Eating is probably the last thing you think about when you’re about to HIIT it hard at the gym, but making sure you’re fueled with the right foods will help you make the most out of your workout. Noshing on the wrong foods can be a recipe for gas, bloating, diarrhea—none of which you want to deal with when you’re doing deadlifts and downward dogging. To help you make every rep count and increase your calorie-burning prowess, we rounded up the best pre-workout foods. And while you’re at it, check out our list of 12 Things You Should Never Drink Before a Workout. Because what you sip can make or break your sweat sesh.
It’s true: Spinach is muscle fuel. But not because it instantly turns you lean and sexy. Researchers from Rutgers University found that a compound in the leafy green increases protein synthesis by 120 percent, helping your muscle tissue to repair itself faster after you work out. The problem, however, is that you’d have to eat Popeye-sized quantities to experiences dramatic results (we’re talking almost 2 pounds of the iron-packed veggies a day). The good news is that spinach isn’t the only option when it comes to foods that will help you lose weight and feel better than ever—even when you’re not exercising.
Drinking cold water before and during exercise can help improve your endurance. In a British study, cyclists who drank about 30 ounces of a chilled drink in the half hour before riding in a hot, humid environment-and smaller amounts as they rode-were able to bike 23 percent longer than riders who downed lukewarm liquids. Drinking cold water may be the most direct way to reduce core body temperature, so it takes you longer to heat up and slow down. Better yet, rev up your calorie burn with these detox waters.
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Pineapple & Papaya
Both of these tropical fruits are loaded with bromelain and papain, enzymes that not only help break down proteins for digestion but also have anti-inflammatory properties to speed up your post-workout recovery. For a full list of the best fruits for your belly, click here.
Australian researchers found that cyclists who took fish oil for 8 weeks had lower heart rates and consumed less oxygen during intense bicycling than a control group did. The fatty acids in fish oil need to become incorporated into muscle and heart cells to have an effect, and that takes weeks of consumption—so either take fish oil pills each day, or try to eat fish rich in fatty acids multiple times a week to see similar results.
Brazilian scientists found that participants who consumed three cups of green tea every day for a week had fewer markers of the cell damage caused by resistance to exercise. So drinking a few cups every day may help your muscles recover faster after an intense workout.
Almond butter can help prevent workout fatigue and can even aid in speeding up muscle recovery thanks to its protein content. The protein, fiber and healthy fat in almond butter can give you that boost you need before starting a workout.
Lean meats are a great low-calorie source of protein, and scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, found that eating more protein may reduce the fat around your midsection. People who ate 20 more grams of protein every day than the group average had 6 percent lower waist-to-hip ratios. Not a fan of meat? Here are 7 Best Meat-Free Proteins That Boost Weight Loss.
Instead of reaching for a Gatorade, go for some chocolate milk. A study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that folks who drank chocolate milk before riding on stationary bikes were able to last 49 percent longer than participants given a generic carb-replacement drink.
Not only can coffee boost your workout performance, it can also help with recovery. University of Georgia researchers found that taking a caffeine supplement equivalent to two cups of coffee post workout actually reduced muscle soreness more effectively than pain relievers. How so? Caffeine was found to deactivate pain receptors.
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition discovered that high-protein dairy can increase exercise-induced weight loss. To come to these findings, participants enjoyed six daily servings of dairy while the control group didn’t. The group who ate more dairy maintained more lean muscle regardless of sharing the same fitness regime.
The small but mighty nuts are effective at both whittling your waistline and improving exercise performance. When compared to cookies containing the same amount of calories, whole almonds improved cycling distance and endurance performance in trained athletes, a 2014 study found. Researchers speculate that nutrients in almonds may contribute to effective oxygen utilization.
Committed to hitting the gym more often? It may be time to add pumpkin to your diet on the daily. Taiwanese researchers pumpkin can help reduce lactic acid—the compound that’s responsible for making your muscles ache—after a sweat sesh.
Who knew this go-to beach snack can also double as a potent post-workout recovery pick? Thanks to watermelon’s amino acid L-citrulline, the fresh fruit can help relieve pesky muscle soreness.
Another warm-weather favorite, hydrating cucumber is a potent source of muscle-mending L-citrulline. Next time you whip up a summer salad, don’t forget to toss in some cucumber or prep a quick post-workout snack by stuffing the green boats with a homemade tuna salad.
Onions are a solid source of the antioxidant quercetin, so if you can tolerate the stenchy drawback, the allium can do wonders for your workout. “It is thought that quercetin can help to create new mitochondria in the body’s cells and increase one’s oxidative capacity, which signifies the maximum amount of oxygen your muscles can use,” says Sarah-Jane Bedwell, RD, LDN, a Nashville-based nutritionist and author of Schedule Me Skinny: Plan to Lose Weight and Keep it Off in Just 30 Minutes a Week.
Another awesome source of quercetin, blueberries can help beat post-workout inflammation so that you can hit the gym harder tomorrow. Other berries such as blackberries and boysenberries are also good sources of the nutrient.
Our favorite dip’s primary ingredient just happens to be one of our go-to fitness-boosting foods. Like meat and certain fruits, chickpeas contain L-citrulline, which is known to alleviate muscle soreness. Throw them into a food processor with some tahini, lemon juice, minced garlic, and chopped parsley for an ultra-creamy and satiating hummus.
Sipping on tomato juice before an intense cardio workout isn’t probably the first idea that comes to mind, but it’ll do you a solid. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that lycopene, the antioxidant that lends tomatoes their red hue, improved athletes’ performance level by reducing oxidative stress.
“Cherries provide a range of health benefits, particularly in the realm of athletic performance and recovery,” Kevin St. Fort, Equinox personal trainer and group fitness instructor, tells us. “A diet bolstered by cherry consumption can leave you with a lower total weight and body fat, as well as less inflammation, due to the reduced amount of strength loss and muscle soreness.”
A study on 30 recreationally active men showed those who consumed antioxidant-rich beetroot juice immediately after their workouts experienced less muscle soreness and better overall recovery.
Yes, we are looking at you egg white lovers. Next time you reach for an egg as a post-workout meal leave the yellow stuff in there, because a recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that whole eggs stimulated muscle synthesis more than egg whites when eaten directly after resistance exercise. The egg whites and whole eggs had the same amount of protein, but healthy fats and other nutrients in the yolk promoted more efficient use of protein found in the whites.
A 2017 ESPN exclusive revealed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be the pre-workout snack of choice for NBA players. The sandwich is a staple for a reason, the carbs deliver players and athletes the boost of energy they need to perform while protein from the peanut butter helps in muscle recovery.
A study based off of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that consuming oats was consistent with a lower body mass index and better overall nutrient intake. Throw a scoop of your favorite protein powder and nuts into your oatmeal for a pre-workout meal packed with all the carbohydrates, fat, and protein your body needs to work at its full potential.
Cottage cheese contains high levels of casein protein, which is the best post-workout snack for a late night pump before bed because it is slow digesting. A study in the Journal of Nutrition also found dairy proteins like those in cottage cheese to have a superior effect on protein synthesis of soy proteins after workouts.
A study in The Journal of the American Pain Society found that ginger is effective in reducing inflammation and disability induced by eccentric exercise.
Brown rice is chock full of complex carbs, which help fuel your workout with lasting energy. The whole grain is also a great source of muscle-benefiting magnesium.
Iron and magnesium is a potent nutrient combo that helps induce muscle development, process carbs more efficiently, and increase in muscle efficiency. Snack on pepitas on their own or add them to a breakfast parfait.
The moringa tree is known for its nearly magical medicinal properties including a sky-high antioxidant content along with fitness-promoting nutrients such as magnesium and iron. Reap the benefits by adding a few scoops of Chosen Food’s organic moringa powder to one of our best smoothies for weight loss.
One of our best proteins for weight loss doubles as one of our best sources of fat-burning amino acid, L-arginine. A study in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that L-arginine can help you burn more fat and carbs in the gym.
“Beans are a great source of protein that includes fiber,” Leah Kaufman, a New York City-based registered dietitian, tells us. “That’s going to ensure your blood sugar doesn’t spike and will give you energy to build the muscle you want.”
Muscles require a complete protein—with all nine essential amino acids—for proper rebuilding and growth. While meat is known for packing in all nine amino acids, there are vegetarian sources of complete proteins that do the trick, one of them being small but mighty chia seeds. In addition to packing complete protein, chia seeds also contain omega-3s (ALA specifically), which help torch fat.
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that iron can help reduce fatigue related to strenuous exercise by circulating oxygen to your muscles. Kale is a wonderful source of the nutrient, so why not whip up a chopped salad before your next run?
Lentils are loaded with iron—nearly 3 grams per 3.5-ounce serving—which can help increase muscle efficiency. And that’s not all: The legume is chock full of magnesium, a mineral that’s essential to muscle development, energy production, and carb metabolism.
A study in the Journal Physiology of Sport and Exercise discovered that insufficient water intake can prevent essential amino acids from entering muscle tissue. Not only will your workout sessions suffer, but insufficient liquids in your body will also hinder fat breakdown.
A study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that participants who showed higher levels of vitamin D were actually stronger than those with lesser amounts of the fat-soluble nutrient. A mere cup of maitake mushrooms pack in three times your daily allowance of vitamin D, so get munching!
Blueberries contain anthocyanins and ellagic acid, two antioxidants that can ward off inflammation and joint pain. And less inflammation and joint pain means you can hit the gym sooner.
Meatless Mondays call for swapping out your go-to sneak dinner with a satiating parfait stacked with plain yogurt, fiber-rich berries, almond slivers, and hemp seeds. While hemp seeds are derived from the cannabis plant, they’re non-psychoactive and won’t get you stoned. But they will get you ripped. Just one tablespoon of the earthy seeds pack in 3.3 grams of complete protein to help you maintain lean muscle.
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Turmeric & Black Pepper
A study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that athletes who when combined anti-inflammatory turmeric with black pepper helped reduce exercise-induced muscle damage. Black pepper is shown to increase turmeric’s bioavailability by an impressive 2,000 percent in humans, which means pairing the two will help you benefit from the golden spice’s anti-inflammatory effects.
If you’re choosing energy-boosting chocolate before a HIIT workout, dark chocolate with a cacao content of 75 percent or more is your best bet. The higher the cacao content, the higher the free-radical-fighting flavanols are present.
For lasting energy that will get you through a tough gym session, pregame with sweet potato. “One of my favorite foods that provide lasting energy is sweet potatoes because they contain fiber and complex carbohydrates. Plus, sweet potatoes contain vitamins A and C for an immune boost too,” says Chelsey Amer, MS, RDN.
Bananas are the ultimate pre-workout snack, notorious for providing a potent energy boost. “Bananas are made up from three different types of sugar (fructose, glucose, and sucrose) which get absorbed into your blood at different speeds, meaning that you will get a quick boost of energy and won’t suffer a slump as the sucrose will keep your blood levels steady,” Nutritionist Frida Harju tells us.
For all-day energy and a potent workout boost, Monica Auslander, MS, RD, LD/N, founder of Essence Nutrition recommends a homemade matcha latte. “Matcha has a significant amount of caffeine and is a great alternative for folks who hate coffee or put horrible things in there (creamers!). Take one teaspoon of chef grade matcha powder and stir it into foamed/warmed unsweetened cashew milk. Tons of EGCG, an antioxidant implicated in weight loss and cancer control,” she says. Swap this milky latte for your sketchy sports drink next time you hit the weight rack.
“One of my favorite energy-boosting foods is salmon,” Rima Kleiner, MS, RD tells us. “Chock-full of nutrients, salmon is a food that contributes to many positive health benefits, including energy levels, thanks to B vitamins, particularly B12 which may help boost energy and fight fatigue naturally. Additionally, salmon is one of the few natural sources of vitamin D, which may also help combat fatigue, causing you to feel more energized.” Talk about a tasty workout boost!
Complex carbohydrates, like those found in sprouted, whole-grain bread will help you power through your workout thanks to the energizing B vitamins, fiber, and protein. Since it takes our bodies longer to break down complex carbs, opt for popping a slice into the toaster for long-lasting energy.
Think of skyr—Icelandic yogurt—as Greek’s creamy, high-protein rival. One standard 5.3-ounce serving of plain skyr can pack up to 18 grams of protein, the macro that’s essential for repairing and building muscles after exercise. Mix in some fiber-rich fruit for some fiber and carbs, which will replenish lost glycogen stores.
If you’re an avid smoothie shop frequenter, you’ve likely noticed maca as one of the pricey add-ins. “Maca is a native Peruvian plant that grows in the Andes resembling a small rough stone the size of a walnut. Maca has a positive effect on energy and mood as studies have shown that it can support continued exercise because it increases glucose in the bloodstream,” Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD author and founder of Whole Body Reboot tells us.
“While rich in amino acids, phytonutrients and a variety of vitamins and minerals, maca functions as an adaptogen thus aiding in adrenal function to increase energy, reduce stress, and create an overall revitalizing effect. I usually take maca in my pre-exercise shake.”
Another stellar smoothie add-in, spirulina will help increase your endurance during that spin sesh. A study in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise journal found that the blue-green algae helped induce a significant increase in exercise performance and fat oxidation. Longer workout and more fat burned? Count us in.
Edamame, the steamed and lightly salted soybeans served pre-sushi dinner, are a triple threat against fatigue. The powering combo of protein, carbs, and fat will help keep blood sugar stable and give you an energy boost.