What you eat prior to doing a hard workout (or in many cases, any workout at all) can seriously affect how you feel. No one wants to get nauseous because they ate too much before doing hot yoga, or feel faint during a session of intense cardio because they haven’t eaten enough. What to eat before a workout has seriously puzzled me in the past — I most commonly head to the gym immediately after waking up and do my workout on an empty stomach, but I’ve noticed that some days I simply lack the energy to do the full HIIT lifting program or 20 minutes of sprints.
So with that in mind, I set out to research what to eat before a workout for optimal energy, performance, and physical results, because I’m done feeling sluggish in the gym.
What to eat before a workout
Why does what you eat before a workout matter?
Not only will proper nutrition help you recover faster in between workouts, it also will help you work out better in general. Feuling your muscles and stocking up your energy stores adequately before your workout just makes sense — it’s like making sure you have enough gas in the tank.
Eating the right foods before your workout will help you run harder, lift heavier, and perform better than if you exercised on an empty stomach or after eating the wrong foods.
How what you eat affects the body
Protein has proven itself to improve athletic performance when eaten before a workout — especially resistance-focused workouts — and increase muscle protein synthesis (aka the building of muscle mass).
The studies show that eating protein alone or pairing it with carbs both improve workout performance. Studies also link proper pre-workout protein consumption with increased strength and better muscle recovery.
Carbs provide your muscles with glycogen, which your body then taps for energy when you’re working out. As you deplete your glycogen stores, you become less capable of the same workout output. During most cardio workouts (especially intense ones!) your body taps glycogen as its main energy source.
Carb intake is a key way to fuel your muscles and liver with glycogen — which is why you’ll see athletes such as sprinters, football players, and long-distance runners eating high carb diets for several days (called carb loading) prior to events, which is proven to maximize your body’s stores of glycogen.
Fats are less credited with improving workout performance than proteins and carbs, but studies show they are good fuel for longer, moderate or low-intensity workouts. One study showed that an increase in dietary fats — up to 40 percent of your total caloric intake per day — actually improved endurance levels in trained runners.
Good pre-workout foods
So now that you know what nutrients you need before a workout, what types of foods should you be eating to fuel yourself up?
Here’s what you should keep stocked:
Carbs: Brown rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pasta, oatmeal, — and yes, bread.
Protein: Chicken, salmon, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, or a protein powder (plant-based or animal-product-based are both OK!)
Fats: Nuts, nut butters, avocado, or olive oil
How early should you eat before working out?
You’ll need time to digest your food for it to have a positive effect on your workout. A full meal, comprised of protein, carbs, and healthy fats, should be consumed two to three hours before exercise for best results.
However, that doesn’t work for everyone: Those of us who work out in the morning probably don’t want to get up two to three hours earlier just to eat — and those of us who work out after work probably miss the optimal window between lunch and dinner.
If that’s the case, you should eat a lighter, easily-digestible meal/snack focusing primarily on carbs and protein about 45 minutes to an hour before your workout.
Giving yourself enough time to eat prior to working out will prevent stomach issues, nausea, and make sure your body has enough time to stock up your glycogen levels.
Good pre-workout meals and snacks
If you have 2+ hours before the workout:
- Chicken or fish + brown rice or sweet potato + your veggie of choice, with a drizzle of olive oil
- Oatmeal with fruit, almonds, and almond butter
- Eggs and half an avocado on toast
- Pasta with a healthy portion of protein and vegetables
- Protein smoothie with fruit, greens and a nut butter
If you have 45 to 60 minutes before a workout
- Protein bar or shake
- A piece of fruit and greek yogurt
- Toast and low-fat cottage cheese
What to eat before cardio
Follow the above advice, leaning more heavily on carb-based foods. You might opt for a larger helping of rice and a smaller helping of chicken.
What to eat before resistance training
Again, the above advice applies, but you’ll want to be more protein-focused. You can drop your carb intake a bit if you want (but your body still needs carbs!). Those who are doing consistent, heavy weightlifting will want to increase their protein intake (both pre-workout and all-around), though how significantly will depend on your training program and desired results.
Should you take a pre-workout supplement?
Pre-workout supplements are very popular among bodybuilders, and are said to improve energy and workout performance. This makes sense, because while pre-workout supplement ingredients can vary drastically from company to company, most of them contain an impressive dose of caffeine.
In case you’re wondering, yes: Caffeine has been proven to help athletes push harder in the gym when consumed prior to exercise. However, users should be careful that they’re not exceeded their daily recommended caffeine intake per day (very easy to do, especially if you drink a cup or two of coffee each day!)
Workout supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so if you choose to take them, make sure you do your due diligence both with the company you’re purchasing from and the ingredient list. Many athletes become dependent on or addicted to pre-workout supplements, so use caution.
Besides, plenty of experts say you can find all the energy you need for a good workout in regular, plain-old food.
How much water should you drink pre-workout?
You want to be well hydrated before working out (and always!) but give yourself enough time between hydration and exercise — so you don’t, you know, puke.
According to The American College of Sports Medicine, you should drink 16 to 20 fluid ounces of water around four hours before a workout, and 8 to 12 fluid ounces 15 minutes beforehand.
If you’re heading to the gym just after you wake up, drinking a cup of water (around 8 ounces) prior to your workout should be A-OK. Just make sure to hydrate as much as possible once you’re finished.