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This Is What You Should Eat Before Your Workout

What You Should Eat Before Working Out
Image by mbg Creative
July 14, 2019

Eating before your workout is like drinking coffee—you either do it or you don't. What you eat, when you should eat it, and even if you should eat is contingent on an endless list of factors, including what time you work out, the intensity of your workout, and how your body processes food. 

In other words, the answer to what you should eat before you exercise is complicated—which is why we asked Jaime Schehr, N.D., R.D., to help break it down for us.

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Should you eat before you work out?

With intermittent fasting a constantly hot topic in the wellness world, it's not surprising that many people wonder if they have to eat before a workout at all. The answer hinges on when your workout is and how your body handles both situations—eating before your workout and working out fasted. 

The question of working out fasted tends to come up most for people who work out first thing in the morning. I don't eat beforehand, as my body doesn't perform well when I do so, but there are plenty of people who do, particularly endurance athletes or people doing strenuous workouts for long periods of time. 

The way to know if you should? Experiment and listen to your body. If you feel weak, depleted, nauseous, or lightheaded before or during a workout (and you're already well hydrated), that could be a sign your body needs a little fuel pre-workout. But if you feel fine and, in fact, have more energy not having eaten, then fasted exercise could be a good fit. 

"Whether or not people eat before their workout is highly individualized," Schehr says. "Some people need to eat before working out, where others feel best if fasted."

That said, Schehr advises that anyone who is new to exercise have a snack beforehand instead of jumping into fasted workouts.

Fasted or not, you have to consume protein after a tough workout—but you probably know that by now, right?

What should you eat before you work out? 

If you're someone who does better with gas in the tank, then it's important to know the pre-workout food do's and don'ts. 

On the don'ts list, we have high-fiber and high-fat foods. 

"If eating before a workout, avoid foods that take longer to digest such as high-fiber raw vegetables and big salads," Schehr says. "It's also best to avoid high-fat foods, especially greasy fats. Anyone who needs to eat before a workout will do better if the foods aren't high fat or high fiber.”

Instead, Schehr recommends having a combination of carbohydrates and protein and being mindful of the portion size. 

"It's also very important to remember that portion is a factor here," she adds. "Overeating before you work out can have a negative impact on how you feel during exercise."

Here's what Schehr says are the best pre-workout foods: 

  • A banana and peanut butter
  • Almond butter on sliced bread
  • Yogurt (if you're not dairy sensitive)
  • Chicken or turkey slices with applesauce
  • Sweet potato (with or without a hard-boiled egg)
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For something quick and on-the-go, Schehr says a premade bar (a clean-ingredient bar) can be a suitable option. 

"If choosing to eat a bar pre-workout, I would say only eat half before your workout, as they tend to be pretty dense."

How much should you eat before a workout?

It's worth repeating that portion size matters when eating before a workout. Eating too much can make you feel sluggish, give you stomach issues, or make you feel like you're going to throw up. Yeah, not pleasant. 

Should you want to deviate from the above snack list, Schehr's rule of thumb is to make your pre-workout portion one-fourth the size of a meal. This baseline will prevent you from overeating but still give you enough juice for an effective workout. 

The only exception is for people who engage in endurance exercises, like long-distance running, triathlons, or workouts that last more than 90 minutes. 

"If you're doing an endurance workout, you may require more carbohydrates throughout the workout compared to strength training, which may require more protein," Schehr says. "For most exercise, though, I recommend combining a small amount of carbohydrates and protein before a workout."

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What risks do people run when they don't eat before a workout? 

Too often, Schehr says, she sees people overtraining and undereating—a dangerous combination that can end in injury, burnout, anxiety, and other physical problems. 

If you are someone who needs food before exercising, don't deprive yourself of it. You have to give your body what it needs if you expect it to perform the way you want.

"If you're not eating and you're exercising, you risk fainting or feeling weak throughout your workouts. This doesn't mean that everyone needs to eat pre-workout—many people feel better fasted—but it's important to know your body and what works best for you."

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Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor

Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction. A runner, yogi, boxer, and cycling devotee, Bass searches for the hardest workouts in New York (and the best ways to recover from them). She's debunked myths about protein, posture, and the plant-based diet, and has covered everything from the best yoga poses for chronic pain to the future of fitness, recovery, and America's obsession with the Whole30 diet.