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What to eat before an easy, moderate, hard workout with examples

What to eat before an easy, moderate, hard workout with examples

By Kylie Ann Martins

Your body is like a car, and it needs fuel to function and exercise. Eating before exercise is a vital part of performance and it can help you make the most out of your training. 

As a matter of fact, the American College of Sports Medicine says, “Adequate food and fluid should be consumed before, during, and after exercise to help maintain blood glucose concentration…maximize exercise performance, and improve recovery time.”

But some people wonder if these rules apply to “easy” workouts. If you’re not going all out during exercise, is fuel really necessary? Spoiler alert: yes, fueling before any type of workout boosts energy levels. But the amount of fuel you consume before a workout may differ based on intensity. 

Let’s take a look at the nutrition differences for easy, moderate and hard workouts. 

What is an easy workout? 

Although “easy” is different for everyone, a general rule of thumb is that easy workouts are lower in intensity or shorter in duration (around 20 minutes). During an easy workout, the heart rate is only slightly above normal, and there is no noticeable change in breathing. 

You should be able to hold a conversation during an easy workout. Some examples include walking or 20 minutes of low-impact yoga or pilates. 

What is a moderate workout?

A moderate workout includes any activity that raises your heart rate, breathing rate, and body temperature, causing you to sweat. Moderate-intensity activities increase your heart rate to about 50% to 70% of your max. 

To calculate your max heart rate, subtract 220 from your age. For example, a 30-year old person subtracts 30 from 220 to get a maximum heart rate of 190. This is the maximum number of times your heart should beat per minute during exercise, although this can change slightly based on fitness level. Fifty to seventy percent of 190 is 95 to 133 beats per minute. 

In addition, moderate workouts last about 30 to 40 minutes. Brisk walking, easy jogging, and strength training are examples of moderate exercise. 

What is a hard workout?

A hard workout usually consists of a high-intensity exercise for a longer duration. This type of workout feels challenging and requires exertion. You may start to sweat soon after the start of the workout, your heart rate increases, and you shouldn’t be able to speak much. 

Anything over 90 minutes or an activity that is beyond 70% of your max heart rate is considered hard. Tempo running,  swimming or cycling at a high intensity fall into this category. 

What to eat before any type of workout

What you eat before a workout depends on when you eat. The macronutrients– carbohydrates, protein, and fat– fuel your workouts and provide you with energy. 

Carbohydrates are the most important nutrient for exercise since they provide the body with energy. The body uses carbs from the food you eat, as well as glycogen, or the carbs that are stored in the muscle and liver. The best dietary sources of carbohydrates include whole grains, legumes, beans, fruits, and vegetables. 

Protein is needed for muscle growth, and it plays a role in keeping you full. Some healthy sources of protein include soy foods, like tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and edamame, lentils, beans, and seitan. 

Unsaturated “good” fats have been shown to be beneficial for your heart and brain, and they play a role in controlling hunger. Fats are also a fuel source for lower-intensity exercise. Some healthy sources of fat include vegetable oils (olive oil), nuts, seeds, and avocados. 

Eating a healthy balance of these macronutrients can actually increase your endurance and overall performance. 

How to build a pre-workout meal

Follow these guidelines to build a pre-workout meal:

2 to 4 hours before a workout: eat a full meal (breakfast/lunch/dinner) consisting of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats. Some examples include:

<60 minutes before a workout: eat a carb-rich snack with small amounts of fat and protein, as these take longer to digest and cause stomach discomfort during a workout. Consume 30-60 grams of carbs, such as:

  • An apple with peanut butter 
  • A slice of toast with jam
  • 2 graham crackers
  • Dried fruit, like dates, raisins or dried mango
  • A Clif bar
  • A piece of fruit, like a banana or apple

Fueling an easy workout 

If you are new to working out or have an easy day in your schedule, you may be wondering what your pre-workout meal should look like. The below plate is a good example of how to build your meals on an easy day. 

easy workout plant-based plate

Half the plate should consist of vegetables and fruits, about 2/3 of the plate has a protein source, and the remaining ⅓ is made up of starch, like pasta, rice, or potatoes. 

Consuming a balance of these food groups will not only fuel your exercises effectively but will help you meet your overall nutritional needs for the day. You can consume a plate like this at any time of the day (breakfast, lunch, or dinner, as long as you have 2 to 3 hours to digest before exercise). 

Fueling a moderate workout

As you increase the intensity and duration of your workouts, switch over to the moderate training plate since. This plate has more carbohydrates, which provide the energy that your body needs for activity that is longer and harder in intensity. 

what should i eat for a moderate workout

Continue to fill half the plate with fruits and vegetables for vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Then divide the other half of the plate with ¼ protein and ¼ starch. You can consume a plate like this at any time of the day and, ideally, 2 to 3 hours before a workout. 

Fueling a hard workout 

The harder the workout, the more carbs you need on your plate. For hard workouts, fill half your plate with starch, about ⅔ with protein, and about ⅓ with fruits and vegetables. Since produce has fiber that can cause GI issues during exercise, you want to limit it on hard days. But still include plenty of fruits and vegetables in post-workout recovery. 

hard workout plant-based plate

Adequate carbohydrate intake that matches activity level can save your glycogen stores, support blood sugar levels during exercise, optimize recovery, and enhance your overall performance.

Takeaway: should you eat before an easy workout?

Whether you are a competitive athlete, a gym goer, or a leisurely walker, it’s important to keep an eye on nutrition. I recommend eating before every type of workout, even easy ones. If you decide not to eat before an easy workout, you might feel fine, but you may also lack energy, fatigue faster, and have decreased performance.

Putting some fuel in the body gives it the extra boost it needs to make it through a workout. Eating a well-balanced meal or a small snack a few hours before a workout is enough to provide your body with the energy it requires.

When it comes to eating and exercise, everyone is different. So pay attention to how you feel during your workout and adjust your nutrition accordingly. 

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