Plus the science that explains them.

By Betty Gold
Updated May 09, 2019
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What does your body really need to kick through that barre or boxing class? Hint: It's not nothing—Failing to eat before you exercise can result in dizziness, nausea, and make you more prone to injuring yourself (think of it like running a car without any gas). Being thoughtful about what you eat before exercising will help you stay energized and maximize the benefits of all your hard work. We asked health experts what foods are best to eat a couple of hours before we hit the gym—or pool, bike, or mat—for optimal endurance and a super smooth recovery.

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The sugar in bananas enters the blood stream a little quicker than other fruits, which means it fuels your fitness faster, says Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees and the New York Rangers. They're easy on the digestive system, too. And because bananas are a great source of potassium, snacking on one pre-workout reduces your chance of getting muscle cramps afterwards. Finally, bananas replenishes your body with the electrolytes you lose from sweat.

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Though you probably rely on your cup of Joe as an energy boost, your morning caffeine fix can help you at the gym, too. Coffee improves endurance and strengthens your legwork, according to an American College of Sports Medicine study. You might even find yourself enjoying your workout more, a study published in the American Physiological Society says. Just go eat on the milk to avoid stomach cramps or indigestion. Not a coffee drinker? Tea works, too.

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You lose water many different ways when exercising, breathing heavily and sweating chief among them, so make sure you’re adequately hydrated before and after the workout. But don’t hydrate excessively, either. Drinking too much water can cause lightheadedness, nausea, and exercise-associated hyponatremia, a condition that causes the brain to swell, according to a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine. If you're unsure exactly what constitutes “too much,” just drink when you’re thirsty rather than trying to hydrate preventively.

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Who knew your preferred pancake topping could also help your post-brunch workout? A tablespoon of maple syrup gives you a needed boost of carbs with an added bonus of 24 different antioxidants, helping protect your body from the wear and tear that come with exercise, says Sass. Just make sure that you’re using real-deal maple syrup. (Sorry, Mrs. Butterworth.) Drizzle a bit on oatmeal with some nuts and eat a couple hours before you hit the gym.

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According to a study from the American Physiological Society, those who drank beet juice as a supplement for 15 consecutive days showed increased endurance during exercise. The juice’s natural nitrates dilate blood vessels and increase blood flow, bringing more oxygen to muscles, which eases the burden on the heart. Other foods with high nitrate concentration include celery, arugula, and spinach.

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Try yogurt about a couple of hours before you begin your workout. Thanks to its high ratio of roughly three grams of protein for every carbohydrate, it's a surprisingly good pre-exercise source of energy says Felicia Stoler, R.D., nutritionist and exercise physiologist and member of the American College of Sports Medicine. By the time you complete your reps, the protein will have been absorbed into the small intestine, helping you repair and build muscle. Add dried or fresh fruit or granola on top for extra energy.

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Cutting carbs in hopes of shedding pounds? That’s not how it works. Your body can’t burn fat without the energy carbohydrates provide. Without them, you’ll quickly feel fatigued and break down your body’s protein deposits (aka muscle mass) to use as energy. Though it’s not your best choice for nutrients, this basic starch provides an inexpensive dose of carbohydrates without all the fiber of brown or wild rice, making it stomach-cramp free. Add honey, berries or peanut butter to make nutrient-dense balls and just a pinch of salt to balance electrolytes, Carwyn Sharp, Ph.D., the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s chief science officer, says.