The Best (& Worst) Foods To Eat Before A Workout, From Sports Dietitians
As any athlete will tell you, proper nutrition can help you get the most out of your workouts. What you eat in the few hours leading up to your exercise sessions can make a difference in your performance and impact your post-workout recovery.
We chatted with sports dietitians to get the scoop on what and how much you should eat before different types of workouts for optimal performance, including the best pre-workout meals and snacks.
The importance of pre-workout fuel
Your body needs adequate fuel and hydration to support physical activity. What you eat before a workout will depend on the exercise you’ll be doing and how much time you have before your workout. One thing’s for sure, though; carbohydrates are king when fueling most types of exercise.
“For the majority of individuals, it makes sense to emphasize carbohydrates in a pre-workout meal or snack,” says performance dietitian and consultant, Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD. “This is because carbohydrates are the preferred and most efficient source of energy for exercising muscles when moving at moderate to high intensities and are important for extending the duration of workouts for moderate endurance training.”
Our bodies store carbohydrates as glycogen in the muscle. Jones says consuming carbohydrates before exercise allows us to top off those stores and maintain blood sugar levels during activity.
“As a general rule of thumb, we always prioritize carbohydrates, fluids, and moderate protein in our pre-workout foods and drinks while keeping fiber and fat on the lower side,” says Briana Butler, MCN, RDN, LD Co-Owner of Stef and Bri Wellness. “While the carbohydrate can top off glycogen stores and provide long-lasting energy needed for training, the protein can deliver amino acids that kick-start muscle growth.”
Registered dietitian nutritionist Alex Larson, MS, RDN says to “avoid foods high in fat and fiber as they can take longer to digest and may cause an upset stomach during workouts.”
If you have a sensitive stomach:
If eating larger snacks before a workout bothers your stomach, Larson says that liquid carb sources tend to be better tolerated. These include:
- Apple sauce
- Fruit smoothies
- Sports drinks
“If you deal with a sensitive stomach, skip the pre-workout supplements and go for whole foods that are easy to digest and have lower fiber,” adds Butler. “Often foods with many additives, pre-workout powders, gels, and higher fiber foods can cause discomfort, especially for those with sensitive stomachs.”
To build muscle:
Resistance training is key to muscle growth. Because strength training workouts don’t generally lead to significant carbohydrate depletion to the point where performance is impaired, Spano says you don’t necessarily need to eat beforehand.
“Unless it involves a lot of plyometric movement, before strength training, you may be able to tolerate more protein in addition to carbohydrates,” adds Jones. “This is where Greek yogurt and granola or a protein smoothie with fruit may feel good about an hour before, or some wheat pita with hummus and a couple of hard-boiled eggs two hours before.”
To lose weight:
- Yogurt topped with banana slices
- Eggs and a piece of fruit
“I find many people who are seeking weight loss or are frustrated with weight gain tend to actually be eating too little earlier in the day or before exercise,” says Jones. “I wouldn’t recommend anything different to these individuals than I’d recommend to anyone else!”
If you’re low on time:
“As a mom of two little ones and a business owner, I completely relate to being low on time and recommend to others the same foods I rely on,” says Jones. Here are a few fuel sources that come together in a pinch:
- Smoothie or apple sauce pouches
- Dried fruit
- Granola bars
- Tortilla roll-ups with jam or honey
“If you’re on the go often, keep packaged oat-based bars or bites, single-serve raisin packets, and even honey packets in your car, gym bag, or in a snack drawer in your office at work," Jones adds.
Foods to eat
When it comes to choosing pre-workout foods, the possibilities are endless. What works for one person might not work for another, even before the same types of exercise. The dietitians we spoke with all like to eat different things before their workouts, but they all agree on choosing foods that are higher in carbohydrates and low in fiber and fat.
Here are a few foods that experts recommend eating before working out:
Foods to avoid:
Here are a few high-fat, high-fiber foods to avoid eating within the hours leading up to your workout:
- Fibrous vegetables (broccoli, carrots, cauliflower)
- Red meat
- Greasy foods
What else should I be getting?
No matter what type of exercise you’ll be doing, staying well-hydrated before your workout is also essential.
“Consuming water and electrolytes before you workout will help expand your blood volume to ensure you have optimal blood flow to working muscles,” says sports dietitian and author Marie Spano, M.S., R.D., CSCS, CSSD. “Fluid and electrolytes also help decrease fatigue and risk of muscle cramping.”
Jones also suggests drinking a glass of water with your pre-workout meal to aid in digestion and absorption of nutrients while also helping reduce the dehydrating effects of exercise.
If you don’t produce urine, or the urine is dark, slowly drink another glass before your training session.
How much should I eat before a workout?
The size and portions of your pre-workout meal or snack are based on timing, your gut tolerance, your activity type, and what else you have eaten.
“The closer to a workout you are eating, the less protein, fat, and fiber you may want to consume in order to prevent feelings of over-fullness and ensure efficient digestion and absorption of energy eaten from carbohydrates,” explains Jones. “The further from the start of a workout you are eating, the more fiber, fat, and protein you may want to include in order to more slowly release energy into the blood and to prevent feelings of hunger right before and during exercise.”
Pre-workout nutrition involves trial and error to determine what food combinations, portion sizes, and timing work best for you for different types of exercise and duration.
“Generally, the longer and harder the planned workout is, the more fuel you’ll need to consume in advance, but that also may mean you’ll need to allow more time for your stomach to digest it,” adds Larson.
Does timing matter?
Fueling appropriately before training is important to prevent low blood sugar (which can cause fatigue and dizziness), fuel performance, top off your fuel tank, preserve muscle mass, and speed up recovery.
The time of day you exercise plays a significant role in your pre-workout meal timing. For example, if you work out in the morning, you won’t have enough time to digest a full meal before your workout. In this case, a small snack high in carbs and low in fat, fiber, and protein might work best for you. If you work out later in the day, you’ll have to time your meals more carefully so that you don’t work out too close to a large meal or go too long without eating.
Does the type of workout matter?
The intensity and duration of your training session will influence the energy your body needs and what you should eat beforehand to be adequately fueled.
“For example, higher-intensity workouts require more carbohydrates because we tend to burn through our energy stores quicker,” explains Butler. “While lower intensity workouts are not as taxing and can be fueled with a more balanced meal.”
Here are some best practices for what to eat before a few popular workouts:
Running for more than one hour
Since running is a high-impact activity, you’ll want to leave plenty of time to digest your food and stick to low-fat and low-fiber snacks the closer you get to the start of your run.
“For longer workouts, I’d work on increasing the pre-workout fueling to at least 60-80 grams of carbs before the workout,” says Larson.
This can come from a combination of easy-to-digest carbohydrates such as gels, white bread, lower-fiber fruit, or low fiber cereal, says Spano. “If your running pace will be fairly slow, you may be able to tolerate forms of carbohydrate with a little fiber in them such as granola bars," she adds.
As for timing, wrapping up your snack 30-90 minutes before your run should be adequate. "If you’re having a meal, allows 2-3 hours in advance to allow time to fully digest the meal,” Larson recommends.
Doing a HIIT workout
What you eat before a HIIT workout will depend on how long the workout is and when you last ate.
“If you are doing a shorter workout or if you’ve eaten the past few hours, you do not necessarily need to eat anything beforehand,” says Spano. “If you haven’t eaten in a few hours or you have a longer workout ahead of you, consume 1 g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight.” This will come out to about 68 grams for a 150-pound person.
Jones adds that if it’s been more than two or three hours since your last meal, a quick carb-based snack, such as a banana or dried fruit, eaten 30 minutes prior should be fine.
Participating in a sport
If you participate in a sport, whether team or individual, you may also need meal timing strategies. The type of sport, intensity, duration, and when you last ate will influence your pre-game or pre-match snack choice.
“Sports like tennis and hockey are high-intensity and involve a lot of stop-and-go,” says Jones. “This means both high energy expenditure and a lot of movement that requires more easily digestible foods. Recommendations similar to pre-running will work.”
Jones adds that for sports like softball, baseball, or golf, less attention needs to be paid to reducing protein, fat, and fiber unless you’re in the position of a catcher or pitcher, where digestion can be impacted more.
“If you haven’t eaten in a few hours and you have a grueling tennis match or hockey game ahead, it is a wise idea to consume easy-to-digest carbohydrates beforehand. 1 g per kg body weight is a good guideline to stick with,” says Spano. “If you are playing outfield in a softball game, you do not necessarily need to consume carbohydrates before you play unless you haven’t eaten in a few hours or you are hungry.”
Is it okay to skip eating before a workout?
There are several reasons why someone may want or need to skip eating before a workout. It may be okay depending on the type and duration of exercise you’ll be doing, and the motivation behind working out fasted.
“It’s best to do fasted workouts only when they are shorter in duration, such as under 45 minutes, and easier in effort, heart rate zone 1 or 2,” says Larson. “Doing harder and/or longer workouts while fasted can be a struggle to complete them and will leave you feeling exhausted and low-energy afterward.”
But if you’re skipping your pre-workout meal or snack because you think it will lead to more fat loss, you may be doing yourself a disservice. By not fueling correctly, you likely won’t be able to work out as hard or as long, which means you’ll burn fewer calories during your workout.
“Working out in a fasted state will not increase fat loss3 to a greater extent than working out in a fed state,” explains Spano. “More of the calories burned during your workout will come from fat versus carbohydrate compared to exercising in a fed state however, for body fat loss, what matters is total calories burned, not the fuel source used during a workout.”
If you decide to skip eating before a workout, refuel properly as soon as possible with ample carbs, protein, and fluids.
Frequently Asked Questions
What should I eat 30 minutes before a workout?
Aim for 30 grams of fast-digesting, simple carbohydrates low in fat, fiber, and protein, like fig bars, a piece of fruit, dried fruit, sports drinks, sports gummies, or gels.
What should I eat before a workout to lose weight?
You don’t have to change your pre-workout nutrition strategy. Increasing protein and lowering carbs may be helpful depending on the type of workout, especially if the activity requires minimal intensity.
What you eat before a training session affects your performance and recovery. Eating the right food at the right time will give you the energy to train harder to maximize your training adaptations. What and when you eat will depend on the activity you’ll be participating in, the intensity and duration of exercise, your gut tolerance, and when you last ate but in general, you'll want to fuel up with an easy-to-digest combination of carbs and all-important protein. Be sure to properly refuel after your workout, too—this guide will show you how.
Melissa Boufounos is a certified holistic nutritionist, nutrition writer, and lifelong athlete in the greater Ottawa, Ontario, Canada area. She specializes in sports nutrition and works with teen hockey players and competitive obstacle course race athletes in her virtual private practice MB Performance Nutrition.