For some of us, a workout in the afternoon, after lunch, and maybe even after work, is the best option for maintaining a regular exercise routine. However, figuring out the best way to fuel yourself before an afternoon workout can present a lot more questions than answers. Should you have a carbohydrate-dense lunch, a protein-filled snack, or go without? Fortunately, nutritionists have some guidance on the best food to get you through your afternoon sweat with as much energy as possible.
First, a caveat: However you choose to fuel yourself, a lot of factors can impact how your body responds when you're on the treadmill or in down dog. The timing of your pre-workout meal is just as, if not more, important than what you actually eat. Nutritionist Nancy Cohen told TIME that "a meal high in carbs and protein and low in fat roughly three to four hours before you exercise" is perfect for your needs, because it allows you to digest and get the most out of your fuel. Got a workout class at 5 p.m.? Try to time your lunch for 1 p.m.
So what should your pre-workout meal be? Complex carbohydrates and protein are your friend. Cohen told TIME that complex, non-refined carbohydrates should be part of your meal. That means beans, whole grains and potatoes, rather than processed products like white bread or cakes.
When it comes to a snack in the 90 minutes before your workout, you have several options. Lee Mullins told Women's Health, "I'm a big fan of pre-workout snacks being predominantly made up of healthy fats and protein. This combination helps raise the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and dopamine, which increase focus, drive and motivation." He suggests plant milks, mixed nuts, chicken and guac, or dark chocolate.
You may also want to try a mixture of carbohydrates and protein. A study in 2008 found that athletes performed better when they had a protein-and-carb shake before an afternoon workout than when they just had carbs — and they recovered more swiftly afterwards. Whatever you choose, it's a good idea to stay away from things like energy bars that are actually just jam-packed with sugar: Instead of sustainable energy, you'll get a sugar high followed by a nasty crash. And according to a study published in 2016, eating "fitness" branded food makes people exercise with less intensity. In terms of helping your workout efficiency, it's a good idea to stay away from those bars if you can.
The diversity of opinions here reflects the many different ways in which exercise can burn fuel produced by food. All our bodies are different, and there's not a one-size-fits-all eating regime for afternoon workouts. If you're starting a regular afternoon workout, it's likely best to start experimenting with a range of snacks and timings, to see how they affect your energy and performance. Protein pot make you feel sluggish? Granola bar give you the energy to hit five more reps than you thought you could? It's all about being mindful of your schedule and intake to feel your best.