Pre-workout powders? Water? Coffee? McDonald’s fries? What should you use?
I’ve indulged in all of these things before a workout in the past. I guess you could say there is no right or wrong food to eat pre-workout, but there are certainly some foods that can optimize your workout and other foods that are a bit riskier. Some of it is trial and error, and other times, you may just know what makes sense by doing the appropriate research. For example, I know pre-workout powders and drinks are popular because they get you revved up for your workout. However, I also know that too much caffeine will make me jittery, anxious, and unproductive. For that reason, I would go for a greener version of a pre-workout that contains little to no caffeine, and maybe some antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Technically, you can get away with eating nothing before a workout! Here’s why: you don’t always need a bunch of energy through calories. If you work out when you wake up, you may still have energy stores left from the night before. The only time I’d say it’s important to force yourself to eat something small would be if you have blood sugar issues. I personally like to wake up and walk 6km-10km in the morning without having eaten a meal. Sometimes I’ll have a coffee while I walk or before I leave the house. However, do I consider this a workout? Not really. I treat this walk as a way to get out of the house and as self-care for my mental health.
My workouts consist of running, yoga, and lifting weights. In those cases, I usually eat, and here’s why.
When you fuel your body with proper nutrition, you’re able to maximize the benefits of all your hard work at the gym. “Proper nutrition” will vary from person to person, but eating before a workout will help you avoid any distractions from hunger, feelings of lethargy, nausea, and dizziness. When you don’t eat, you could also increase your chance of injuring yourself. When you do eat, your chances of needing supplements on top of a healthy diet are pretty low.
Try to eat a meal or snack 30 minutes to 3 hours before your workout. This way you can avoid digesting your food while working out, but also still have that food available in your body to use as energy. If you eat a small snack like a banana, you may be able to eat it 30 minutes before a workout, whereas a big breakfast of eggs, toast, and potatoes may be better a few hours apart from your workout.
Some popular pre-workout snack or meal options are:
- fruit (bananas for potassium and carbs!)
- oats (you can make oatmeal, bars, or throw them in a smoothie)
- chicken, spinach, and potato (any kind of light protein, easily digestible veg, and carb will do)
- dried fruit (basically healthy sugar bombs)
- toast and jam or toast and hard-boiled eggs
- greek yogurt with fresh fruit (high protein!)
What are you training for?
Technically, I could recommend you fuel with carbohydrates and proteins, but it will depend on the sport.
If you are an endurance athlete, you likely log a lot of miles a week. Your calorie and carbohydrate needs are higher than most. You can add a protein + carb drink during your training as well.
If you’re a bodybuilder, you want to grow some serious muscles and likely gain weight. Your pre-workout protein needs will be higher than most, and so will your calories. Again, you can add a protein + carb drink during your training.
If you’re getting ready for a fitness competition, you’re likely looking to reduce body fat percentage (not necessarily lose weight), and you may be in the gym A LOT! Your carb intake will be lower, focusing on increased protein and maybe adding in a performance-enhancing, muscle-preserving essential amino acid (EAA) during your training.
Notice how everyone can eat the same foods, but in different portions, varying macronutrients, and likely different timing as well!
Protein pre-workout can help you maintain or even increase your muscle size, reduce markers of muscle damage, and floods your bloodstream with amino acids just when your body needs them most.
Carbs before exercise fuel your training and help with recovery, preserve muscle and liver glycogen, and stimulates the release of insulin.
Fats pre-workout don’t really improve or diminish sport performance. They do help to slow digestion and provide vitamins and minerals. They are not as essential before a workout.
If you’re training in the gym for general health, focus on eating more minimally processed foods (protein, veggies, good-quality carbs, and healthy fats), ensure your portions are the right size for you and your body type, and eat slowly until you’re satisfied.
The great thing is, you don’t even really need to supplement pre-workout. If you’re eating a healthy diet and choose to eat something higher in carbs before a workout, you should be ready to go. Some of us may need a little boost or want to supplement with something on top of a healthy food diet in order to recover faster or out of convenience. It isn’t easy to always have the right foods on hand, so some of these supplements can help fuel you for the next hour or two of your workout.
Your choice of pre-workout supplement will depend on the kind of workout you’re doing. This is because some will boost your endurance, while others increase your strength or power. The following is a list of some possible pre-workout supplements (in no particular order), some of which you may already have lying around at home.
This amino acid is naturally produced in your body and is also found in many foods like watermelons, cucumbers, and pumpkins. Taking Citrulline can help supply your muscles with the oxygen and nutrients they need to perform well. It’s also significantly reduced muscle soreness in the days after exercise, so no more DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Aim for 6 grams of L-citrulline pre-workout or post-workout and see if it works for you. You can find this ingredient in NutraChamps’ Nitric Charge, a great product for blood flow, boosting nitric oxide production, and enhancing muscle growth and recovery.
That’s right, baking soda! It can help fight against acid buildup in the body and reduce fatigue during exercise (that burning feeling you get in your muscles). This is a great supplement for intense activities. The optimal dose is about 136 mg per pound of body weight. Just mix it into your water and you’re good to go. This one is not great for those who are sensitive to salt.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids consists of 3 important molecules: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Many of these amino acids are found in high quantities in animal products, which makes this product great for Vegans or those who do not consume enough animal-based foods. BCAAs are great for endurance sports like running, cycling, and swimming. They can also reduce mental and physical fatigue, and may reduce muscle soreness after cardio and weight training. Doses vary from 5-20 grams. It’s hard to overdo this one, and you can usually find one that tastes fairly good. I’ve tried the unflavored ones… would NOT recommend, unless you’re staying away from sweeteners!
Found in foods like spinach, turnips, and beets, Nitrates can be beneficial for endurance athletes. It improves exercise performance by decreasing the amount of oxygen needed during exercise. A dose of 2.7-5.9 mg per pound of bodyweight is safe to use. I personally like taking BeetHeat before/during my workouts, especially for longer runs, to boost my endurance and stamina.
B-A is an amino acid that helps fight muscle fatigue. It’s most effective at improving your performance during very short bursts of intense exercise like sprints that last 1-4 minutes. per day, aim for 4-6 grams.
There are lots of natural ways to get caffeine, such as coffee and green or black tea. This is a great supplement for all types of workouts, from cycling, to weight training (endurance to strength). The recommended dose of caffeine for exercise performance is about 1.4-2.7 mg per pound of body weight. Be careful to not consume too much or too late in the day. High caffeine consumption can lead to sweating, tremors, dizziness, and vomiting. Consuming too late in the day can mess with your sleep patterns, which for me is anytime after 12pm!
This molecule is already naturally occurring in your cells, so it’s a pretty popular dietary supplement. It can safely increase muscle mass, strength, and exercise performance. Studies report that strength gains from a weight-training program are about 5-10% higher on average when people take creatine as a supplement! To maintain optimal muscle stores, 3-5 grams are recommended daily. Taking too much ends up being a waste of money, so don’t overdo it.
What to avoid
You may be tempted to eat something fatty pre-workout, thinking that you’ll just work it off anyway. You wouldn’t be totally wrong, but that’s also not a healthy or efficient way to approach your workout.
Here are some foods you may want to avoid before a workout and why:
Some granola bars
These are often full of sugar, which your body will burn through pretty quickly. You may hit a wall mid-workout depending on the length or intensity.
I never thought I’d tell you not to eat veggies, but right before a workout is not the right time to eat veggies like broccoli, brussel sprouts, or cauliflower (my favorites!). These are harder to digest which could make exercise feel uncomfortable. Instead, you can try some steamed asparagus or potatoes for a little boost of green energy.
Not all dairy, but specifically fruit yogurts. These tend to have a lot of added sugar and fat. For people who are sensitive to dairy, this is especially detrimental to your workout and could leave you feeling bloated and gassy.
I love healthy fats like avocados or nuts, but they may not be the greatest before a workout. Foods high in fat are harder to digest and take longer to convert to usable energy for your workout. It’s why many people prefer carbs instead of fats pre-workout! You can use that energy right away rather than store it for later. Fats may actually do the opposite and make you tired rather than revved up.
I know, it seems like it would be the best quick snack before a workout, and I used to do this ALL the time when I was in uni. But, foods like fries or burgers could make you uncomfortably full or make it tougher to work out. Plus, these foods are high in fats, which we already know make it tougher to convert those calories into energy.
This one isn’t for everyone. Some people can easily chug one of these and bang out a workout. Depending on the person (and their health conditions) and the workout, this could actually be ok to consume. However, I find these make me (and others) pretty jittery. Instead, I’ll drink a coffee or espresso shot right before, so that I know exactly what ingredients I’m consuming.
This one’s controversial. I’m guilty of fasting before going on a 10km run and before hitting the gym. If you’re just waking up and can’t stomach a meal or if you know you ate late at night and still haven’t quite digested your meal, go for it. Don’t miss a workout just because you haven’t eaten. What I have found is that when your body has no energy to pull from, your body depletes itself of calories and energy, which could ultimately end up slowing your metabolism. You will have to be ok with potentially not performing as well during workouts or losing muscle mass.
It can be confusing to know what you need before, during, or after a workout. These are just a few of my thoughts based on personal experience and research. It’s important to note that I am an avid runner and yogi, and enjoy weight training, but do not do as much of it at the moment due to lack of access to a gym. My pre-workouts will likely change when my workout routine changes. I would like to incorporate more supplements into my regimen when I start hitting the gym again, such as Creatine. I’d also like to see how eating a pre-workout meal before a really heavy workout can help, rather than fasting or eating something small.
I’m no expert. I’m just learning and trying to listen to my body’s cues when it comes to what I think my body needs and what it actually needs. None of this is set in stone, and as long as my workouts and my body is evolving, so will my supplement and pre-workout routine.
Let me know what you are currently using and how it’s working for you. I’m curious to see what kind of athletes we’ve got here in our NutraChamps family!
Chelsea has been active most of her life, which led her to become a Personal Trainer and Yoga Instructor for the past 7 years. Health and Fitness are not solely dependent on movement, though, and with that understanding, she addresses her client’s other needs, such as diet, mindfulness, and stress management.
When she is not training clients or teaching Yoga, she is finding new activities that keep her mind and body active, such as rock climbing, hiking, listening to podcasts, or playing Board Games with friends. She is constantly working towards finding natural solutions to live as long as possible, creating inclusive Yoga for all body types, and aiming to find mindfulness in everything she does.