Eat for Athletic Performance

The Best Foods to Eat Before a Workout

Whether being hardcore at the gym or enjoying a lighter cardio day, it's important to eat the right foods after your workout and throughout the day. But the foods you eat before your workout are especially important.    

Eat to Support Your Workout

Feed Your Machine
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The human body requires quality nutrients for optimal athletic performance. In order to feel prepared for a hard workout, it is important to consume the right energy (food) in the right amount and at the right time.

The best nutrients to boost your exercise session will come from whole grain carbohydrates and to a lesser degree simple carbohydrates when consumption is closer to your workout. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy. It is recommended that you consume about 50 grams of carbohydrates with 5 to 10 grams of protein 30-60 minutes prior to working out.

Carbohydrates Provide Energy

Complex and Simple Carbohydrates
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The best pre-workout energy foods are quality simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates include fruits and real juices whereas complex carbs refer to foods like whole grains and oats.

Every person is different in their digestive processes. Nutrient timing is a factor to consider and should be coordinated with your workout. Some people feel fine eating a lighter meal and exercising after 30-minutes, but others may suffer from stomach upset. 

All food requires energy to digest. Once a meal is consumed, the focus of our system is to break down and absorb the nutrients. Digesting food shunts blood flow to the stomach and away from our muscles. This explains why nausea can occur when exercise is performed too quickly after eating.

A good rule of thumb is to have your pre-exercise meal 6 hours before you work out. Doing so gives your body time to digest and absorb the nutrients you need to fuel your workout.

Timing the Pre-Workout Meal

Best Foods to Eat Before Your Workout
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Regardless of when you choose to workout, selecting quality carbohydrates is important. They provide optimum energy levels during your exercise session and maintain overall good health.

Are you planning to exercise within an hour of getting out of bed? Eating something light is preferred and will reduce the risk of stomach upset. Enjoy an apple with nut butter or blended real fruit smoothie with skim milk and fat-free yogurt to raise blood sugar and supply quick energy to the bloodstream. If you are able to tolerate something more substantial within 30-60 minutes of your workout, aim for about 50 grams of carbohydrates and 5 to 10 grams of protein before your workout session.

If you're planning to exercise later in the day, you can choose a larger carbohydrate meal like oatmeal with milk and side of fruit (which can take up to three hours to digest). To replenish your liver and muscle tissue into glycogen, it takes about 4 hours.

Trial and error with pre-workout food consumption is the best teacher. You will learn what foods make you feel best during a workout. Pay attention to your body, how you feel, and make note of the time and type of foods consumed prior to your workout. If you're a competitive athlete, make sure your eating patterns on the day of your event are the same eating patterns that you've practiced during training.

Grab Some Pre-Workout Meal Ideas

Pre-Workout Meal
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Below are some great pre-workout meal recommendations. They will not only get you going but supply enough energy to complete a great workout: 

  • Fruits: Grab your favorite and go! Bananas, apples, peaches, pears, and blueberries are all great choices and will provide quick energy for an excellent workout. Canned fruits, although not as fabulous as fresh, are acceptable as long as there is no added sugar and packed in their own fruit juices. You can pair these with fat-free string cheese, skim milk, or fat-free yogurt.
  • Hot or cold cereal: Whole grain or bran-based cereals such as oatmeal or bran flakes will provide high fiber, some protein, and long-term energy over time. Enjoy with soy or skim milk for some additional carbohydrate and protein.
  • Toast with protein, healthy fats, and fruit: Whole grain or sprouted wheat toast with your favorite nut butter, or topped with a large organic egg and a side of your favorite fruit is a great way to start the day and fuel your body for a hardcore session at the gym or long distance run. 
  • Smoothies: Blending one cup of your favorite fruit with soy, fat-free cow's milk, or lactose-free cow's milk if tolerated and ice makes a fabulous light meal for those wanting to get that workout in within the hour after getting out of bed. 
  • Pass the leftovers: Quinoa or brown rice makes a great power meal mixed with a handful of raisins, or fresh fruits and sprinkled with a few raw nuts. Add a touch of cinnamon to kick off even more flavor to the dish.

Drink Plenty of Water

Drink Plenty of Water
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In addition to eating quality carbohydrates prior to a workout, it's also important to stay hydrated throughout the day, before a workout, during exercise and after your session is complete. Before bed, drink about 2.5 cups of water. When you wake up, drink another 2.5 cups of water. About 20-30 minutes before your workout drink another 1.5 to 2.5 cups of water.

Valuable nutrients are lost through our sweat. The human body is over 60 percent water so drinking plenty throughout the day is essential. 

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  1. Kerksick, C.M., Wilborn, C.D., Roberts, M.D. et al. ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 1538 (2018). doi:10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y

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