Add fruit, honey, or whole-grain cereal for an extra energy kick.
Brown rice with chicken: If you tend to exercise after lunch or dinner, avoid rich foods and have a simple dish of brown rice with chicken or tofu. "It's a bland meal that sits well and provides a good amount of carbs and protein," says Meine. Brown rice is a better source of complex carbs than is white rice, he adds.
Legumes: Beans and lentils contain high amounts of protein and complex carbs—good sources of slow-release energy, Meine says. That makes legumes ideal for longer workouts or workouts that will begin 1 to 2 hours after you eat. Don't overdo it, though: Legumes can cause gas pains, so keep your portion small. (Baked beans, which contain gas-inducing natural sugars called oligosaccharides, are best avoided altogether).
Bread with cheese or egg: One of Villacorta's favorite pre-workout snacks, a slice of whole-wheat bread with low-fat cheese, is easy on the stomach and provides protein and slow-release carbs. Or, as an alternative, top toast with scrambled egg whites.
Caffeine: A moderate amount of caffeine before exercise can help you enjoy your workout more, research has found. It can also enhance your energy and reduce post-exercise muscle soreness, according to a recent study from the University of Copenhagen's Muscle Research Centre. While some caffeinated beverages are carbonated and sugary, which could cause gas pains, an espresso or 8- or 12-oz coffee can be a great pre-workout boost if you're used to it, Villacorta says. "But you have to eat too," he adds.
Timing is everything. Even the best foods can come back to haunt you mid-workout if not allowed to properly digest, so it's best to eat 45 minutes to an hour before you work out—longer after heavy meals, Villacorta says. While certain foods settle well and hit the bloodstream quickly, exercising on a full stomach can still make you feel sluggish. Worse, it can cause stomach cramps, because exercise pulls blood away from stomach to the muscles, he explains.
If you can't wait more than 45 minutes between meal and workout, it's better to have a small snack than exercise on an empty stomach, Villacorta says. Have an easily digestible, simple-carb snack like yogurt or fruit, and eat a full meal after exercising.
Chelsea Bush writes for AskFitnessCoach, a site with straightforward advice on how to gain muscle and lose weight.