What to Eat Before a Workout

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Illustration of a banana, toast, chicken, carrot and other whole foods.

Nourishment, sustenance, medicine. Whatever you choose to call it, food is an essential part of our day. We eat for pleasure, comfort, celebration and healing. We also eat to fuel our outdoor time and other activities. Whether you’re a yogi, walker, runner, hiker, biker or focused athlete, food can influence how your body and mind function.

I’ve made many mistakes when it comes to eating the right things before, during and after a workout. When I was younger, it didn't seem to have very much impact in my activities. In my early 30s, I fueled myself for marathon training with bourbon, burgers and doughnuts. In my early 40s, I ran an 18-mile trail in the Enchantments, a region in Washington state’s Cascade Mountain Range, powered by a piece of toast and sugary, caffeine-enhanced energy gels.

My performance was, for the most part, OK. However, as I got older, I began to see the wear and tear on my body. I developed overuse injuries, lost steam earlier in my runs and took longer to recover from workouts. That’s when I started to think about ways I could eat differently to better sustain my energy.

These days, I eat before, during and after my workouts to help me maintain stamina throughout the day, recover faster and see fitness gains from a big day outside.

Think your pre-workout routine could also use some improvement? Here's what to consider when timing your meals, the importance of hydration and other tips to maximize your sweat sessions. I also include two of my favorite pre-workout recipes, one sweet and one savory, from my sports nutrition cookbook, Peak Nutrition. Continue reading to learn more about the science behind why good nutrition is integral to a solid workout–whether you’re lifting weights at the gym or running the stairs in your city

 

Why Does Pre-Workout Nutrition Matter?

Let’s start with what motivates us to move. Working out does so many things: It helps us to increase muscle strength, benefits our cardiovascular health, can improve body composition and bone health, enhances cognitive function, boosts mood and supports balance, coordination and flexibility, among many other benefits. Moving our bodies regularly may also help us live longer and can enable us to enjoy a more active lifestyle. 

OK, now with that motivation in mind, let’s talk about what foods to prioritize to get the most out of a workout. First, assess whether you even need to eat before your sweat. If you’re working on body composition (your ratio of fat, water, bone and muscle) or you prefer to maximize burning fat during exercise, you might choose to avoid eating before a light workout. However, most of the time, consuming a meal or snack before movement is the better option. Food provides energy, allowing for a quicker reaction time, increased coordination and more focus during your workouts. 

 

Foods that Deplete Your Energy

What you eat matters. Foods that can drain our energy include sugars, refined carbohydrates and anything that is fried or highly processed. Sugar and refined carbs (think white bread, fructose, pasta and white rice) spike blood sugar before causing it to fall quickly. Not only does this create bonking (or a depletion of energy), lack of focus and fatigue, but it also increases risk of heart disease, unhealthy weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. This doesn’t mean you have to omit sugar and refined carbs forever. It just means that you will be served better by eating them sparingly. Fried and highly processed foods are also hard on the body because it takes a long time to digest them which depletes energy. It also increases chances of heart disease and other harmful health conditions. 

 

Foods that Provide Fuel for a Workout

Foods that give us adequate energy, on the other hand, are minimally processed. This includes veggies, fruits, whole grains, meat, fish and nuts. These foods are also more nutrient dense.

When deciding what to eat, you can also consider the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in your meals. The former provides our body with energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which is used for things like muscle contraction. Carbohydrates help store glycogen to be used for energy, while fats give power to a variety of exercise movements. Proteins, meanwhile, do their best work during our rest and recovery phases. During rest, fibroblast cells help tissue heal and grow, leading to an increase in muscle strength.

Photo of produce, including a halved lemon, cherry tomatoes and basil.

When and How Much Should I Eat Before a Workout?

This can vary based on the type of workout. Here, I break down what to eat ahead of three common types of physical activity: 

  • Everyday workouts: These 1- to 2-hour workouts are ones you lean on the most. Some daily movement practices will be challenging while others will be focused on mobility and recovery.
  • Endurance workouts: These are typically 2 hours or more of continuous moderate intensity, such as a long bike ride or run.
  • Strength workouts: I define strength workouts as anything under two hours of high-intensity training, like weight lifting or bouldering. Sometimes these intense workouts may be split up into morning and evening sessions. 

Everyday Workouts

For this type of training, eat one to two hours beforehand to increase the efficacy of your performance. 

Ideal meals include a mixture of minimally or unprocessed proteins (such as canned tuna, poultry, tofu, meat, fish, legumes, eggs), unrefined (complex) carbohydrates (think sweet potatoes, whole grains, bananas, apples, berries, hard squash and legumes), healthy fats (like nuts, avocado, coconut oil and whole-fat dairy) and a rainbow of vegetables.

Whatever foods you choose to eat, consider their macronutrients. A good ratio is 15% to 35% protein, 40% to 60% carbs and 20% to 40% fat, according to Precision Nutrition, a program that offers professionals tools for healthy eating. If you don’t want to nerd out on a calorie tracking app for macronutrient percentages, you can use your hand as a guide. Experts at Precision Nutrition suggest that each meal has one palm of protein, one fist of vegetables, one handful of healthy carbohydrates and one thumb of fat. Follow this for three meals a day, and you’ll have a good balance of macro and micronutrient intake. If you're super active, you can double these portions.

And remember, you don’t need anything fancy or complicated. Eat foods that feel best to your body. We’re all built differently, so there’s no one perfect way of eating. Keep it simple and make it delicious.

Endurance Workouts

If you’re training for intense aerobic events, such as big days in the mountains or climbing urban steps, increase your food intake. For these longer workouts or event days, start fueling the night before and then again one to two hours before your event. It can be helpful to increase healthy carbohydrates and consume more calories to help maintain energy levels. Generally, endurance athletes should increase carbs to 60% to help keep glycogen levels in the muscles and energy stores up during long hours of activity. 

The night before, for instance, you could have sweet potatoes with roasted chicken and leafy green vegetables. Two hours before your activity, you could nosh on buckwheat pancakes topped with berries and a side of scrambled eggs.

Some endurance athletes prefer to burn fat stored in the body for fuel instead of carbohydrates, as fat can burn longer. However, these specialized diets require specific knowledge and should be slowly introduced to your system. 

Strength Workouts

Anaerobic activities, defined as short, intense physical activity such as bouldering or weightlifting, require more protein so that your body will gain muscle. During exercise, we create microtears in the muscle. Your body then gains musculature while in its rest phase. If you don’t get the proper protein requirements for strength training, it could result in injury and prevent you from gaining the muscle you’re hoping to build. 

There are a variety of delicious protein sources to choose from: meat, fish, vegan powders, nuts, dairy and more. The exact timing of when to consume your protein doesn’t matter, but I would recommend eating one to two hours before a heavy lift or other anaerobic session to maintain glycogen in the muscle for energy. 

According to Precision Nutrition, the average healthy adult requires 0.36 grams of protein a day, per pound of body weight. If you're a serious athlete training intensively, the requirements increase to 0.64 to 0.9 grams of protein a day per pound of body weight.


Man drinking water.

Why is Hydration an Important Aspect of Fueling?

Hydration is critical from the day-to-day, but especially during workouts where you lose more water through sweat.

Drinking enough keeps joints lubricated, delivers nutrients to cells, flushes out toxins, improves focus and concentration (our brain is mostly water), relieves fatigue, aids digestion, regulates body temperature and allows for muscle contraction.

I’ve made the mistake of becoming severely dehydrated while climbing a multi-day big wall. The repercussions of this were heat exhaustion, spasms in one leg, brain fog and severe muscle cramping that wouldn’t allow me to open and close one hand. Yikes! 

If you’re active, sweating or feel dehydrated, drink at least 2 cups of water with some electrolytes every hour. Electrolytes are minerals that are key to muscle, heart and brain function. I sip on electrolyte water first thing when I wake up because I’m dehydrated from not drinking water for 8 hours.

Ultimately, how much you need to drink depends on several factors, such as the activity you’re doing, intensity level, duration, weather, your age, your sweat rate and your body type. 

When you’re exercising, don’t wait until you get thirsty before your drink. Usually you're already becoming dehyrdrated and it may be too late to fix. Keep those liquids flowing.
 

Other Factors to Consider Before a Workout


Stress

Exercise is a stressor, and if you’re already feeling tense from other areas of your life (pressure at work, at home or elsewhere), then adding another stressor like intense exercise can deplete your energy. In these moments, consider a shortened workout, a gentle walk or a yoga practice.

Sleep Hygiene

A good night’s rest is also something to consider. If you had a poor night of sleep, a workout may cause more fatigue in the body. Instead, consider gentle stretches, a walk or any movement practice that gives back energy instead of taking it away. Or use that exercise time to take a nap, lie quietly on a yoga mat or bask in the sun.

Overtraining

If your body is tired from a hard workout, it may be a good day to rest or “active” rest. Active rest could include gentle stretches, going for a walk at a conversational pace or lifting very light weights. If you’re training for an event, it’s easy to become obsessed with your training program, however, overtraining can lead to injury. If your body is run down, exercise may do more harm than good.

Warm-up

Your workouts will really benefit from a 5- to 10-minute warm up of the muscles before you start getting after it. It will help mitigate muscle and tendon strains, lubricate the joints and help the fast-twitch muscles fire properly.

Self Compassion

Remember to be kind toward yourself. Exercising is time just for you. It will help you build resilience and vibrancy, increase your energy and balance your mood. Listen to your body and honor what it needs each day.

 

Pre-Workout Recipes

Ready to fuel properly for your next workout? Get started with a couple pre-workout recipes from my cookbook, Peak Nutrition. For more recipes like these, you can purchase the book from your local REI store or online.

Açaí Fruit Bowl

Photo of blended acai in a mason jar.

Yield: 2 servings
Recipe type: vegetarian, gluten-free, keto, paleo

Tip: Purchase açaí berry puree in the frozen food aisof most grocery storele s. Combine it with any combination of berries you like—strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc. To make your bowl vegan, substitute a vegan protein powder for the whey. For serving, you can divide the smoothie between two bowls and sprinkle the garnish on top, or you can fancy it up by layering the ingredients in half-pint canning jars—smoothie, garnish, smoothie, garnish.

Smoothie Ingredients

  • 1 cup frozen açaí berry puree
  • 1 cup mixed fresh berries
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 1 large, ripe banana, peeled
  • 1/2 cup whey protein powder
  • 2 teaspoons chia seeds
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • Sea salt, to taste

 Garnish Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds
  • 1/2 ripe banana, sliced
  • 1/4 cup fresh berries

Directions

Step 1

In a blender, add all the smoothie ingredients and blend until smooth. Tip: You may need to pulse the blender at first or add an extra splash of coconut milk if the fruit isn’t blending well. Add only a spoonful of coconut milk at a time. Too much will make the smoothie soupy.

Step 2

Pour the smoothie evenly into two bowls and place them in the refrigerator to cool for about 15 minutes. To serve, sprinkle with the seeds. Garnish with the fresh fruit. 

 

Baked Eggs, Mushrooms and Tomato Sauce


Photo of eggs in red sauce.

Yield: 4 servings
Recipe type: Vegetarian, gluten-free, keto, paleo

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1 bunch Swiss chard, ribs removed, chopped
  • 2 cups coarsely chopped oyster mushrooms
  • 2 cups diced, drained canned tomatoes
  • 1 4-ounce tin of sardines, drained (optional)
  • 1/2 cup green olives, sliced
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • Sea salt, to taste
  • 8 eggs

Directions

Step 1

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Step 2

In a large sauté pan, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the mushrooms and Swiss chard and cook until the mushrooms are releasing some liquid and the chard is wilted, another 5 minutes.

Step 3

Add the tomatoes, sardines (if using), olives, spices, and lemon juice and fold together, allowing all to warm through, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour the mixture into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Make 8 evenly spaced “holes” in the tomato and mushroom mixture and crack an egg into each. The eggs will sink down into the mixture slightly.

Step 4

Place the baking dish in the oven and bake until the egg whites are just cooked through and the yolks are still soft, 15 to 18 minutes. Serve immediately.