Knowing how to fuel your workout for the best results — preferably without getting a stitch — can be a difficult one and differs from person to person. While some people like to get up at the crack of dawn and do a fasted workout, this isn’t for everyone and if you’re working out midway through the day, then you’re going to want to eat beforehand and pack in some pre-workout foods. You’re also going to want to eat right, so that you can get through your workout without feeling sluggish from too much, or lethargic from too little. Read on to discover the best foods to eat before working out.
Bananas are a great source of natural sugars, simple carbohydrates, and potassium. In the body, potassium is only stored for a limited amount of time, so try consuming a banana around 30 minutes to an hour before your workout. Eating a banana as your pre-workout snack is the perfect way to boost your muscles’ energy stores and increase blood sugar levels1 — you can add some peanut butter for that extra protein boost too.
Summary: An easily digestible source of carbohydrates, like a banana or another piece of fruit, can be a great pre-workout snack to boost your blood sugar and stored energy in your muscles.
2. Chicken, Rice & Vegetables
The stereotypical healthy meal: chicken, rice, and vegetables. This is actually a classic pre-workout meal. By combining a good source of lean protein and complex carbohydrates, this meal can provide amino acids to promote anabolism (muscle growth) and a slow-releasing source of energy.2 Consume a meal like this around 2-3 hours before a workout.
Summary: A well balanced meal with protein, carbs, and fibre can keep you feeling full and energized but should be consumed at least 2 hours before a workout.
These grilled chicken burgers are a fab option...
3. Protein Bar
If you’re on the go and looking for a quick top-up before the gym, then a protein bar is a great option. There are lots of options out there, but in terms of a pre-workout snack, you want to fuel your workout as well as boost your protein intake.
Look for one with some carbohydrates too to offer a good balance of energy. A Layered Bar would make a good pre-workout as it contains protein, contributing to muscle mass as well as carbohydrates that’ll have you hitting PBs on the treadmill. The low-sugar content is an added bonus for those watching their waistlines too. Eat around an hour before you work out to optimise your energy.
Summary: A pre-workout protein bar is a great source to set yourself up for success before, during and after your workout.
4. Porridge and Oatmeal
Porridge makes the ultimate pre-workout breakfast. This pre-workout food contains complex carbohydrates, which digest more slowly, and is also a great source of the soluble fibre; beta-glucan.3 By consuming oats around 2 hours before a workout, you’ll be able to satisfy your hunger throughout, whilst getting a great source of slow-releasing energy. Try adding a scoop of protein powder or a blob of peanut butter to your porridge too — that way you’ll also get a great source of protein and amino acids to fuel your workout.
Summary: Oats are a complex carbohydrate that can give you sustained energy, plus the bonus of fibre.
Mix up your usual porridge with these blueberry pie baked oats...
5. Fruit Smoothies
Fruit smoothies are great tasting and super-healthy. Smoothies provide a series of micronutrients that are beneficial for health and well-being. Having a fruit smoothie pre-workout is a great meal option that can provide you with a good source of fast-acting glucose.1 Add some protein powder and/or peanut butter to max the benefits of your pre-workout smoothie.
Summary: Smoothies can provide the pre-workout carbs you need for energy, but make sure you know what is in the smoothie you’re choosing if you don’t make it yourself.
6. Wholegrain Bread, Sweet Potato and Brown Rice
Wholegrain Bread, sweet potato, and brown rice are great sources of complex carbohydrates that should be consumed around 2-3 hours before the gym. Combining these foods with a good source of protein means you’ll get a good source of slow-releasing energy to fuel you throughout a whole workout. Carbohydrates should be consumed by all those physically active, but in particular, those who carry out regular endurance activities such as cycling and running.
Try these Sweet Potato & Feta Tacos for a great pre-workout dinner...
7. Apple Wedges and Peanut Butter
Enjoying sliced apple wedges with a small spread of peanut butter is one of the tastiest and easiest pre-workout foods. This is a great option for those who are on a calorie restricted diet and are watching their carb intake. The added crunch-factor will satisfy cravings while still providing you with protein from the peanut butter and plenty of nutrients from the apple. It’s perfect for consuming around 30 minutes before a workout.
Summary: A source of slow digesting carbohydrate along with protein and fat are a great combination to keep your body prepped for a great workout.
If you’re into your foodie fitness, then there’s no way that could get by without some form of eggs on a daily basis. Omelettes made using whole eggs or just egg whites are a great source of muscle-building protein and all of the nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Omelettes should be consumed 2-3 hours before a workout to avoid muscle catabolism and promote muscle growth — for added nutrients, add some greens such as spinach or kale to make the most of this meal. Try Mike Thurston’s Breakfast Omelette.
Summary: Omelettes provide excellent protein and can easily be customized to include vegetables and increased satiety and energy for your workout.
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9. Homemade Protein Bars
We listed pre-made protein bar options earlier, but if you’re into your baking, then give some homemade bars a go. Homemade protein bars are super easy to make and are top of the list for on-the-go pre-workout foods. What’s more, you can control the content making bars that are high in carbohydrates and protein or low in carbohydrates and high in protein. You can add everything from nuts and seeds to dried fruit and a sprinkle of chocolate — just watch the sugar content.
Summary: Making protein bars at home can help you customize the macros in your bar and give you the energy you need for a successful workout.
10. Protein Shakes
Last but not least, protein shakes. If you’re on the go and in a hurry, then a quick protein shake can solve your pre-workout problems. A good quality shake will contain plenty of nutrients and you can mix a few more bits and bobs in, such as BCAAs to really make your shake pack a punch. By consuming a shake with a good source of fast-releasing protein, such as whey protein, with simple carbohydrates like maltodextrin powder, you can get all the pre-workout nutrients you need in a matter of minutes.4 Sip on a shake around an hour before your workout to maximise your gains.
Summary: Protein shakes are the perfect way to both prepare for a workout and set up your body for recovery.
Benefits of eating pre-workout foods
So now you know what to eat before your workout, let’s talk about why you should be eating it. Many people carry out what’s called fasted cardio, in an attempt to burn and lose body fat, but unless you’re carrying out this cardio from 6am-7am, you need to fuel your body before each and every workout.
Ultimately, you should picture your body like a car – you can’t expect to drive 150 miles with no petrol in the tank, can you? If you’re looking to perform and train at your best, you need to make sure your body has enough fuel to do so. If you fail to provide yourself with the energy and nutrients required during exercise, the chances are you won’t see results as quickly as you should. Plus, over a long period of time, the likelihood of becoming ill or injured will be increased if you don’t eat the right pre-workout foods.
Here are some of the reasons you want to fuel your body right to smash your fitness potential:
1. More energy
Our bodies use carbohydrate stores (glycogen) as the first source of fuel. This is because they can be converted into ATP (Adenosise triphosphate, i.e. energy) faster than protein and fat. Therefore, filling up your glycogen stores pre-workout will mean you’ll have more energy to perform at your best.5
2. Prevent muscle breakdown
When we exercise, glycogen stores are quickly used up and depleted, so the body looks for new sources of energy – our muscles. By breaking down hard-earned muscle, the body can utilise protein in the form of amino acids for energy. This puts our bodies into what’s referred to as a catabolic state, meaning that the muscle tissue is being broken down, which can prevent muscle growth and recovery.5
3. Increase muscle growth
Eating the right foods pre-workout means you won’t just top up your glycogen stores, but you’ll also be able to create an environment in your body which promotes the building of muscle mass by getting a good dose of protein. This is known as an anabolic environment.6
What and when to eat before a workout
When considering your fitness and trying to build muscle mass, keeping track of the three macronutrients, protein, carbohydrates and fats, is invaluable to progress. The ratio in which you’re eating them is also important to consider.
It’s best to avoid too much fat before a workout. This is because, although high in energy with 9kcal per gram, fats are slow-digesting. This means, instead of making you energetic, too much can actually make you feel sluggish and heavy.
Pre-workout meals containing protein provide us with a major benefit – the prevention of muscle catabolism. By consuming a good source of protein before a workout, you can give your body the amino acids (branched-chain amino acids in particular) that it needs to prevent muscle breakdown, whilst aiding muscle recovery and growth.
There are two types of carbohydrates: simple, high glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates, and complex, low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates. But which one is best pre-workout?
This ultimately depends on your goal and the time of your pre-workout meal. Simple carbohydrates are great for 30 minutes to an hour before a workout, as they provide the body with fast-acting glucose as fuel.6 However, complex carbohydrates also play a role within energy metabolism. By consuming low GI carbohydrates around 2-3 hours before a workout, you can give your body a slow-releasing source of energy.6 This means you’ll be able to work out for longer and be less likely to have a dip in your blood sugar levels in the middle of your workout.
Maybe you’re worried about eating too soon before a workout and feeling sluggish, or maybe too early and crashing before you even tie up your trainers. Follow these simple timing guidelines to get into gear:
30 minutes to an hour pre-workout: consume light meals and foods which contain simple carbohydrates and some protein.
2-3 hours pre-workout: eat around 400- 500 calories containing a good source of protein (around 20g) and complex low GI carbohydrates (20-30g).
Take home message
Whatever pre-workout foods you decide on, make sure that it packs a nutritional punch. Crack on with the carbs and protein and make sure that you include other nutrients too, so that your body can go full throttle without a breakdown. There are so many tasty options out there, so be creative and keep yourself motivated with the many delicious dishes to fuel your workout the right way.
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Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you're concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.
Claire is a Registered Dietitian through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a board-certified Health and Wellness Coach through the International Consortium for Health and Wellness Coaching. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master’s degree in Clinical Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Pittsburgh.
Talking and writing about food and fitness is at the heart of Claire’s ethos as she loves to use her experience to help others meet their health and wellness goals.
Claire is also a certified indoor cycling instructor and loves the mental and physical boost she gets from regular runs and yoga classes. When she’s not keeping fit herself, she’s cheering on her hometown’s sports teams in Pittsburgh, or cooking for her family in the kitchen.
Find out more about Claire’s experience here.