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  • Writer's pictureRT Drake

What food should I eat before a workout?

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

Regular gym-goers are always looking for ways to maximize their performance and maximize their results. A hard workout is a sure way to build muscle faster, burn fat more easily, and sustain energy throughout the day.

But wait hold on...what about those days that you feel you don't have anything to give in the gym?

Have you ever felt super fatigued before working out even though you had something to eat?

Maybe what you are eating prior to the workout is the source of this lack of energy - maybe you aren’t fueling the body to work at its peak performance.

What you choose before your workout can make a huge difference in how well you perform during your workout. What I want to talk about in today’s post are some facts about pre-workout nutrition as well as ideas for various workout times of the day. Not all pre-workout meals are created equal and I hope that you can find some meals that will work best for you and your workout routine!

More Carbs please!

Carbohydrates are the most valuable macronutrient when we are discussing pre workout nutrition. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose which is used for energy throughout the body.

Glucose is stored as Glycogen within the liver and muscle throughout the body. For short and high-intensity exercise, the body uses these glycogen storage's to fuel the body. Energy is needed quickly and this process makes carbohydrates readily available to sustain high intensity movement.

However there is a limit to how much glycogen stores you have in your body. This means that you will need to have carbohydrates in your blood that can be used to power your muscles during intense exercise.

Carbohydrates come in two main kinds. We have complex carbs, and simple carbs.

Complex carbs are foods such as Oatmeal, Rice, Potatoes, and vegetables.

Simple carbs are foods such as Fruit, Milk, and breakfast cereal.

Complex carbs often take longer to digest, have more fiber and keep you satiated for a longer period of time (because they take longer to break down!).

Simple carbs are often broken down very easily and don’t provide as much nutritional content as complex carbs. These simple carbs are often good for quick needed energy.

What is Protein’s role?

Protein before a workout has been a heavily researched area both in normal gym-goers and athletic performance.

Studies have shown that eating protein prior to working out increases muscle protein synthesis. This means that upon recovery of the muscles being worked your body will be able to repair (and grow) muscle more readily.

Protein will also help with increased muscle performance. When you are lifting that heavy weight, having some protein in your system to use will help contract and complete the movement to a higher standard than if you hadn’t eaten any protein prior.

There is reason to believe that drinking a protein shake before a workout will have impacts on how well you recover after, how well you perform during, and how your body composition ultimately changes.

What is Fat’s role?

Where carbs / glycogen are used for shorter, intense workouts, Fat is the source of fuel for longer and moderate-to-low intensity exercise.

For example if you are doing a long run at a moderate pace your fat storage's will be used to fuel your workout. This is because it takes longer for fat to be broken down and transferred for use.

You might have heard of this “fat burning zone”. This is a true statement in that during low intensity exercise where your heart rate is between 50-70% you will primarily be using fat as your energy burner.

This however does not burn a ton of calories since the process is slow. So although you might think that staying in this “fat burning zone” is ideal for overall calorie loss - it is simply not intense enough to burn as many calories as you can doing higher intensity activity.

Fat is the macronutrient you need to be more cognizant of when it comes to work out times and digestion times. Often you will find that if you eat a meal that is higher in fat 45 minutes before a workout - you'll feel that dreaded bloat. No one likes working out with a full stomach.

Timing your pre-workout meal is key

Timing of your meal before working out can make a huge difference in your success and results. Think about it - if you eat a big meal 30 minutes before working out, how do you think you will feel?

Are you feeling lethargic?

Do you feel “too full” to really push it?

What if you ate way too far in advance (3-4 hours)?

Are you feeling “weak” and unable to lift like you normally do?

Are you hearing stomach grumbles and getting irritable?

These are huge indicators into the timing of your meal and how it is vitally important.

To answer the question of “what’s the best timing for meals before a workout” - we need to take into account the 3 macronutrients and how they break down and allow your body to use the necessary energy.

Generally speaking however - if you eat a full complete meal about 2-3 hours before exercise you will be able to hit a sweet spot. A complete meal consists of a quality protein, smart carbohydrate, and healthy fat.

Not always are you going to be able to eat 2-3 hours before exercise (a nod to those who are up at 5AM and ready to workout!). In these cases it’s more realistic to eat something 45-60 minutes prior to a workout. This type of meal will be drastically different and will include mostly carbs and protein.

The goal is to allow your body to feel ready to move intensely without restriction. Getting stomach pains because you either ate too much, or ate the wrong thing prior to the workout can have negative impacts on the workout quality.

Why fueling your workouts matter

If you are into weight loss, getting more lean or getting stronger - the quality of your workouts matter. Working out harder promotes more muscle growth which leads to looking and feeling better.

Now you’ve probably either seen or been this type of person who goes to the gym and kind of...doesn’t do much. These people believe that just being in the gym and moving is enough to make changes they wish to see. The process of osmosis unfortunately does not work when it comes to making real changes in your health!

Working out intensely and with purpose is one of the biggest things that you can do to impact your fitness journey.

Think about when you’ve last done a workout and you had to either lift heavy, jump higher, or go faster on a cardio machine. If you fueled your body properly you will no doubt be able to sustain and even exceed expectations that you’ve previously set for yourself. This is the sign of your food and workouts , working together to skyrocket your success.

So...what should I eat before working out?

I want to break this down into 3 different parts because timing does matter. Not everyone’s workout time is the same and you need to be aware of what foods can help give you a badass workout!

Be aware that you should be choosing ONE of these options before working out. This is not a list that says you need to eat 3 times before working out!

Eat this 2-3 hours before your workout

  • Grilled chicken, potatoes, with a side salad

  • Egg omelet with whole grain toast and avocado

  • Ground turkey with brown rice and roasted vegetables

If you are eating 2-3 hours prior to a workout you are most likely working out either late morning time, or late afternoon time. These pre-workout meals are generally breakfast and lunch. Look for meals that are more complete with a carb, protein, and fat!

Eat this 1-2 hours before your workout

  • Oatmeal with blueberries, and protein powder

  • Almond butter with whole grain bread with a side of fruit

  • Whole grain cereal with milk

  • Protein smoothie with almond milk, spinach, and fruit

These meals provide a nice middle ground with foods that are quick enough to digest (if you are closer to 1 hour) as well as more filling (if you are closer to 2 hours). For example if you are closer to just an hour before working out - the cereal with milk will be a good option to eat some simple carbs that are quick to use. If you are eating closer to 2 hours before working out - eating complex carbs such as oatmeal with fruit and protein powder will fuel you!

Eat this with less than 1 hour before your workout

  • Greek yogurt and fruit

  • A piece of fruit (Banana, orange, apple)

  • Protein shake

  • Nutrition bar with low sugar and good protein (ex. Quest bar)

  • Nothing (AM fasted state)

These meals are generally for those working out very early in the AM where eating a full meal is just not realistic. These meals digest very quickly and won’t leave you feeling too full if your workout starts soon. These foods are not only quick to digest, but also quick to eat.

Find that works best for you

These recommendations are just that...recommendations!

The best way to find out what foods and meals are ideal for your eating/workout schedule is to test it out. Try one of these meals before your workout and see if you felt stronger/faster during it.

Did you hit a new weight on a lift?

Were you able to sustain intense cardio even at the tail end of your workout?

Research and test yourself to understand what’s best for you.

I want to leave this post with a personal example of how I’ve tested and seen differences in my pre-workout food consumption.

I’ve been playing competitive flag football for over 14 years now (Since high school) and have historically played in the AM hours on Sunday morning. Playing flag football is an intense activity - sprinting up and down the field in short bursts of 10-15 second plays. These games last about 45 mins - 1 hour.

I’ve gone through many different trials of what’s best to eat from eating nothing, from eating a full meal, to eating small things.

I can say with certainty that I feel the best when I eat Oatmeal, peanut butter, and an orange about 1 hour before game time. This type of meal has me feeling energized and ready to play hard even at the end of the game. I don’t feel bloated or lethargic but instead feel focused and aware.

Run your own experiments to help you determine what meals are best for you before your next workout!

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