Without a good pre-workout meal, you’re not going to have a good workout. It’s just that simple. However, identifying the best pre-workout meals — those that will maximize your energy, increase calorie- and fat-burning potential, and help you build up muscle — is simple, too.
While specific pre-workout meals aren’t critical for moderate exercise, if you’re going for a long run, hitting the weights hard, doing intense interval training, or you’re about to play a competitive sport, then pre-exercise foods matter a lot. Not eating the right stuff is going to mean poorer performance, less fat burned, less muscle development, potential muscle loss, and longer recovery time.
When To Eat
As a general rule of thumb, you should eat an hour before you work out. If you’re going to eat complex carbs, like oats or whole wheat grains, then shoot for 90 minutes before, and then eat protein at the hour mark. Limit fats within the hour, too.
Try to eat some simple carbs (natural sugars, e.g.) about 20 to 30 minutes out. The slower breakdown of the complex carbs will provide you lasting fuel, while simpler carbohydrates will give you faster energy.
Don’t eat within 20 minutes of exercising and, if possible, give yourself a least a half hour before you work out so your digestion can properly commence. However, you don’t want to exercise hungry; if you feel hunger pangs, you need to eat before you exert. Contrary to popular misconception, working out on an empty stomach won’t prompt your body to start eating up fat. In fact, your body will actually go for a much better energy source: muscle tissues. And last I checked, you’re trying to build that up, not break it down. If you’re famished but it’s gym time, go with a banana.
What To Eat
If you have the time to prep a pre-workout meal, “real” foods are always going to serve your body better. For the record, you can eat any of these meals at any time, they are just ordered by the time of day for fun.
Pre-Workout Meal: The Energy Breakfast
- 2 slices whole wheat toast, dry
- 2 hard-boiled eggs
- 1/2 cup blueberries (or raspberries or blackberries)
The whole wheat toast will provide lasting carbs, the eggs are excellent (avoiding the obvious pun) protein, and the berries, which you should eat last, will give you some quick-burning fuel.
Pre-Workout Meal: Brunch Fuel
- 1 banana
- 1/2 cup rolled oats
- 1/2 cup Greek yogurt
Oats take a long time to digest, so this meal is best eaten even a bit more than an hour out, but that slow digestion is great for longer exercise sessions, like for a hike or distance run.
Pre-Workout Meal: Lunch Then Lift
- 2 slices whole wheat toast
- 2 ounces peanut butter (or other nut butter)
- 1/3 cup dried fruit
Nut butters are high in fat, but they provide lasting energy, as will the complex carbs in the bread. The dried fruit will give you a quicker boost, so eat it closer to the workout.
Pre-Workout Meal: The Energy Dinner
- 5 ounces low-fat turkey
- 1/2 cup brown rice
- 1 apple or pear
This meal will give you plenty of protein and carbs and should keep you full up to and through a workout. If you don’t eat meat (or don’t like turkey), consider trying alternative rice made from protein-rich foods. For example, RightRice makes a “rice” using lentils, chickpeas, and other ingredients that has 10 grams of protein.
Pre-Workout Meal: The Power Supper
- 5 ounces lean beef, grilled
- 1 small sweet potato
- 1/2 cup broccoli, raw or cooked
This is a go-to meal for many professional athletes and weightlifters, including Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, aka The Mountain from HBO’s Game of Thrones. He also happens to be the World’s Strongest Man, so his diet is on point.
Note: Look, if you don’t have time to prep a meal, eat a protein bar. We suggest a Vega Sport Protein Bar 45 minutes out, then 20 minutes before go time, have a serving of RSP AminoLean to kick up your energy level.
What Not To Eat
Even if you plan your pre-workout meal timing perfectly, if you eat the wrong foods, you’re going to have a bad time.
Leafy greens, celery, and other fibrous vegetables are poor pre-workout choices. They take a long time to break down and digest and can lead to discomfort during exercise. Legumes (beans, etc.) are also a poor choice, as they can lead to bloating, which is nothing you’ll enjoy during a wind sprint or spinning session.
Only consume nuts, seeds, and other high-fat foods in moderation, as the fats take a while to break down. Also, no processed foods and especially no processed sugar (candy, e.g.), as that will lead to a crash.
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