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What To Eat Before A Workout For Increased Performance 2022

Blanca Garcia

Updated on - Written by
Medically reviewed by Kathy Shattler, MS, RDN

what to eat before a workout

Finding the best pre-workout meal can feel daunting if you don’t know where to start. To increase performance, you need to eat before workouts[1]. Having an excellent pre-workout nutrition habit can aid in providing all the essential amino acids for increased muscle mass, muscle recovery, and relief of muscle soreness.

Through foods, you can also obtain easy-to-digest carbs and complex carbohydrates (carbs) that provide enough energy to last throughout the day. Carbohydrates play an essential role as the body’s preferred source of energy. The question becomes do you eat a full meal, light snack, go on an empty stomach, use a sports drink, or a pre-workout supplement before you head off to your workout.

Different Pre-Workout Food for Different Needs

For every fitness goal, there are foods with specific nutrients that can optimize results. For example, if you are trying to increase muscle protein synthesis to build muscle, you may want to eat a higher protein meal. On the other hand, if you want to train for a marathon, foods with more carbs give you the fuel to last several hours of running[2]

Best Foods for Weight Loss

Essential Nutrition Requirements

To lose weight, include complex carbs, protein, and fat. These nutrients help keep you healthy and in balance. When doing workouts to lose weight, focus on increased complex carbs to guarantee enough energy is provided, you feel full longer, and the fiber in the carb will help from absorbing any extra sugars that may cause weight gain[3].

Food Suggestions

  • Muesli: This cold-styled rolled oatmeal usually includes nuts, seeds, and grains. Serve with either low-fat milk or yogurt. This is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates and plant-based protein. 
  • Whey protein shake: A by-product of cow’s milk, it’s rich in protein and typically can be bought as a powder protein. You can add water or low-fat milk and shake or blend in a blender and use it before a workout. 
  • Yogurt with fruits: It can be a by-product of cow’s or goat’s milk and is a good source of protein. You add some simple carbs by adding fruits like berries, apples, or raisins. 
  • Whole-grain crackers or toast: Choosing a whole-grain product like crackers or toast can provide the carbs with fiber to feel full. You can spread nut butter to increase the protein source. 
  • Fruit Smoothie: A combination of apples, pineapple, and berries can be a great mixture of carbs and fiber with vitamins and minerals. To add protein, you can choose low-fat milk, soy milk, other nut kinds of milk, or water with at least two spoonfuls of peanut butter.

Best Foods for Muscle Gain

Essential Nutrition Requirements

To increase muscles, and even muscle strength, a diet higher in protein can help provide the muscles with amino acids. Workouts to increase muscles need amino acids; they are essential nutrients for the body to increase muscle protein synthesis. These amino acids can come from animal-based protein or plant-based protein[4]. You must pay particular attention to getting all nine essential amino acids from food out of the 20 available.

Food Suggestions

  • Turkey pita with vegetables: For a pre-workout meal that is whole and healthy, choose lean turkey with whole-grain pita and vegetables. This is a good choice for a high protein and high fiber meal. 
  • Yogurt parfaits with granola and fruit: Choose an unsweetened yogurt with unsweetened granola and fresh fruit for a good combination. For added probiotics, choose a yogurt with active, live cultures. Your digestive tract will thank you for it.
  • Scrambled eggs and toast: Choose three eggs and chopped onions, and scramble topped on a slice of whole-grain bread. 
  • Whey or Soy protein shake: Choosing a protein shake as a quick way to get protein before a workout can be a solution when in a hurry. It’s best to include a small snack, such as a piece of fruit. 
  • Whole-grain bread with a couple of slices of lean meat: To increase muscle, a combination of whole grains with a lean protein source like lean meat can help increase the needed nutrients.  
  • Chicken with rice and vegetables: Choose a chicken that is skinless with whole-grain rice and vegetables. This will provide the needed proteins, complex carbohydrates, and a good source of fiber for a balanced meal. 
  • Apples with peanut butter and raisins:  A good pre-workout snack, the apples, and raisins will provide you with simple sugars and peanut butter with a good source of plant-based protein. 
  • Greek yogurt: Another pre-workout small snack you can include in a shake is adding fruit or nuts. This can be a high protein source with animal-based protein and plant-based protein. 

Morning Workout Routine

Essential Nutrition Requirements

When waking up in the morning, you are coming out of a long stretch of fasting. Morning workouts can require a little extra energy[5]. You are at a point where you aren’t just feeding for a workout but also for breaking a fast. You may need more calories to get you going and increase blood sugar levels, which may be on the low side. To be energized for the day by adding a morning workout, a balance of complex carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals is what the body needs.  

Food Suggestions 

  • A few sips of 100% orange juice: In combination with a small meal, this can be a way to add simple carbs for energy. Drinking juice without a small snack may cause a rapid rise with a subsequent drop in blood sugar. So, plan for a protein-containing snack with your juice as a pre-workout meal for sustainable blood sugar.
  • A glass of chocolate milk:  A glass of chocolate milk may sound weird, but it comes with increased simple sugars, and when combined with a small meal, you can get carbs and proteins to help with the morning workout routine.
  • A handful of cereal or granola: Added to a low-fat yogurt can increase the carbs to help increase the energy for now and later.  
  • A half a banana or other piece of fruit: Adding peanut butter or adding it to a low-fat yogurt can give a combination of nutrient-dense foods. 
  • A slice of toast with jam: Choose a whole wheat bread with jam; the jam is a simple carb that can provide a quick boost of energy.  
  • A fruit smoothie: It can contain fruits for quick carbs, oats for complex carbs, and low-fat milk or yogurt for protein. 
  • Applesauce: A good source of simple carbohydrates, you can add to a protein source to make sure not all sugar is used up at the beginning of a workout. A good option can be plain low-fat greek yogurt. 
  • A cereal bar: A ready-to-go pre-workout cereal bar can come in handy when nothing else is available. 

Cardio

Essential Nutrition Requirements

To get the cardiovascular (cardio) system going, a good cardio workout is well paired with complex carbohydrates to help fuel the body throughout the workout. Cardio workouts can positively affect heart rate variability[6]

Food Suggestions 

  • Whole-grain crackers or toast: Whole grains will offer the carbohydrates you need and some protein; you can increase protein by adding cheese, deli meat, or nut butter. 
  • A protein smoothie made with coconut water: The protein source can be nut butter, a dairy product, or a protein powder. Coconut water can be a good option but keep an eye out that it does not contain too much sugar, meaning any more than 15 grams of sugar per serving. 
  • Nuts and dried fruits: A handful of nuts with some dried fruits can provide plant-based protein with some fruit carbs. This can be a quick way to get some nutrient-dense foods that require little prep time. 
  • Apple + low-fat string cheese: An on-the-go pre-workout snack that is rich in vitamins, minerals, and fibers. 

Toning

Essential Nutrition Requirements

When lifting weights for a lean body mass, a protein-rich diet can help. Choosing lean protein or plant-based protein food sources can provide the necessary nutrients to tone up[7]

Food Suggestions 

  • A baked chicken breast: Baking a chicken breast without the skin is great, but you should combine it with carbs and vegetables for it to be a complete meal. 
  • Eggs: Two or three eggs made into an omelet with vegetables can be a great way to provide the body with increased protein and some carbs through vegetables. 
  • Salmon patty: A salmon patty, alongside small potatoes and vegetables, is a good source of healthy fats.
  • Cottage Cheese and fresh peaches: A light snack, you get protein in cottage cheese and carbs in peaches. 
  • A rice cake with tuna spread: Another small snack is a rice cake with tuna spread; you can mix mustard and onions in the tuna for a savory flavor.
  • Shrimp: A good source of protein, it can be cooked with whole-grain pasta, tomato sauce, and Mexican zucchini. 

HIIT Classes

Essential Nutrition Requirements

A high-intensity interval training commonly known as HIIT requires explosive body moves. For this type of strength training, you will need simple and complex carbohydrates. Both will give you the energy to start and keep going through the explosive movements and provide benefits that go beyond weight loss by showing promise of improved insulin sensitivity, lowered body mass index (BMI), body fat percentage, and blood pressure[8].  You should plan your high carbohydrate meals one to three hours before your HIIT training workout.

Food Suggestions 

  • Half a banana or apple: Fruit will give you the carbohydrates you need for those explosive moves.
  • Eggs on whole-wheat toast: Two eggs with two slices of toast and fresh fruit is a good combination for long-term energy. 
  • Low-fat Greek yogurt topped with blueberries: A light snack with protein from the yogurt and simple carbs in blueberries. 
  • Oatmeal with apples and raisins: A fulfilling meal with oats filled with fiber and complex carbohydrates, dried fruit, and apple.
  • A medium baked potato with lean chicken and a fruit: To your potato, add sour cream, plant-based butter, a dash of salt, and some cheese. At least two ounces of lean chicken with a banana. A pre-workout meal that is whole and easy. 

Pre-Workout Nutrition Mistakes to Avoid

The most important thing to remember is that food is fuel, and your body needs it to function. Having an overall diet that contains a combination of carbs, protein and fats is what the body needs[9].

That being said, avoid relying solely on dietary supplements to get you through the workout. Such supplements are usually pre-workouts or protein powders. They can be used to accompany a small snack or meal but should not be the only source of fuel. 

Avoid working out with an empty stomach unless you are on an Intermittent Fast. You should eat before a workout to obtain energizing food to move and recover. Although it’s a common practice among people who get an upset stomach either because it may be too early or because working out with a full stomach may cause discomfort, there are solutions. 

To avoid workouts with an upset stomach, you can opt for light snacks or a combination of light snacks with a pre-workout beverage that may be lighter on the stomach. 

Sports drinks may be helpful for hydration but may not offer the complex amount of nutrients the body needs for a workout, mainly carbohydrates, and protein.

Should I Take Pre-Workout?

You don’t have to take a pre-workout; this is only an option that is up to you. People choose to take a pre-workout either because they want a boost in energy or because they can’t tolerate solid foods in the stomach before a workout. 

Pre-workouts are used to increase energy and optimize a workout so it can serve as an alternate energy-boosting supplement, keep in mind food should always be your first option. 

With a pre-workout, the exercise you want to do can be improved if your goal is aimed at gaining muscles. Also important is to make sure that you are eating the right foods, foods rich in amino that help the body grow and repair muscles. 

What Does Pre-Workout Do?

A pre-workout is a supplement that is intended to fuel up your workout and keep you energized throughout it. Some include stimulants, carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. There is a lot to choose from; even for those sensitive to stimulants, you can now find some with low stimulants or have stimulant-free ingredients. You can find specifically designed pre-workouts for your fitness goals.

Summary

There is no question that food is the source of our body’s fuel, but it’s a bit more complicated. The body needs the correct combinations of carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals to function well in everyday life and any extra activities you may want to add. 

It’s very important to try to eat before a workout; it can be a full meal or a light meal, whatever your body digests better, unless on Intermittent Fasting. But just as important to not forget that post-workout nutrition is as important[10]. Post-workout nutrition can be the same foods eaten before an exercise, as long as it happens within an hour or two of the exercise. 

The other thing to keep in mind is eating and the workout timing. To avoid stomach discomfort, try eating at least 30 minutes before a workout. If that still causes stomach discomfort, try 60 minutes before a workout; some people need a little more time for digestion. For HIIT, eating one to three hours before working out may be your best regimen.

Stomach discomfort may tempt you to try workouts with nothing in your stomach or a fasted cardio; others sometimes recommend it because it may burn more fat[11]. But the reality is that you need fuel to get through the workouts, especially when they are strength training types of workouts. 

These days, athletic performance is so popular and important that sports medicine has developed to include an array of health professionals to help in optimizing an athlete[12]. You can now rely on a physical therapist, doctor, and sports dietitian, to name a few. The sports dietitian focuses on sports nutrition and can even be niched down to a specific type of sport.  

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it better to eat before or after a workout?

It’s better to do both; you fuel yourself to get through the workout and provide nutrients for recovery. As you push yourself toward your goals, nutrients are used up and need to be replenished.

What’s the healthiest food to consume before exercise?

The healthiest option is a combination of a complex carbohydrate and a plant-based protein. This can be a sandwich made of whole wheat bread with peanut butter or baked chicken with brown rice and vegetables. If this becomes too much for your stomach, you can opt for a small snack.

Is it ok to work out without eating?

It’s best to provide yourself with nutrients before a workout. This is to make sure you have the energy for the workout and the nutrients needed for recovery.

What foods should I avoid eating before exercise?

Avoid foods that cause you discomfort. These foods can vary by individual, but the most common irritants to the stomach are coffee, citrus foods, milk, cheese, yogurt, meat, and beans. These foods may cause stomach irritation, gas, or intolerance.


+ 12 sources

Health Canal avoids using tertiary references. We have strict sourcing guidelines and rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic researches from medical associations and institutions. To ensure the accuracy of articles in Health Canal, you can read more about the editorial process here

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Blanca Garcia

Written by:

Blanca Garcia, RDN

Medically reviewed by:

Blanca is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and freelance nutrition writer from Los Angeles, CA. She has more than 8 year’s experience in nutrition and dietetics. She is a Latina and enjoys traditional Mexican and Salvadoran cooking, eating flavorful meals and sharing her knowledge about food and nutrition with others through her writing.

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