How to Create the Best Pre-Workout Meal

Your pre-workout meal can make or break your workout. Here’s..

How to Create the Best Pre-Workout Meal

Your pre-workout meal can make or break your workout.

Here’s how to create the perfect pre-workout meal for optimal fat loss and performance.

The Importance of Pre-Workout Nutrition

Have you ever just felt like skipping your workout? Do you find yourself running out of energy halfway through your workouts? Pre-workout nutrition has a strong influence on whether you have a good workout or not.

Planning out and eating the right food can be the difference between not doing your workout or doing it. It can also be the difference between rating your workout as a 7 or giving it a 10.

But there’s a lot of debate on pre-workout nutrition. Some claim having a pre-workout meal isn’t really necessary, especially for those who want to lose weight.

Exercising on an empty stomach may help you burn fat more effectively. When you work out, your body uses stored carbs for energy. Once your glycogen stores are depleted, it starts burning fat. If you don’t eat before hitting the gym, no carbs will be present in your body.

This theory isn’t entirely true. Even if you work out in a fasted state, your muscles may hold glycogen from your previous meals. Unless you’re on a low carb or ketogenic diet, it will take more than one workout to deplete glycogen stores. Secondly, exercising on an empty stomach isn’t the best idea because you may lack the energy needed for an intense workout.

Your overall performance will be reduced, so you might not be able to do those last reps. Additionally, many people experience fatigue, dizziness, and migraines when working out in a fasted state.

So, if you goal is to lose fat, have a low carb, high-protein meal or snack before working out. For muscle growth, eat slow digesting carbs such as those in brown rice, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, and veggies. Avoid fruit, refined sugar, and fats before exercising.

Those who want to shed fat and preserve muscle can have a protein shake with glutamine, l-arginine, and BCAAs. Fat takes a long time to digest, so your pre-workout snack should contain little or no fat.

Contrary to the popular belief, it’s not recommended to eat fruit before exercising. Fruit contains simple sugars and may cause spikes in blood sugar. As a result, you’ll get a quick burst of energy followed by a crash. Eat fruit and other simple sugars after working out to replenish muscle glycogen stores.

Eat healthy fats for endurance


Many people try to limit the amount of fat in their diet, but cutting it out completely can actually hinder athletic performance. Fat provides fuel for the body. If your workouts typically last more than an hour, your body uses fats for energy after your glucose supply has been depleted.

However, you should keep in mind that some fats are more beneficial for people than others. Studies show that saturated and trans fats raise total blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or your “bad” cholesterol levels. 

However, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, found in many plant-based foods and oils, play a critical role in your body by helping to regulate oxygen, hormone restoration, cardiovascular health, and immune system integrity.

Like carbohydrates, fats are an important source of fuel for the body (they contain 9 calories per gram, compared with 4 calories per gram in carbohydrates and protein).

While calories from fat aren’t as accessible as carbohydrates to athletes performing quick, intense efforts like sprinting, they play an important role in lower intensity and endurance exercise such as light bicycling or jogging.

Should You Eat Before You Work Out?

There has been much debate on whether you should eat before a workout. Proponents of training on an empty stomach say you can burn more fat, since you’ll use the fat from your body instead of the energy from your meal. Others say they just don’t have time to eat before a 6am workout.

People who do eat a meal say that it gives them more energy, and that they have a better workout as a result. So who’s right? They both are.

Now, while fasted training might burn more fat during your workout, that is not the overall determining factor for fat loss. At the end of the day, it’s going to be energy balance that determines your weight loss.

The rule for whether you should eat a pre-workout meal or not is this: make it a goal to have the best workout you can. If your intensity levels are going to suffer and you’re not going to be able to run as fast or lift as much weight as a result of skipping your meal, then you should be eating one. If you notice no difference, then the choice is personal preference.

Protein and fiber

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Although you want a balanced meal, you usually don’t want to overdo on protein or fiber before exercise, especially aerobic exercise.  Examples of aerobic exercise includes running, biking, elliptical, star stepping, dancing, tennis, etc.

Protein sits in your stomach the longest out of the three macronutrients.  Eating a lot of protein before working out could increase risk for gastric distress if you exercise too soon.  Moderation is key before aerobic exercise.  Make sure to balance protein with some carbohydrates.

Fiber does a lot of beneficial things in the body, but some of fiber’s actions could be negative during exercise.  For example, fiber increases fecal bulk in the intestine, draws water into the colon, and speeds up bowel movements.  If these are happening during exercise, it could be uncomfortable.

High fiber foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes (beans).  You should be fine eating a small amount of fibrous foods, again you just don’t want to overdo it on the fiber.  Everyone varies in terms of how much fiber they can handle without adverse effects during exercise.

If the meal is high in fat, protein or fiber, you may want to wait longer than normal before exercising.  However, if the exercise is lifting or low intensity exercise, you may be fine to exercise soon after eating.  Aerobic exercises tend to need more time for digestion.

How Long Before Your Workout Should You Eat?

Ideally, you want enough time between your meal and workout that your meal gets digested, raises your blood sugar a bit, and synthesizes glycogen for your exercise. What you don’t want to happen is not leaving enough time to digest your meal and having to work out with a stomach full of food.

Depending on the size of your meal, you could eat as little as 30 minutes before your workout if you’re having a small snack, or up to 1-2 hours before if your meal is more normal in size.

But if you’re planning a meal a few hours before you exercise, try eating a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

3–4 hours before exercise:

Lean hamburger on a bun and some mixed yogurt and fruit – red meat is an excellent source of iron and protein, and serves as a perfect compliment to the vitamins and minerals that are found in the fruit.

Hummus sandwich on pita bread with carrots – this protein-and-carb combination will help keep you satisfied during a long workout. Sweet potatoes and kidney beans – sweet potatoes are high in carbs, fiber, and vitamin A, while kidney beans will provide you with the protein that you need for muscle recovery.

2-3 hours before exercise:

Oatmeal with brown sugar, almonds, skim milk, and a banana – oatmeal is a great choice for long runs because it helps keep you satisfied without weighing you down Peanut butter & honey on toast – this snack is popular among vegetarian athletes because peanut butter is an excellent source of protein.

As your workout time draws closer, opt for a meal that is heavier on carbohydrates with a little bit of protein to help you feel satisfied and energized.

30–60 minutes before exercise:

Low-fiber cereal with skim milk – while fiber is a healthy part of any diet, it often causes many people to feel queasy right before a workout. Since muscles can convert simple carbs into energy faster than fiber-rich foods, try low-fiber cereal if you’re eating right before exercise.

Low-fat yogurt with banana – bananas are an excellent source of both potassium and carbohydrates, while the yogurt provides your body with the sugar and protein that it needs to stay energized.  Hard-boiled eggs – not only are eggs a great source of protein, but this low-calorie snack is also a great choice for people who are watching their weight.

What Should Your Meal Look Like?


This is where things get interesting. Much of what your meal looks like is going to depend on your lifestyle. If you have to work out early in the morning, it likely doesn’t make much sense to wake up 2 hours earlier to have a meal. The cons would outweigh the pros.

If you’re a morning exerciser, you want a small and quickly digested meal or snack. This meal should have very little fat, some carbohydrates in the form of sugar (you’ll see meal ideas below), and a little protein if possible. The meal should have around 100-200 calories.

If you have more time between eating and working out, your meal can more resemble one of your typical meals. This meal can have more fat. It should also contain a decent amount of complex carbohydrates and protein. Eating around 200-400 calories for this meal would be optimal.

Sample Pre-Workout Meals and Snacks

To give you a better idea of what these meals will actually look like, here are some pre-workout meal ideas for you to choose from.

Fruit – Ideal for people who wake up and almost immediately do their workout. The fructose in fruit will help to fill liver glycogen and raise blood sugar levels to the degree necessary to improve energy levels and mental focus.

Protein Shake – This is quickly digested and is nicely suited for those who work out in the morning or need the convenience factor. Protein powder blended with frozen fruit makes the perfect pre-workout meal. If you don’t use protein powder, liquid egg whites are a nice substitute. Don’t worry, you can’t taste them once you add fruit.

Energy Bar – Easy and convenient. Don’t mess with the highly processed ones. The good news is plenty of bars nowadays are made solely of nuts/seeds and fruit. Check the ingredients.

Oatmeal – A bowl of oatmeal with honey is small and will boost your energy levels. You can add protein powder to it or make it with some milk if you need the added protein.

Greek Yogurt w/ Fruit – Another convenient pre-workout snack. Provides protein and some sugars to raise your blood sugar a bit.

Chicken & Rice – A classic bodybuilder meal. The meal is not as fibrous, so it doesn’t feel heavy in your stomach, but it still gives you complex carbohydrates to power through an intense workout. The chicken fortifies it with protein. Season it however you wish for flavor.

Lean Meat & Potatoes – When you have at least 2 hours before your workout, this is a great meal. Potatoes are a great complex carb and can be eaten whole, mashed, or in fry form.

Pasta – Ideal for the long-distance runner or for the athlete who needs extra high-intensity fuel. Pasta will easily fill muscle glycogen stores, leaving you with sufficient fuel for a grueling workout. Leave at least 2 hours to fully digest this meal. In addition, be sure you’re measuring the pasta. Overdoing it can lead to wild swings in blood sugar – leaving you feeling lethargic right before your workout.

Daniel Messer, RNutr, CPT

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