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Honestly, when working out first thing in the morning, do I really need to eat before? Especially if I'm just doing a quick 30-minute run or elliptical?

-- Alicia, 26, Shreveport, Louisiana

With all of the marketing of sports drinks, bars, gels and powders, this is an excellent question to ask. There's certainly no harm in eating -- and it might help you meet your fitness goals by giving you more energy during the actual run or elliptical workout.

"It's a contradiction, but you really do need the calories to perform well," Barbara Lewin, R.D., L.D., a sports nutritionist who works with professional and Olympic athletes, said in an earlier interview about sports drink alternatives. "The calories are what's enabling you to work out at your best. If you're not well-fueled, you're not going to work out as hard."

And certainly, if you're planning an endurance training session, you must eat. According to Andrea Hacker Thompson, M.S., R.D., of the American College of Sports Medicine, endurance athletes should eat even when they aren't hungry. She wrote:

A race car never starts a race without new tires and a full tank of gas, so an endurance athlete should not start a workout without fueling. Eating before a workout guarantees that the body starts with a full tank of glycogen.

But even for those of us who aren't trying to run an ultramarathon, if we plan a rigorous session of 90 minutes or longer, getting a bit to eat beforehand is a good idea. To understand why, it's important to know how our bodies use energy during a workout. When we exert ourselves, we burn glycogen -- the cache of glucose we keep stored in our muscle and liver cells. After we've gone through that store of carbohydrates, we can start to feel fatigued. As Thompson explains for the ACSM, the body can store about 2,000 calories in glycogen. If you plan to go over that amount (and, wow, that's quite a workout if you do!), you could begin to get light-headed, weak or just plain exhausted.

But for a 30 minute treadmill session? You probably don't have to make a concerted effort to eat enough. You do, on the other hand, have to keep hydrated. Water is fine for a half-hour run, but any workout over an hour may require some electrolyte replacement -- such as a sports drink or a piece of fruit.

Beyond the question of whether or not to eat, there are other considerations. It's important not to eat too much -- or too little. And to know when to eat it. The Mayo Clinic provides a guideline, suggesting a small snack about an hour before exercising or a medium meal two hours before a gym session. For a full meal, they recommend giving yourself a three to four hour time period between eating and hitting the gym. Overdo it, and you could give yourself stomach cramps or even diarrhea.

Most of all, it's important to note your own reaction to food and figure out an eating plan that's right for you. Feel fine during a morning run, even without that yogurt? Skip it. But if you need a little something for extra energy, there's nothing wrong with starting with a snack.

For some ideas on snacks and drinks that could go well with your workout, try these:

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  • Bananas

    Bananas have always been a popular food with athletes, thanks to their calorie-dense, portable nature and abundance of potassium -- an electrolyte lost during intensive sweating sessions. <br><br> But researchers from the Appalachian State University's Human Performance Lab <a href="http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0037479" target="_hplink">recently found</a> that endurance cyclists performed just as well when they consumed bananas as they did when they drank a sports drink. <br><br> What's more, the banana offered other, long-term benefits not available from a sugary sports drink: antioxidants, fiber and vitamin B. <br><br> The study was funded by Dole, a fruit company that sells bananas, but it was also published in the peer-reviewed journal, PLoS ONE.

  • Chocolate Milk

    Sports drinks are meant to give you a mid-workout boost, and they're also intended to help with recovery. But recent research found that low fat chocolate milk -- yes, the plain old, dessert-like dairy drink -- works better than the neon stuff. <br><br> <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sports-drinks/MY01209" target="_hplink">According to a Mayo Clinic review</a> of several high-quality studies, that's because low fat milk has all three components required for proper sports recovery: carbohydrates, in the form of lactose; the electrolytes potassium and sodium; and protein, from casein and whey.

  • Coconut Water

    Coconut water is sometimes touted as "nature's sports drink" -- and while it's true that the drink is full of the electrolyte potassium and is lower in calories than most sports drinks, that moniker is a bit of hyperbole. <br><br> Athletes need potassium, but they also need sodium, which isn't in sufficient enough quantities in commercial coconut water. <a href="http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/08/really-the-claim-for-better-hydration-drink-coconut-water/" target="_hplink">Explains Anahad O'Connor</a> at the New York Times' Well Blog: <br><br> <blockquote>An 8.5 ounce serving of Vita Coco 100% Pure Coconut Water, for example, contains 30 milligrams of sodium and 15 grams of carbohydrates. An eight-ounce serving of Gatorade Pro 02 Perform is equal in carbs (14 grams) but has more sodium (200 milligrams).</blockquote> But for moderate activity or gym sessions under an hour, where replacing water is the primary concern over replacing electrolytes and sugars, the low-cal, all natural beverage is a better bet.

  • Raisins

    In addition to sports drinks, many companies now offer sports gels or "chews" -- a solid, no less colorful gelatin confection that delivers sugars, electrolytes and calories. <br><br> But in <a href="http://www.runwashington.com/news/763/309/The-Athlete-s-Kitchen-Sports-Nutrition-News-from-ACSM.htm" target="_hplink">a study of trained cyclists</a>, raisins -- an all-natural and far cheaper option -- performed just as well to help athletes sustain their energy and performance when eaten as a pre-training snack. <br><br> Elizabeth Applegate recommends trying out other kinds of dried fruit too -- figs and pears are particularly great because of their high carbohydrate content, she said.

  • Homemade Drink

    "Liquid really makes the most sense during the workout. Blood flow goes to the muscles, so digestion is slower. The easiest thing to digest is a liquid," says Barbara Lewin, RD, LD, a sports nutritionist who works with professional and Olympic athletes, as well as "regular" gym-goers. <br><br> Lewin shared her go-to mix for a healthful, natural alternative sports drink. <br><br> <strong>Natural Sports Drink Recipe</strong>: <br> 3.5 cups water <br> 1/4 cup orange juice <br> 1/4 cup maple syrup <br> 1/4 teaspoon salt <br><br> An eight-ounce serving provides 50 calories and 110 mg sodium, according to Lewin.

  • Rice

    It might seem surprising -- and certainly messy! -- but UC Davis' Elizabeth Applegate explains that cooked rice, especially squirted with a bit of honey, makes a good energy-delivering, restorative snack for endurance athletes. <br><br> "Of course, this isn't appropriate for runners," she told The Huffington Post, recommending the mix for cyclers.

  • Caffeine

    While endurance athletes need the electrolytes and carbohydrates that come from a sports drink, most often, regular gym goers do not. That's because under an hour of moderate-to-intense exercise doesn't warrant concerted replacement efforts. <br><br> Most often, when your average gym warrior goes for a sports drink, they really just need a pick-me-up. And for that, suggests Elizabeth Applegate, a low-cal drink with 100 milligrams of caffeine -- like a black iced coffee or strong tea, will work just fine. <br><br> <em> <strong>CORRECTION</strong>: An earlier version of this slide stated that caffeine should contain 100 grams, rather than milligrams. That would be a dangerous amount of caffeine. We regret the error. </em>

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