You show up at the right bar at the right time, you fall in love, and you get married. You go to the Christmas party, you meet the right person, and you’re hired for your dream job. You eat an apple, you go for a run, and you poop your pants. Timing is everything.

When I was training for my first marathon, I tried to do most of my training in the mornings, but once in awhile I’d end up running in the evenings instead. I very distinctly remember these evening training sessions because of some traumatic close calls. I would get out of work, eat an apple or granola bar in the car on my way home, throw on my running clothes, and hit the pavement. I was powered up and unstoppable! Cut to 20 minutes later when I was changing my running route in a panic to find the nearest bathroom. Or sometimes I would just sit on a curb and breathe heavily, praying for it to magically go away until I could make it home. The struggle was real.

If you have ever had this happen to you while working out, I guarantee you’re not alone. And if you’re anything like me you’ve probably found it frustrating. If I don’t eat, I’m hungry. If I do eat, I’ll crap my pants. What am I supposed to do?! In the end, how you perform has nearly everything to do with what you eat. But it can be confusing. Should I work out on an empty stomach? Should I eat a granola bar instead? Should I go to the spaghetti feast the night before my 5k? The truth is that we are all different, and experimenting with what works for you is the key, BUT there are general rules of thumb to follow when fueling for a workout or a race.

In this post I’m going to discuss pre-workout fueling. I’ve grown to view food as fuel and I have so many things to say about the food you eat not only before your workout but also during and after. For now though, here are some guidelines on how to pre-power yourself for workout victory.

1-3 hours before a workout: MACRO PARTY!

Macronutrients (otherwise known as proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates) all work hand-in-hand to help your body prepare for workout madness. These nutrients are fantastic, necessary, and most importantly need to be eaten far enough in advance of a workout. If you are eating well throughout the day, you should be pretty set on most of these. But if you are someone who becomes hungry during a workout, eating a mixture of complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats 1-3 hours prior to your workout is a good step to preventing the hunger monster.

Proteins and fats will keep you feeling full because they take longer to digest than carbohydrates. BUT, because of that, they are also more taxing on the digestive system. Going into a workout, you want to make sure your digestive system isn’t using up all of your body’s energy to break down food. Your muscles are the ones that need that energy, so make sure you eat these foods 1-3 hours in advance.

Foods that require a longer digestion time are things like nuts, nut butters, seeds, fruit, whole grains (including pasta), and pseudograins (like quinoa). Eat these types of foods in advance to allow your body to digest them and be ready for its real job: getting sweaty.

20-30 minutes before a workout: SIMPLE CARBS!

Sweet, sweet glory. In our bodies, carbohydrates are converted into glycogen (aka our energy stores) which fuels our muscles and keeps us moving. Because you need glycogen for your muscles to function, you then in turn also need carbs. Simple carbs in particular for this window of fueling.

Unlike complex carbs, which need to be processed by the liver, simple carbs are easily utilized and ready to power you right then and there (well ok, in 20-30 minutes). On a side note, you can also mix simple carbs with a teeny tiny bit of fat (ex. coconut oil) to slow the rate of absorption for a more steady increase in energy. Just remember, too much fat results in a taxed digestive system.

Simple carbs include things like dried fruit, fruit juices, and chocolate. Yep, chocolate.

But Megan, I’m cutting carbs!

Totally get it. Maybe you heard that cutting carbs will get you fit and sexy. But I urge you to keep eating carbs, especially when it comes to working out. I’m talking about fruits, veggies, grains, and nutrient rich foods (not french fries or cake). It takes way more work for your body to turn protein into fuel than it does to turn carbs into fuel. The goal is to make this as easy as possible for your body to have what it needs so you can have an incredibly badass workout.

Ok so what you’re saying is, I wake up, I eat a bowl of pasta, I wait one hour, I eat a chocolate bar and then I go for a 15-minute jog?

Sure, you can do that if you want to. Who am I to deny you of life’s greatest pleasures! BUT, if you are just going for a 15-minute jog, a morning walk, or a short bike ride, the truth is that as long as you are eating throughout your week you should have enough glycogen in your muscles from previous meals to power you. If, on the other hand, you’re going to put in a 45-90 minute high-intensity workout session, compete in a race, or swim across the Atlantic Ocean than yes, eat something following the guidelines mentioned above.

Pre-Powering Pro(ish) Tips:

Too much fiber can result in bloating, an irritated stomach, or ultimately a bathroom (or roadside) catastrophe. I urge you to follow the 1-3 hour rule for things that take longer to digest for this reason in particular.

Continually hydrate even when you’re not working out. Going into a workout already dehydrated will require you to hydrate that much more during a workout. Staying hydrated leaves less room for a system shutdown (dizziness, cramps, brain fog, etc.)

How I Pre-Power
1 date + 1 spoonful of coconut oil 20-30 minutes prior to a workout or race. Coconut oil is a medium chain triglyceride (MCT), which means it is actually treated more like a carbohydrate in the body. But, because it is still a fat, it will slow the rate of absorption of the date just enough to give you that steady, increased energy that you may be looking for without taxing your digestive system too heavily.

Now go eat your chocolate and be a beast.