“What do I eat before working out?”
I get asked this question all the time.
Because while most people know what to eat after a workout, they’re clueless as to what they should be putting in their bodies beforehand. And the truth is, it’s not an easy question.
Because like so many things in life, it depends on your own personal goals.
And from my experience, there are basically three goals most people have when choosing what to eat before working out:
Goal #1: Extreme fat loss
If your goal is to lose the maximum amount of fat possible, your best bet is to work out first thing in the morning without eating anything beforehand. Hence the term, “fasted cardio” that you may or may not have seen thrown around in serious fitness blogs, magazines and books.
Yes, you might feel dizzy, nauseous or weak if you decide not to fuel up beforehand. And no, you won’t be able to put in the full amount of effort you’d be able to put in if you worked out later in the day after eating a couple of good meals.
But, you will burn more fat.
Goal #2: Maximum performance
If you’re looking to have the best workout possible and maximize performance, you won’t skimp out on calories—at all.
You’ll eat whatever it takes to fuel your body to help you perform the best you possibly can.
For example, if you are running a marathon, doing a triathlon, or competing in an important match or game, you wouldn’t worry about eating too many calories beforehand. You’re going for performance here, not weight loss. If that means a giant pasta dinner the night before, twice as much breakfast as you normally would eat, or downing sports drinks or energy gels during your race/event/game, so be it. Whatever you need to feed your body in order for it to do its best.
The drawback to this is it’s possible that you consume as many calories before (and after) your workout as you expend during your workout, making fat loss minimal to zero. Heck, some people even gain weight eating for maximum performance.
Goal #3: Fat loss + performance
If you’re like most people, most of the time your goal will be to lose fat while still performing as well as possible.
What does this mean for you? It means you need to eat strategically before your workout. It does not, however, mean you should gorge yourself before your workout.
Because I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve tried to work out without eating something beforehand, my performance suffers a lot. I get light headed and dizzy. I can’t do as many reps. I plain just can’t work as hard. And research backs this up, showing that exercise endurance improves significantly when you eat a snack beforehand.
So, assuming you’re with me in boat #3 here (#1 I don’t need to advise you on, since you’re not eating anything, and #2 you need to experiment with what types of food give you the most energy and power for your workout), you should ideally be eating a small meal 30-60 minutes before you train. The actual time may vary depending on how long it takes you to feel like you’re not too full to work out, but don’t wait too long after you eat or you’ll realize you’re hungry all over again (speaking from experience here).
What—and when—to eat before a workout
So what should a pre-workout meal consist of?
The ideal pre-workout meal should have some protein, some carbohydrates, and a little healthy fat. Yes, carbs! Carbs give you energy, and before and after your workout is the best time to consume them.
So again, it depends on your personal goals, but ideally you’ll aim for something close to this:
- 20 grams of protein
- 20-40 grams of slow digesting carbohydrates like oatmeal, sweet potatoes, beans, fruit, or wild rice (slow-digesting carbs produce a relatively slow increase in blood glucose and a modest insulin release in response)
- About 5 grams of healthy fat (much more than this can slow down the digestion of protein)
And another thing to remember: the longer or harder your workout is, the more carbohydrates you need beforehand.
Pre-workout meal ideas
Not sure how the above translates into an actual meal? Here are some pre-workout meal ideas to get you started:
A protein shake. Yep, you can have a shake before and after your workout. Aim for about 20 grams of fast digesting whey protein and some carbohydrates from berries, oatmeal or a banana. Avoid putting too much nut butter in this shake, but you can have a little.
Oats with protein powder. Probably the perfect pre-workout meal, oatmeal with protein powder will give you both short and long-term energy to power through your workout.
Veggie omelet and fruit. Eggs have protein, fat and will keep you feeling full, and the veggies and fruit will give you energy to push hard.
Protein of your choice, sweet potato and broccoli. The classic bodybuilder’s meal (usually with chicken), this takes a little more effort (a.k.a. cooking) so the average person probably won’t go for it—but it’ll give you all the nutrients and energy you need to have a killer workout and build strong muscles.
Fruit and low fat cottage cheese. Cottage cheese is a quick and easy protein-packed choice for pre-workout snacking. Add fruit for energy, and a few nuts or a spoonful of chia seeds if you want (especially if you only have nonfat cottage cheese).
Fruit, chia seeds and low fat greek yogurt. Quick, easy, and packed with all the right ingredients, this is a good pre-workout choice every time. You can also choose homemade granola (a.k.a. not sugar-laden store bought granola) as a topping instead to mix things up.
Protein pancakes (just not the pumpkin ones, because they’re really low carb), berries and a little nut butter. Protein pancakes are probably one of my favorite pre-workout meals, because they contain all the right ingredients and get me feeling pumped up for my workout. Just don’t eat them too close to your workout since they’re pretty filling and may leave you feeling queasy after only a few burpees.
Tip: To boost workout results even more, try downing caffeine an hour or so beforehand. Studies show that consuming 100-400 milligrams of caffeine before a workout can boost energy and reduce fatigue during exercise.
Chow down, kick butt
Whatever you decide to eat before a workout, you’ll probably need to experiment with what works for you and fits with your personal goals to make sure you have as awesome of a workout as possible.
Do your best to listen to your body and recognize the effects that the food had on your performance—your energy levels, how soon you fatigued, whether you had any dizziness, stomach aches, cramps, etc. Then, adjust as necessary to find the right pre-workout meal for you.
And go kick some serious workout butt!
What’s your favorite pre-workout meal? Let others know in the comments!