What you eat before your workout can help to ensure you are well-fueled, improve your performance, and help you reach your goals. Exactly how much and what to eat before a workout will vary depending on the time of day, how much energy you need, and the style, intensity, and duration of your workout. Here is everything you need to know about pre-workout nutrition and some of the best pre-workout snacks.
What to Eat Before a Workout
What you eat before a workout can help to optimize performance during your workout and recovery once it’s complete. Properly fueling yourself before a workout will help to ensure that you have sustained energy, boost your performance, ensure adequate hydration, preserve muscle mass, and enhance your recovery. Each macronutrient plays a different role in pre-workout nutrition.
Should you eat carbs before a workout?
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are the body’s primary source of fuel and are broken down into glucose, which is used as energy by the body. Glucose is stored in muscle tissue and the liver as glycogen and during exercise, especially short and/or high-intensity exercise, the glucose stored in our muscles is used as our primary source of energy. Consuming carbohydrates pre-workout will help to maximize your glycogen stores and the underconsumption of carbs pre-workout can lead to early fatigue, decreased endurance, decreased power, and decreased mental focus (1).
Should you eat protein before a workout?
The benefits of protein pre and post workout are well-researched and documented in peer-reviewed studies by the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Protein is made up of amino acids and adequate consumption of amino acids, in conjunction with consistent strength training, has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis, improve muscle recovery and improve performance (2)(3). Although the importance of protein intake and consuming a high-protein snack is heightened post-workout, consuming protein pre-workout has also been shown to have benefits; most notably it has been shown to increase muscle growth, improve recovery and reduce markers of muscle damage (4).
Should you eat fat before a workout?
Although glycogen from carbohydrates is predominately used for energy during shorter and higher-intensity workouts, consuming fats pre-workout can help to improve satiety and may act as a source of fuel for longer and lower-intensity workouts. The closer you eat to your workout the less dietary fat is of importance as it has not been shown to directly improve or diminish performance and, in some cases, too much fat can lead to digestive discomfort.
When to Eat a Pre-Workout Snack
The exact ratio of macronutrients and volume of food required will vary based on several factors including goals, workout type, duration, and frequency, as well as personal digestion. In fact, in some cases, individuals may not need an additional pre-workout snack to complete their workout. Here are some general pre-workout nutrition guidelines to help you determine when and what to eat pre-workout.
3 to 4 Hours Before a Workout: The further you are from your workout the more important it is to consume a balanced meal complete with a source of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Eating 3 to 4 hours prior to your workout leaves you plenty of time to digest your meal so that you feel full and comfortable during your workout and helps to increase liver and muscle glycogen levels to enhance performance. At this time, it is best to focus on complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, potatoes, beans, and lentils, as they take longer to digest and will help to supply sustained energy during your workout. Examples include oatmeal with milk and peanut butter, whole wheat toast with eggs and avocado, and rice with chicken and pesto.
1 to 2 Hours Before a Workout: If your workout falls in between meals, you are not overly hungry, or you are looking for a lighter pre-workout meal, 1 to 2 hours before your workout is a great time to eat. At this time, it is important that you focus on consuming a source of carbohydrates and protein, while fats are of less importance. Examples include whole-grain bread with almond butter, granola with Greek yogurt, or whole-grain crackers with hummus.
30 Minutes to 1 Hour Before a Workout: The closer you are to your workout, the more important it is to consume easy-to-digest carbs and limit the consumption of fiber as it takes longer to digest and can cause discomfort during workouts. Whole food sources of simple carbohydrates or high-glycemic carbohydrates such as fruit, dried fruit, and honey are optimal sources of fuel pre-workout. Although protein is beneficial, given the short time frame, it is of lesser importance and can instead be consumed in a pre-workout meal 3 to 4 hours before your workout and/or in a post-workout meal. Moreover, the closer you get to your workout the more you should consider liquid sources of carbohydrates as they are quickly and easily digested and easy to throw in your gym bag. Examples include a banana, dried fruit, or fruit smoothie.
In general, the closer you get to your workout the more emphasis you want to put on carbohydrates, the less on protein, and even lesser on fats in your pre-workout snack. It is also best to avoid foods that are not easily digested or slow to digest to help limit digestive discomfort or fatigue during your workout.
Best Pre-Workout Snack Ideas
Here is a list of the best pre-workout snacks to fuel your fitness and optimize your performance, ranked in order of meal timing from 3 or more hours before your workout to less than 30 minutes before your workout.
- Oatmeal with Greek yogurt, honey, and berries
- Toast with scrambled eggs, cheese, and spinach
- Wrap with turkey, hummus, tomatoes, and lettuce
- Noodles with tofu, bell peppers, and sesame oil
- Rice with salmon, broccoli, and pesto
- Potatoes with chicken, asparagus, and butter
- Granola and yogurt
- Toast and peanut butter
- Pita and hummus
- Bagel and cream cheese
- Crackers and cottage cheese
- Apple and almond butter
- Granola bar
- Dried fruit
- Pre-workout supplement
For optimal results, it is best to review your current meal timing and workout timing before consuming additional (and potentially unnecessary) calories simply because you’ve heard a pre-workout snack can be beneficial. You may already be consuming exactly what you need. If you’re uncertain, it’s best to work with a registered dietitian or a certified nutritionist to determine the best approach for your goals.
How much should you eat before a workout?
Exactly how much to eat before a workout depends on the individual, their goals, the type of workout, and how much time before their workout. As a general guideline, you should consume a large meal with protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats 3-4 hours before an activity, and top up glycogen stores 30-60 minutes before a workout with a small pre-workout snack of simple carbohydrates.
Do you have to eat before a workout?
Not everyone needs a pre-workout snack. If you are working out first thing in the morning or long after a meal you may need to consume a small pre-workout snack to ensure that you are adequately fueled, however, if you are working out shortly after consuming a full meal, in many cases, there is no need for an additional pre-workout snack. Although athletes will have special and specific needs, if you are a general exerciser who is looking to support your overall health you likely don’t need targeted and strategic exercise nutrition strategies, you simply want to ensure that you consume some carbohydrates and a little protein to fuel your activity.
What about early morning pre-workout snacks?
If you are someone who workouts or goes to the gym first thing in the morning, there is no need to wake up 3 to 4 hours before your workout to consume a complete meal! What and how much to eat before a morning workout depends on your individual health, your goals, and the type of workout you are doing. Pre-workout fueling needs vary greatly for a long run, strength training workout, yoga class, and a basic sweat session. Consuming a source of easy-to-digest carbs, such as a granola bar, banana, apple sauce, a handful of raisins, or a pre-workout shake can help to ensure you’re properly fueled for your workout and not training on an empty stomach. Not to mention, a little sip of caffeine can help to boost energy and has been shown to enhance performance (5).
What are the best pre-workout snacks for weight loss?
The best pre-workout snacks for weight loss are the same as the best pre-workout snacks for general health and optimal performance. To lose weight, you must create a calorie deficit. Meaning, you must expend more calories than you are consuming via food and beverage to ensure that your body is using stored energy (i.e. body fat). Therefore, to support a weight loss goal, you can consume any pre-workout snack as long as the calories from that snack fit within your daily calorie intake to create a calorie deficit.
The Bottom Line
What you eat before a workout can have a big impact on your performance and progress. The exact balance of nutrients and amount of food required will vary based on the time of day, and the type, intensity, and duration of your workout. In general, a good pre-workout snack includes a combination of carbohydrates and protein, and the closer you get to your workout the more you should focus on simple carbohydrates that are easily digested.