When it comes to fitness, eating right is as important as exercising right. But what to eat before a workout and most importantly when? Eating very close to your workout can lead to discomfort and on the other side, heading to the gym with an empty stomach isn’t right either. Your body needs the energy to be able to exercise well and recover from the workout correctly.

A pre-workout meal can be the combination of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Banana, chicken, veggies, omelet, etc. could be the ideal choice as pre-workout foods.

Also, the amount of these essential nutrients and foods depends on what kind of workout you would be performing and for how long.

Read on to learn more in detail what to eat before a workout and most essentially when?

Why is pre-workout nutrition important?

Poor nutrition can undermine even the best efforts to stay fit. If you do not eat well before a workout, your body will not have the energy to for that extra ten minute on the treadmill or that last set of push-ups.

Here are a few reasons why nutritious meals before workouts are essential.

1. Provide energy

Our bodies use carbohydrates and glycogen as fuel. Carbs and glycogen can be converted into adenosine triphosphates (ATP) faster than proteins and fats. This means having carbs and glycogen before workouts can help you perform better.

2. Prevent muscle catabolism

When the glycogen stores in the body are exhausted, the body looks for other sources of energy. Our body starts breaking down muscles for energy, and this puts it in the catabolic state which can prevent muscle growth.

3. Increase muscle anabolism

Eating high protein food helps promote muscle protein synthesis and creates an anabolic environment in the body.

What to eat before a workout?

Fueling your body with the right nutrients before you workout is vital for a good performance. You must consider adding each of the three essential macronutrients  – carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, to your pre-workout meals.

The ratio in which you need to add them differs for every individual and depends on the workout you will be doing (2).

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the best source of fuel for our body because of the efficient way in which they use oxygen. They use less oxygen for every kilocalorie of energy produced as compared to proteins and fats.

The glycogen stores in the body depend on our carb intake. In other words, your ability to exercise depends on your glycogen stores (1).

There are two types of carbohydrates: high glycemic index carbs and low glycemic index carbs. High glycemic index carbs provide fast-acting glucose to the body, and they should be consumed 30 to 60 minutes before workout.

You should consume low GI carbs for at least two to three hours before a workout as they give your body slow-releasing source of energy. They help you work out for longer.

Some studies have also shown that carbs can increase glycogen stores and boost carb oxidation during exercise (2). Carb loading, which involves eating a high carb diet for 1 to 7 days, helps maximize the glycogen stores of athletes(3).

what to eat before a workout infographic

Protein

You must include protein in your pre-workout meal as it helps reduce post-exercise muscle soreness. Your body needs protein to help your muscles recover from workout stress, especially if your workout involves weight training.

By consuming protein before you exercise, you provide your body with amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscles.

According to some studies, consuming protein before workouts helps in muscle protein synthesis which improves exercise performance (4, 5).

Having high-quality protein before exercise also helps with muscle growth, improves muscle recovery, and increases lean body mass (6).

Fats

It is best to avoid too much fat before a workout. Though they are high in energy, fats take a long time to be digested. This means they can make you sluggish instead of energetic.

However, this doesn’t mean that you eliminate fat from your diet altogether. Fats provide fuel for the body, especially if your workouts last longer than an hour.

After the glycogen levels in the body are exhausted, it uses fats for fuel. According to studies, fat content in the diet can help improve your endurance (7, 8).

Not all fats are made equal. Avoid saturated and trans fats as they raise blood cholesterol levels. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are better as they boost the immune system, regulate oxygen and improve heart health.

Five best pre-workout foods

1. Bananas

Bananas are an excellent source of simple carbohydrates, potassium, and natural sugars. Having a banana 30 minutes before a workout can increase your blood sugar levels and increase your glycogen stores.

2. Chicken, rice, and veggies

This meal is a perfect combination of lean protein and complex carbohydrates. Have this meal three to four hours before your workout to promote anabolism.

3. Omelet

Omelets are an excellent source of muscle-building protein and amino acids. Have them before a workout to promote muscle growth.

4. Porridge and oatmeal

Porridge and oatmeal is the ideal pre-workout breakfast as you get your fill of complex carbohydrates and soluble fiber. This breakfast is an excellent source of slow releasing energy.

5. Apple with peanut butter

Sliced apple with peanut butter is the perfect energy-boosting snack before a workout.

Supplements

Active ingredients found in pre-workout supplements help to increase strength, enhance performance, improve muscle mass and reduce fatigue. Here are some of the common pre-workout supplements

1. Caffeine

Caffeine helps improve performance, reduces fatigue and helps burn fat.

2. Creatine

Creatine increases muscle mass and muscle strength and delays fatigue.

3. Beta analine

This supplement helps improve athletic performance by fighting muscle fatigue.

4. BCAAs

Branched-chain amino acids improve endurance running performance. It is also consumed for its muscle building properties.

5. Citrulline

This amino acid improves blood flow to the body tissues. It also helps in reducing muscle soreness after strenuous exercise.

6. Sodium bicarbonate

It helps fight against acid build up in the body and thus helps reduce fatigue.

7. Nitrate

Nitrate improves exercise performance by decreasing the amount of oxygen needed during exercise.

Don’t workout on an empty stomach

Many people workout early in the morning and they neglect eating before their workout. While working out a full stomach can cause nausea or lethargy, but exercising without eating is equally wrong.

It can make you lightheaded and weak as you don’t have enough energy to sustain exercise. If your workout includes strength training and endurance training, you must have a high-carb breakfast like a banana, toast or oatmeal.

According to a study by the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, a pre-workout snack or meal can help you burn your body fat better (9).

Don’t forget to stay hydrated

You must ensure that you are well hydrated before you start your workout. Your body needs to be hydrated to be able to burn calories. Dehydration can slow down your metabolic rate.

According to research, drinking appropriate amounts of cold water can enhance exercise performance (10). Some experts also recommend consuming beverages containing electrolytes and carbohydrates before exercise (11).

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, you should drink at least 16 to 20 ounces of water four hours before exercise and 8 to 10 ounces of water 10 to 15 minutes before workout (12).

Time your meals correctly

You must time your meals correctly so that your food is digested and absorbed entirely before your workout. You must plan your pre-workout meals in such a fashion that there is enough energy available to you when you exercise.

The time taken to digest depends on the type of food you eat. Meals that contain protein, fat, and fiber takes the longest to be digested.  Eat such meals at least 3 to 4 hours before you exercise.

Smaller meals may take lesser time to digest, and snacks take about 30 minutes to get digested. Keep in mind that the meals just before exercise should be smaller while those eaten earlier can be bigger.

Three to four hours before a workout

Eat a mix of carbs, proteins, and fat that are in 400 to 500 calorie range. This meal can include an excellent source of protein and complex low GI carbohydrates.

  • A whole grain bread sandwich, lean protein, and a salad.
  • A small serving of lean protein with veggies, hummus, and pretzel crisps.
  • A lean hamburger on a bun with some mixed yogurt and fruit.
  • Hummus sandwich with pita bread and carrots.

Avoid gassy foods like broccoli and green beans as they might cause discomfort.

One to two hours before a workout

Focus on having a snack that is around 200 calories which should contain carbs and a bit of protein. This will keep you satisfied and reduce muscle soreness.

  • Whole grain cereal with milk.
  • Protein smoothie with milk, banana, and berries.
  • A whole grain bread sandwich with almond butter.

15 to 30 minutes before workout

Choose a snack that is around 25 calories and is simple to digest.

  • Some raisins
  • Saltine crackers
  • Sliced apple wedges

Take home message on what to eat before a workout

Correct pre-workout nutrition can help you get the most out of your workout. A proper diet provides you energy for your workout and helps prevent catabolism.

You must have all three macronutrients in the correct ratio for improved athletic performance. Time your meals correctly and don’t forget to stay hydrated.  You can also opt for supplements to improve your performance and aid recovery.

Do you know what to eat before a workout? A pre-workout meal can consist of carbs, proteins, & fats - for eg. Banana, chicken, veggies, etc.