Who doesn’t want to improve their energy? While getting proper sleep and reducing stress can enhance energy levels during exercise, there are several nutritional strategies that can make a major difference.
Here are three evidence-based approaches to ensure long-lasting energy during your workout:
Strategy #1: Focus on High-Quality Carbohydrates
While athletes need a combination of macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat) to function optimally, carbohydrates are the most important source of fuel when we exercise. This is because carbs are efficiently broken down into glucose to be utilized as quick energy by the brain and muscles. If you want to boost your energy during your workout, you need to focus on consuming meals and snacks with high-quality carbohydrates beforehand (2).
Examples of pre-exercise meals (2-3 hours prior to activity):
Pasta with tomato sauce, shrimp, and roasted vegetables
Baked salmon with sweet potato, broccoli, and a wheat roll
Turkey sandwich on wheat bread with veggie toppings and a side of fresh fruit
Burrito bowl with brown rice, chicken, mixed vegetables, and fresh salsa
Grilled chicken with roasted potatoes and fresh fruit
Oatmeal with walnuts and berries with a side of 2 eggs on wheat toast
Stir-fry with tofu, peppers, and onions over brown rice (light sauce)
Examples of pre-exercise snacks (< 60 min prior to activity):
Whole, fresh fruit
Dates or figs
½ PB&J sandwich
Peanut butter crackers
Toast with jam
Small fruit smoothie
Small bowl oatmeal
Strategy #2: Timing Makes A Difference
If you want to optimize your energy levels during a workout, you need to pay attention to the timing in which you eat and drink beforehand. You should be giving yourself at least 2 hours to digest a full meal prior to intense activity (1). If you plan to exercise at a duration or intensity that requires extra effort (game, race, intense training, etc.); you should also focus on having a high-quality, balanced dinner the night before! In order to top off your glycogen (storage form of carbohydrates) leading into that event, the meal the night before should also be high in complex carbohydrates (1). Above, you will find examples of pre-exercise meals.
While having a meal 2-3 hours before physical activity is important for proper digestion and absorption, it is common for athletes and active individuals to experience hunger within 1 hour of activity. In this case, it is recommended to have a small snack beforehand as long as you allow at least 15 minutes to digest to limit gastrointestinal discomfort during exercise. This snack should primarily consist of easily-digestible carbohydrates and should be low in protein, fat, and fiber. Refer to the list above for examples of pre-exercise snack ideas.
Strategy #3: Performance-Enhancing Ingredients
Follow a food-first philosophy! If your diet is balanced and full of variety; and you don’t avoid any major food groups, you are completely capable of achieving optimal health and performance without the need of supplements. However, there are some circumstances in which you may benefit from taking safe and effective supplements from reliable sources.
If you are interested in increasing your energy during exercise, keep in mind that there are only a small handful of legal, natural sports supplements that have been proven to provide a potential performance-enhancing effect. The highly-respected Australian Institute of Sport has synthesized the research to categorize a comprehensive list of products and ingredients based on their efficacy as an ergogenic aid; and here are two of them:
Caffeine: Caffeine is probably the most researched supplement for enhancing energy and performance during physical activity. It consistently appears to be a safe and effective with improving both strength and endurance; however, too much can be detrimental. It is recommended to have 50-200mg of caffeine (in the form of capsules, gels, sports drinks, bars, gum, or coffee) 15-60 minutes before activity (4).
Beetroot: Beetroot powder is a natural, food-based supplement that has shown positive results in the research with improving energy and athletic performance, particularly endurance (3). It works through its vasodilatory properties, or in other words, expanding the diameter of the blood vessels to allow more oxygen to be transported to the muscles. It is recommended to have approximately 16 ounces of 100% beetroot juice 2-3 hours before activity OR one serving of BeetElite powder 30 minutes beforehand.
It is important to stress how valuable it is to become an informed consumer! Sports supplements are notorious for making false claims, and companies can get away with this due to the lack of regulation. If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is! Additionally, it is highly recommended to purchase sports supplements from companies that have been third-party tested — such as “NSF Certified for Sport” or “Informed Choice”.
In conclusion, going into a workout with optimal energy will undeniably allow you to perform at a higher level and even gain more strength and endurance. Perhaps the best way to improve your energy is to focus on proper nutrition. According to the research, the best nutritional strategies for enhancing energy during exercise include: 1) Prioritizing high-quality carbohydrates; 2) Focusing on optimal timing of your pre-exercise meal; and 3) Considering natural, safe, and effective supplements (such as caffeine and beetroot powder). Whether you are an elite athlete wishing to maximize your performance during your training sessions or a casual exerciser looking to improve your energy during workouts, it would be wise to consider these nutritional strategies.
Jack O’Connor, MS, RD
Lead Performance Dietitian
INC Nutrition LLC
Arent, S. M., Cintineo, H. P., McFadden, B. A., Chandler, A. J., & Arent, M. A. (2020). Nutrient timing: a garage door of opportunity?. Nutrients, 12(7), 1948.
Burke, L. M., Hawley, J. A., Wong, S. H., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2011). Carbohydrates for training and competition. Journal of sports sciences, 29(sup1), S17-S27.
Domínguez, R., Cuenca, E., Maté-Muñoz, J. L., García-Fernández, P., Serra-Paya, N., Estevan, M. C. L., & Garnacho-Castaño, M. V. (2017). Effects of beetroot juice supplementation on cardiorespiratory endurance in athletes. A systematic review. Nutrients, 9(1), 43.
Grgic, J., Grgic, I., Pickering, C., Schoenfeld, B. J., Bishop, D. J., & Pedisic, Z. (2020). Wake up and smell the coffee: caffeine supplementation and exercise performance—an umbrella review of 21 published meta-analyses. British journal of sports medicine, 54(11), 681-688.