You may have heard people say that you shouldn’t eat anything before a workout. And to put it kindly, they’re wrong. Does that mean there isn’t a time and place for fasted training? Absolutely not. Low-intensity fasted cardio can have great metabolic benefits when performed safely and correctly. However, if you’re trying to train a full session while fasted, you could be substantially delaying your recovery and thus your gains. The consequences of under-fueling tend to outweigh the benefits, which is why we don’t recommend it to the masses. So you already know that eating before working out is important, but now you’re wondering which foods are the best to eat. This is one of the questions we get asked most frequently and while everyone’s preferences are unique, there are a few guidelines you should follow when choosing your pre-workout meal. Keep reading to learn our tips for what to eat before a workout.
Focus on carbs. In 2022, we are throwing away labeling foods as good or bad. All food is fuel. Some foods are more nutritious fuel than others, but none are bad. Carbohydrates get a bad rep for causing weight gain, but often the carbohydrate sources people are referencing are foods that are also very high in calories, additives and fat (not the nutritious kind). When we digest carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose (for immediate energy), stored in our muscles as glycogen (for future energy), and stored as fat (when consumed in excess of need). When it comes to fueling our workouts, our bodies prefer to use carbohydrates for energy, which is why you often see professional athletes drinking sugary sports drinks or taking carbohydrate supplements during their sport or workout. They are easily digested and converted into energy, whereas fats and proteins take longer to digest and provide slower, longer-burning energy required of endurance activities. So when it comes to pre-workout fuel, carbs are going to be your most important ingredient.
Minimize fat before your workout. While fat is certainly a fuel source, and a long-burning one at that, eating large amounts of fat before a workout can lead to nausea and lethargy. Fats are satiating, which makes them great to have between training sessions, but they are definitely heavy. That said, the best time to eat them is when you have at least 3-4 hours before training, or are at least 2 hours post-training. If the goal pre-training is to prime your body with the fuel it needs to perform during your workout, the goal post-workout is to provide the right type of fuel to begin the recovery process. After training, our bodies want carbs and protein so our muscles can heal and grow. If we consume too much fat post-training, digestion of those other important nutrients can be negatively impacted.
Consider your workout duration. Carbs are king when it comes to pre-workout fuel, but if you’re like me then eating too close to your workout can lead to nausea and indigestion. So how soon before a workout do you need to eat for optimal results? Experts recommend eating between 1 and 4 hours before training with around .45 to 1.8 grams carbs/lb of bodyweight (when exercising for 60+ minutes). For most of us, eating around the lower end of that range is sufficient for what we’re training. For athletes pursuing more intense fitness regimens, eating closer to 2 g/lb is preferred.
What about protein? Having a little protein before your workout won’t hurt! The carbs you eat will be used more quickly and efficiently than the protein, but it’s significantly less likely to cause stomach upset when compared to fat. If you’re going to include protein pre-workout, make sure it’s easily digestible and you give yourself at least an hour before training!
So now that we know some general guidelines, let’s get to the good part: the recipes. Here are four of our tried and true pre-workout recipes that, yes, contain a lot of carbs!
Rice Cakes with Peanut Butter and Honey
This recipe is one of the simplest you can make. It’s cheap, it gives you what you need (carbs) and is easily digestible if you’re short on time before the gym. If you’re looking for extra carbs before your workout, have more than 1 rice cake (they’re only about 7 carbs per cake) and add some sliced apple, banana or berries as a topping.
- Rice cake(s)
- 1 tbsp peanut butter (or less)
- Drizzle honey
- Fruit, sliced (if desired)
Spread peanut butter on rice cake in even layer. Top with sliced fruit, cinnamon and drizzled honey. Enjoy.
Mother Nature made it best, y’all. The best pre-workout snack (barring any food sensitivities) is fruit. Fruit’s higher sugar content makes it easy to digest and quick to convert into energy. The only tip here is to minimize how much citrus you have before your workout. While citrus is delicious and has countless health benefits, it may cause nausea in some people due to its acidity. You know what feels best for you, so go forth and enjoy the fruit that makes your tummy and your muscles happy.
You may think this is a bit heavy for a pre-workout meal, and for some of you it might be! But for others who are pursuing longer duration activity and need more fuel, this is a great meal to have before a workout. If you’re sensitive to dairy, try a non-dairy based yogurt like Silk’s almond milk yogurt or SO Delicious’s coconut yogurt. You can also sub yogurt for a non-dairy milk and eat your granola like cereal. Or heck, just have cereal.
- 1 cup greek yogurt, plain or unsweetened vanilla (or almond milk)
- 1/2 cup granola (or cereal of choice)
- 1/4 cup berries or sliced banana
- Drizzle of honey or maple syrup
- Combine all ingredients and a bowl. It’s that simple, folks!
When you’re in a pinch and didn’t pack a snack, an energy bar can be a quick and easy fuel option. Sticking with what we know, try to find higher carb bars that are lower in fat. This isn’t super hard to do because most energy bars tend to be exactly that. Here are some of our favorites:
Knowing what to eat before a workout can seem complicated but when you boil it down to the basics, the moral of the story is this: eat something before you train, let it be mostly carbs, minimize fat if you don’t want to deal with potential nausea, and eat what feels best for you. If you need a little extra energy boost in addition to your pre-workout meal, try Red Leaf Pre-Workout. With a mild amount of caffeine, beta-alanine for muscle endurance and BCAA’s for recovery, it’s a balanced formula that will support jitter-free energy to help you crush your fitness goals. At the end of the day, it really is as simple as that. Let us know some of your favorite pre-workout meals in the comments below!