You’re ready to hit the gym. You have your water bottle, shoes, workout gear, gym bag—everything you need to have a great workout. But hold on a sec, are you sure you aren’t missing something?
You might be if you aren’t fueling up before you head out the door. So, what are the best foods to eat before you work out?
Eating before your workout helps to keep your energy high and ensures you have the vital nutrients necessary to perform your best. In fact, the coveted “pre-workout meal” sets the foundation for recovery since your body will rely on those nutrients hours later when you finish your last rep of squats or lap around the track. Of course, post-workout nutrition is key as well.
Be sure to consume a well-rounded meal (or shake) about 45–60 minutes before you hit the gym; if you’re going for a larger pre-workout meal, stretch that to 2 or 3 hours. It can take upwards of 6 hours for your body to fully digest and absorb a large protein-rich meal, and the last thing you want is a heavy stomach when you’re trying to push yourself physically.
When you think about foods to eat before you work out, your best bet is a combination of healthy fats, complete protein, and complex carbs (assuming you’re not on a very low-carb diet like the ketogenic diet).
With that in mind, here are the best foods to eat before your workout.
Best Energy-Boosting Foods to Eat Before Your Workout
Whether you are heading into a yoga class, the weight room, or going for a run, you’ll need energy to fuel your efforts. By “energy,” we mean adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the chemical that your muscle cells rely on to contract. ATP primarily comes from the body breaking down (metabolizing) nutrients, especially carbohydrates and fat.
Of course, you don’t want to overload yourself with a heavy meal if you’re going to exercise within an hour or so, but a healthy, protein-packed, energy-boosting snack will definitely give you what you need to power through your workout.
Try these energizing pre-workout foods:
- Sprouted grain toast with almond or peanut butter and a couple of banana slices
- Poached chicken with brown rice and vegetables
- Fruit smoothie with Greek yogurt, a small banana, handful or two of spinach, and some berries
- Oatmeal with raspberries or blueberries and protein powder
- Cinnamon granola with yogurt and berries
- Scrambled eggs with mushrooms and spinach, topped with avocado slices (this is keto-friendly)
- Mashed avocado spread on sprouted grain toast topped with a boiled egg
- Apple slices with almond or peanut butter
Protein gives your muscles the essential amino acids necessary to repair “damage” from training, ensuring you recover properly during your workouts. Avoid caffeinated drinks while you eat your pre-workout meal if you take a pre-workout supplement. You don’t want to overload your system with stimulants, as it can lead to crashes and blood sugar swings at the most inopportune times.
Best Pre-Workout Foods for Weight Loss
If you are trying to drop some weight, exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body. In fact, there’s plenty of research that shows exercise is just as important as diet for health and longevity. The two are really inseparable if you want to lose weight.
Your gut (no pun intended) might tell you to skip a meal or two to lose weight quicker, but this is often counterproductive. Skipping meals can cause your blood sugar to become unstable, leading to weakness, dizziness, nausea, and poor performance. That’s not to say you can’t lose weight with an intermittent fasting approach, but most people perform better in the gym when they have some nourishment beforehand to fuel their workout.
So, if your stomach is growling and you’re dragging a bit, it’s probably time for a meal. Just keep these tips in mind when choosing foods to eat before a workout:
- Avoid eating too much fat
- Avoid foods with large amounts of added sugar (e.g., fruit juice, soda, candy)
- Avoid foods or drinks with caffeine if you take a pre-workout supplement
- Choose quality protein sources like chicken, eggs, protein powder, and seafood
- Choose complex carbs, such as sweet potato, brown rice, quinoa, and oats
- Look for foods that are good sources of healthy fats, such as avocado, almonds, and cage-free eggs
- Include a portion of fibrous vegetables and some fruit, if you like
For example, a quick and easy pre-workout meal you could make is a sandwich with sprouted whole-grain bread, fresh avocado slices, spinach, and grilled chicken breast with some apple slices or berries on the side. This meal would cover all your bases and should go down easily before you head off to work up a sweat. If you have a little more time, you might choose a baked sweet potato with lean meat and a side of steamed broccoli.
For weight loss, the key is to be consistent and manage portion sizes so you don’t consume too many calories. Making healthy food choices can help control your calorie intake, as these foods tend to be more satiating and nutrient-dense than “junk” foods and sugar-laden drinks.
Best Foods to Eat Before You Workout to Gain Muscle
If building muscle is your goal, proper nutrition is imperative. In this case, the best foods to eat before your workout have plenty of protein, slow-digesting carbohydrates, and essential fats to keep you performing at a high level while lifting weights.
But choose wisely. Eating too much fiber or fat before you workout can lead to undesirable gastrointestinal upset. Obviously, worrying about having an emergency trip to the bathroom in the middle of a set of bench presses is not conducive to a good workout.
Instead, you want complex carb sources that are easy to digest and assimilate, such as:
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Green and leafy vegetables
- Whole grain or sprouted grain bread and pasta
- Brown and wild rice
- Whole fruits
- Whole grains like quinoa and oats
These carb sources have the added benefit of being rich in micronutrients so your body can properly utilize all the macronutrients you consume before your workout. Pair them with high-protein foods like chicken breast, tuna, cage-free eggs, and plain Greek yogurt and some healthy fats, such as olive oil, macadamia nuts, or almond butter.
Pre-Workout Foods for Women
While men and women may be biologically distinct in some ways, it’s common for women to assume that eating protein will make them “bulky.” Make no mistake, women need protein just as men do, even if the goal isn’t to build muscle. In fact, your body burns more energy to digest and absorb protein than it does fat and carbs, making it great for weight loss.
Furthermore, when body weight is matched, the macronutrient needs for men and women are almost identical. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule, such as women who are carrying as they also need to worry about nourishing the fetus; but for the most part, men and women are quite similar when it comes to proper nutrition. So, regardless of biological sex and your goal, eating a protein-rich meal before a workout is crucial.
In addition, women stand to benefit by eating healthy fats (and some carbs) to help support energy levels and stabilize blood sugar while exercising.
Here are some of the best pre-workout foods for women:
- Plain Greek yogurt with mixed berries, almond butter, and a dash of vanilla extract
- Smoothie made with protein powder, a cup or two of raw baby spinach, fruit, and almond or coconut milk
- Whole-grain bagel topped with avocado and scrambled egg whites, served with a side of fruit or veggies
- Broiled chicken breast with whole grain pasta or rice and a side of steamed asparagus lightly drizzled with extra virgin olive oil
- Turkey breast in a whole-grain tortilla wrap with feta cheese crumbles and spinach
- Whole-grain cereal with low-fat or skim milk or unsweetened almond milk and a hard boiled egg on the side
- Sliced banana on sprouted whole-grain toast (almond or peanut butter optional) and a side of plain Greek yogurt
- Low-fat cottage cheese with fruit and granola mixed in
The list above is not exhaustive by any means, but these foods offer a superb balance of nutrients that will keep you going for hours. Don’t be afraid to try different foods and food combinations to find what works best for you before your workouts. You can also save time by preparing your food and then freezing it, so when you are ready you can just pop it in the microwave, enjoy, and go.
Pre-Workout Foods for Men
Typically, men have greater muscle mass than women, meaning that their pre-workout macronutrient needs are a bit higher. However, not much differs beyond that in terms of what foods to eat or which nutrients are necessary.
Again, the main thing is to avoid refined carbs like sugary cereal or candy, as these will create transient spikes in blood glucose, leading to crashing and energy swings during your workout. Opt instead for starchy complex carbs, like oats, brown rice, and bright-colored veggies such as sweet potatoes and yams.
Protein is, intuitively, essential before a workout. It helps build and maintain lean muscle mass, which is critical regardless if you are looking to bulk up or cut body fat.
As for when to eat your pre-workout meal or snack, here is a good rule of thumb:
- 500 calories or more should be eaten about 2–3 hours before a workout
- 300 or fewer calories should be eaten 45–60 minutes before a workout
If you are training mainly for endurance, such as a marathon or long cycling event, increase your carb intake before your workout and don’t go too overboard on protein or fat. Carbohydrates are stored in muscle as glycogen, helping fuel sustained low- to moderate-intensity exercise.
For high-intensity workouts, like heavy weightlifting, a moderate combination of protein, carbs, and fat is ideal.
Here are some great, balanced meals to prepare and enjoy before you work out:
- Steel-cut oatmeal mixed with protein powder and topped with fruit and nuts
- A sliced turkey breast wrap made with whole-grain tortilla, baby spinach, and fresh swiss cheese
- Veggie omelet made with cage-free eggs, served with sprouted-grain toast
- Almond butter on celery sticks and bowl of low-fat cottage cheese topped with granola
- Protein energy balls made by mixing rolled oats, almond butter, raw unfiltered honey, vanilla extract, and protein powder with a whisk
- Grilled chicken breast with a side of steamed brown rice and avocado slices
Be Consistent for Best Results
Whatever your workout goals, your body needs fuel (read: food) to function. If you really want to get the best out of your workout, pay attention to what you are putting into your body, not just pre-workout, but all through the day.
The right combination of foods can help keep you energized and focused during your workouts, instead of tired, hungry, and lethargic.
So, before you hit the gym, make sure you eat what your body needs in order to be strong and healthy—and to perform the way you want it to. It might also help to take a pre-workout supplement about 20–30 minutes before you start exercising.
Remember, your fitness goals may not come to fruition overnight, but consistency pays off in the long run. You got this!