What you eat before your workout can help to ensure you are well fuelled, improve your performance and help you reach your goals. Exactly how much and what to eat before your 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 healthy pre-workout snack ideas to get you going.
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 fuelling 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.
Carbohydrates 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, and during exercise, especially short and/or high-intensity exercise, the glucose stored in our muscles is used as our primary source of energy. Underconsumption of carbohydrates pre-workout can lead to early fatigue, decreased endurance, decreased power, and decreased mental focus. (1) Ensuring that you are well fed with sources of carbohydrates prior to your workout helps to ensure that your body and your brain have the necessary fuel to perform.
The benefits of protein pre and post-workout are well researched and documented. Adequate protein consumption, 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 is heightened in post-workout snacks, consuming protein pre-workout has also been shown to have benefits; most notably it has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis, improve recovery and reduce markers of muscle damage. (4)
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 a number of 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 before a workout.
3 to 4 Hours Before
The further you are from your workout the more important it is to consume a well-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 also helps to increase liver and muscle glycogen levels to enhance performance. At this time, it is best to focus on low-glycemic 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.
- Oats + Milk + Peanut Butter
- Toast + Eggs + Avocado
- Rice + Chicken + Pesto
1 to 2 Hours Before
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 carbohydrate and protein, while fats are of less importance.
- Toast + Peanut Butter
- Granola + Yogurt
- Crackers + Hummus
30 Minutes to 1 Hour Before
The closer you are to your workout, the more important it is to consume a source of carbohydrate that is quickly and easily digested. Generally speaking, whole food sources of simple carbohydrates or high-glycemic carbohydratessuch as fruit, dried fruit, and natural sugar 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 snack. Moreover, the closer you get to your workout the more you should consider liquid sources of carbohydrates as they are quickly and easily digested.
- Dried Fruit
- 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. 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.
What about early morning pre-workout snacks?
If you are someone who workouts first thing in the morning there is no need to wake up 3 to 4 hours before your workout to consume a complete meal! Instead, focus on the guidelines for pre-workout snacks 1 to 2 hours before or 0 to 1 hour before, depending on how early you wake up before your workout and/or how much time you have to eat. Ensure that you prioritize carbohydrates, specifically high-glycemic carbohydrates that are quickly and easily digested. Not to mention, a little sip of caffeine can help to boost energy and has been shown to enhance performance. (5)
Who needs a pre-workout snack?
In reality, 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 fuelled, however, if you are working out shortly after consuming a full meal, in most 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.
For optimal results, it is best to review your current meal timing and workout timing before consuming additional (and potentially unnecessary) pre-workout calories simply because you’ve heard pre-workout snacks can be beneficial. You may already be consuming exactly what you need.
18 Pre-Workout Snack Ideas
Here are some pre-workout snacks and meal ideas to help you fuel your fitness and optimize performance.
If your workout starts in 3 or more hours:
- 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
If your workout starts in 1-2 hours:
- Granola and yogurt
- Toast and peanut butter
- Pita and hummus
- Bagel and cream cheese
- Berries and cottage cheese
- Apple and almonds
If your workout starts in 1 hour or less:
- Toast with honey
- Pre-workout supplement
The Bottom Line
What and when you eat before your workout can have a big impact on your performance and progress. The exact balance of macronutrients 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 combination of carbohydrates and protein is recommended for pre-workout snacks and meals, and the closer you get to your workout the more you should focus on simple carbohydrates that are easily digested.