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The Best Pre-Workout Foods and Why They Work

By Rachael Attard, Updated Sep 29, 2021
The best pre-workout foods and why the work

Eating well after you work out can help your body recover from exercise, but proper nutrition before exercise can also help your body perform well in all types of workouts!

Understanding when and what to eat can help improve your exercise abilities, help your body repair itself after working out, and help you become healthier in general.

Why Is Pre-Workout Nutrition Important?

Eating a healthy meal or snack before working out can help your body do better during the workout. Proper nutrition can also help your body recover after working out, and it can help prevent muscle damage.

Eating before doing intense or long workouts is especially important. Your body uses carbs as an energy source, and, during longer or more challenging workouts, it will deplete your resources. Eating beforehand will help your body have more energy, and you’ll likely be able to push harder during the workout than you would otherwise.

Some people choose to exercise in a fasted state. Many people who do this work out first thing in the morning. This way, your body uses its stores of fat for energy, not carbs. Many people theorise that this can lead to a lower body fat percentage, so it can be good for people who are wanting to lose body fat.

However, some studies suggest that there isn’t a difference in fat loss between people who work out in a fasted state and those who eat before working out. Because of this, I recommend doing what works best for you. If you enjoy doing low-to-moderate workouts first thing in the morning before eating, you should be fine. However, if you notice that your performance is low, consider eating something before working out.

In general, if you are a healthy person who follows a general exercise routine, eating a healthy meal or snack 1-3 hours before your workout can help you:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Give you energy
  • Keep muscle mass
  • Improve your performance
  • Speed up your recovery time

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pre-workout meal benefits

Guidelines for Pre-Workout Nutrition

Pay Attention to Your Timing

If you choose to eat before working out, consider the timing of your meals. There are no hard rules here — you can make decisions that work best for your digestion, energy levels, and schedule. However, in general, it is best to eat a well-balanced meal 2-3 hours before working out. I suggest eating meals that include protein, carbs, and fat. :)

But I know there are times you might not be able to eat a big meal before a workout. If that’s the case, I suggest trying to eat a simpler and smaller meal or snack about 45-60 minutes before working out. In some cases, you might be able to eat 30 minutes before working out, but most people won’t be able to digest their food sufficiently with any less time than this.

Focus On Carbs and Protein

The closer you eat to a workout, the simpler your meal should be. If I eat something within about an hour of working out, I like to stick to some carbs and protein. I tend to eat fat several hours (typically 2-3) before working out. This will help keep stomach problems and discomfort from inhibiting your exercise.

The recommended intake of carbs and protein depends on your body weight:

  • 1-2 grams / kg body weight of carbohydrates
  • 0.15 – 0.25 grams / kg body weight of protein

However, even these guidelines are somewhat flexible. If you’re working out first thing in the day, try to stick to these guidelines and eat a snack about 30 minutes before your workout if you can. But, if you’re working out later in the day and have already eaten carbs and protein throughout the day, you might find that you don’t need to eat as many carbs right away.

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STAY HYDRATED

Don’t forget to drink water! Dehydration can lower your ability to do well during your workout, but staying hydrated can actually enhance your performance.

You should be drinking water throughout the day, including before and after your workouts. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends drinking 16–20 ounces (0.5–0.6 liters) of water four hours before exercise, and they recommend that you drink an additional 8–12 ounces (0.23–0.35 liters) of water about 15 minutes before your workout.

You can also consume drinks that contain sodium, as these can help you retain water for longer.

RELATED POST: Signs That You Are Dehydrated

guidelines for pre-workout meals

What to Eat Before a Workout

As you know, carbs and protein are key to get in before a workout, but eating fat can help your performance and energy levels too. Each macronutrient will assist your body in different ways during and after your workout. Understanding how can help you make diet choices that will help your body feel its best post-workout. :)

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Protein

Protein will help your body repair itself after workouts, and it can help prevent muscle damage. It will also help you improve your strength and build lean muscles.

Eating protein is important before all types of exercise, but it’s especially important if you’re doing resistance training. When you do resistance training, your workouts damage the muscles. As your body repairs the muscles, your muscles become stronger. Eating protein helps this process.

If you’re wanting to build muscle, try eating 1.6 and 1.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight.

Some foods that are full of protein include:

  • Fish, poultry, and other meat products
  • Beans and lentils
  • Nuts
  • Eggs
  • Soy products

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Carbs

Your body uses carbs as a major energy source, and eating them before a workout will help you have the energy needed to do well and complete the exercise. They are great for assisting long cardio workouts, like hikes, walks, and runs. However, they also help provide energy for shorter workouts, including HIIT workouts and resistance training.

Carbs also help your body preserve its muscle and liver glycogen, which tells your brain that you’ve had enough food. Glycogen is stored glucose and a great source of energy. This also helps your muscles stay strong and grow.

Different types of carbs work differently in the body.

  • Simple carbohydrates (like white bread) give you a quick burst of energy, but you might notice that you drop in energy quickly too. They also tend to have little nutritional value. If you choose to eat simple carbs before your workout, try to do so about 30 minutes before working out. Any longer might make you crash.
  • Complex carbohydrates take longer for your body to digest, but they provide more consistent energy over a longer period of time. They also have more nutritional value than simple carbs. Try to eat complex carbs about 2-3 hours before working out. When you can, it is typically best to pick complex carbs over simple carbs, although some endurance athletes might have different nutritional needs.

Some good examples of carbs include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains, such as brown rice, whole-grain pasta, and brown bread
  • Beans and lentils (these can be great because they contain both protein and carbs)

RELATED POST: How Many Carbs Should I Be Eating?

Fat

There’s some debate about when to eat fat prior to working out. Fat can take longer for your body to digest, and so it is typically best to eat it 2-3 hours before your workout begins. If you eat fat too close to your workout, your body probably won’t have time to break it down and absorb it before you start exercising.

Eating fat slows down your digestion, which can help your body maintain its blood glucose and insulin levels.

Although eating fat right before a workout doesn’t boost your performance, eating fat throughout the day does make a difference to your general well-being and fitness levels.

Studies show that people, including trained athletes, who incorporate more fat into their diets have better endurance. Your body uses stored fat as a source of fuel for longer and more intense workouts.

Some healthy fat sources include:

  • Nuts
  • Olive oil
  • Avocado

RELATED POST: 5 Nutrition Facts for Fat Loss

pre-workout meals

Examples of Pre-Workout Meals

If your workout is starting soon (within about an hour), stick to smaller snacks, such as:

  • Greek yoghurt and fruit
  • Carrots and cucumber dipped in hummus
  • A piece of fruit with a handful of nuts
  • Nut butter on whole-grain bread
  • Protein or healthy sports bar
  • A whole-grain muffin with nut butter
  • A smoothie made with yoghurt and fruit

If you have more time before your workout and your meal, try eating a good combination of complex carbs, protein, and fat. Here are some examples:

  • An egg omelet with vegetables, avocado, and whole grain toast
  • Fish, brown rice, and roasted vegetables cooked in olive oil
  • Oatmeal served with fruit and nuts
  • Stir-fry vegetables with lean protein and quinoa
  • A taco bowl with brown rice, black beans, and vegetables

Eating healthy foods before working out can give you the energy you need to push through the workout, challenge your body, and improve your endurance and strength. Diet and exercise always work together to help you become a healthier person. :)

Let me know if you have any questions in the comments!

Love Rachael Xx

Picture of Rachael

Rachael is an Australian born certified personal trainer and nutritionist who holds a Bachelor degree in Science.

After struggling for years to find an exercise and diet program that is tailored to women striving for lean and toned body with no bulk she designed her Lean Legs Program. This program is tailored to each body type and focused on helping women get toned but feminine bodies, without getting bulky.

Her mission is to empower women and help them stay in shape in a healthy and balanced way.

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