What to eat before a workout
Updated: May 25, 2022
What we eat before a workout or training session can have significant impact on performance during your session. The wrong foods, consuming too little or not timing a meal efficiently can dramatically affect performance.
Carbohydrates are our body’s main source of fuel for daily living and for physical activity. Carbs are stored as glycogen in our muscles and liver. Glycogen in our liver is used to regulate blood sugar levels, whereas glycogen in our muscles predominantly fuels physical activity. Having readily available carbs will allow you to exercise at a higher intensity for longer.
The majority of nutrients in a pre-workout meal should come from carbs. Some protein should be consumed, but not too much as protein takes longer to digest and doesn’t serve an immediate need for the beginning of an activity. Fat and high fibre foods should also be moderate to reduce the risk of stomach discomfort during activity.
Depending on exercise intensity and duration, a meal 2-4hrs before exercise should be high in carbohydrates (1-4g carbohydrate/kg body weight), contain moderate amounts of protein and low in fat. If you’re heading for a workout after work, this meal could be your lunch. Example meals could be:
Rice, chicken (or other protein) and vegetables
Oats with semi-skimmed milk, fruit and nut butter or flaxseeds
Chicken/tofu stir fry with noodles
Sandwich with choice of protein filling
Baked potato with tuna or baked beans and cheese
About 30-60min before, aim to have a smaller, easily digestible snack high in carbohydrates, low in protein and fat. This could be around 100–300 kcal. This could be:
A banana or other piece of fruit
Low fat Greek yoghurt and granola
Toast or bagel with jam and nut butter
Fruit juice or smoothie with milk and fruit
Fruit and nut bar
Granola or oat bar
If working out first thing in the morning, some people prefer to not eat anything i.e. training fasted. Training fasted can increase the risk of strains, sprains, stress fractures and other injuries from exercise-related fatigue. Furthermore, letting the body get too depleted may lead to overeating afterwards. If your session is less than 60min, then training fasted is generally okay for low-moderate intensity exercise. Having a high carb snack (such as the above examples) would be better, especially for high intensity exercise. Note that training fasted does not necessarily mean you will lose weight or lose weight any quicker!
Try not to eat too close to your session, i.e. 10-20min before, as this may lead to stomach discomfort. Aim to trial and error your eating windows to see what works for you. Do not try new foods or try something you've never done before an important event/competition!
Finally, you should ensure you’re adequately hydrated before a workout! Pre-workout fluids are essential to prevent dehydration. Keep hydrated throughout the day, and if training in the morning, have water first thing and up until your session.
Bean, A. The complete guide to sports nutrition. Eighth edition. Bloomsbury. 2017