Pre-Workout Nutrition: What do we need and why?!

Lightyears ago, I talked about post-workout nutrition and what we need to eat after a workout and why. If you remember this post, I talked about eating protein and carbohydrates after a workout and re-hydrating with water. But what about before we get sweaty?

What we eat before a workout is important because it wards off hunger and stabilizes our blood sugar levels. If you’re working out after a meal, a pre-workout snack is not always necessary. What you eat pre-workout is usually not the main source of workout fuel (our body usually cannot break it down that quickly) eating before we exert effort helps to keep us energized.

I am a big believer that a little something is better than nothing. There are benefits to fasted training, but that’s a discussion for another day. No-one wants a grumbly tummy during a run. When I workout at 6am, I get up at 4:45am in order to make sure I get something in my system with enough time prior to my workout. I don’t alwayssss eat before a workout but there is plenty of research to support that you cannot perform to your maximum potential on an empty stomach (or at least having enough fuel/nutrition in you from the night before if you are an early-am-sweater). Of course, you need to figure out what works for you – if you literally cannot stomach anything prior to a workout, don’t force it down your throat.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Your pre-workout does not replace a meal – it is a necessary source of additional nutrients. 

So what exactly should you eat pre-workout?

Well, that’s not as clear-cut an answer as what to eat post-workout and your pre-workout snack or meal of course also depends on you, your body, your type of activity and your goals.

Protein, fat and water are the necessary components in order to fuel our body for all activity. Carbohydrates come into play depending on the type and duration of workout. For instance, carbohydrates are usually necessary for longer, more anaerobic workouts (like a run or bike ride) where your body will need to tap into its’ glycogen stores. Before CrossFit, I usually have 1-2 eggs and a handful of nuts. Before a run longer than 30 minutes, I usually have 1-2 eggs, nuts and a 1/2 to a full banana.

Here are some quick tips (based on my course studies, additional research and personal experience) on how you can best fuel your workout.

Travel Workout gear

Timing: Drink water and eat 45 minutes to 2 hours before a workout. This is an ample amount of time before you start moving to allow your system to absorb some of the nutrients yet not feel like the food is sitting in the pit of your stomach and too full to move.

Water: Your body needs hydration before exertion and if you are like me, and workout in the morning, you are likely dehydrated. You are about to lose a lot of water during your workout and we need water in order for our systems to function properly and effectively. Our body is made up of 70% water – our blood is 90% water.

Water bottle

Protein: Protein provides the necessary amino acids for muscle protein synthesis – read more here. A small portion of protein stabilizes your blood sugar and provides a steady source of nutrition for your body, muscles and workout. You want to try to avoid spiking your blood sugar prior to a workout (your body will have to work extra hard to re-balance itself) so a source a protein (think: hard boiled egg, small piece of chicken, a spoonful or two of full-fat yogurt) is your best bet.

Fat: I talked about this in last week’s video: eat fat in order to burn fat. Eating a small portion of fat prior to your workout is important if your goal is to gain muscle and lose fat – isn’t that most people’s goal? By eating fat prior to your workout, you are training your body to use it as fuel because it is the most available to your body at the time (this is called a ketogenic state). Fats are the primary energy source at low intensity exercise and a higher fat diet proves to be beneficial because the body becomes more efficient at burning fat for fuel while sparing glycogen (carbohydrate source). Think: ½ an avocado, a spoonful of nut butter, a handful of nuts, a small piece of grass-fed beef.

Egg and cashews

Carbohydrates: As mentioned, depending on the type and duration of your workout, carbohydrates will come into play. A “long” run, bike ride, lifting session may require a bit of carbs. Think: 1/2 to a full banana, dates, squash, sweet potato. Carbohydrates are essential after your workout (read more here) but if you have been nourishing your body, it will have enough glycogen (stored energy) to fuel your workout.

Egg and banana

What exactly to eat and how much of it depends on you, your body and your activity.

You: Can you eat “a lot” before a workout? What sits well, what doesn’t?

Your body: How tall are you? How old are you? What is your body composition?

Your activity: How intense will your activity be? Are you going for a walk, a 3 mile run, a 10 mile run, lifting weights moderately/intensely, going for a hike or doing yoga?

A half of a “meal size” portion of protein alongside a small portion of fat should do the trick – remember that “meal size”* is relative to you/your body. You might need less than that or you might need more than that – you shouldn’t feel hungry but you shouldn’t feel stuffed. As mentioned, some activities might require some carbs. 

Here are some ideas:

  • 1-4 eggs + 1/2-1 avocado (+carb: 1/2-1 sweet potato)
  • 1-4 eggs + a handful of nuts/spoonful of nut butter (+carb: 1/2-1 banana)
  • 75-200g meat cooked in coconut oil (+carb: 1/4-1/2 cup rice)
  • 75-200g fatty fish (+carb: 1/2-1 parsnip)

*What the heck is a “meal-size”?! Good question: my meal-size is different from yours and yours is different from mine. How much would you eat at a meal to feel full? Eat about half of that before a workout. REMEMBER: your pre-workout is not replacing a meal*

Pre Workout Nutrition

There is no “one size fits all approach”. The moral of the story is this: your body needs to be nourished for exercise. You need to prepare your muscles, fuel your tank, and hydrate. Depending on you, your body, your activity and your goals this varies from person to person.

I have tried a variety of pre-workout (or pre-game) snacks over the years. From stuffing my face with big bowls of pasta, to a whole wheat bagel with peanut butter and jam, to toast, to smoothies… to now eating real, delicious and nutritious foods: eggs and cashews, grass fed ground beef and almonds, chicken and sweet potato, salmon and hazelnuts. Sound weird? I know, it sounded unfathomable to me too. But it really works for me and has allowed me to run great races, lift heavy things and feel pretty awesome.

Do you feel like you are energized and that you are making the most out of your workouts? If the answer is no, then maybe it is time to change things up. My best advice would be to experiment and figure out what works for you and your body.



Disclaimer:  I am studying to become a nutritionist but I am not a doctor or personal trainer. My blog posts are based upon my coursework, additional research, personal views and experiences. For specific questions regarding your diet and exercise plan, please consult a professional.


Questions of the day…

What do you eat before your workout? What are your thoughts on pre-workout nutrition? 


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24 thoughts on “Pre-Workout Nutrition: What do we need and why?!

  1. Great informative post Amy! I love the info graphic! If I work out first thing I don’t eat anything as I am working out within 15 minutes of waking up… If I workout after work then I will have something like rice cakes, nut butter and a banana or a banana and nuts :)

  2. Very informative post! I also believe that something is better than nothing. I make sure I have something in my stomach before heading out. I usually go with a banana and/or toast and some water. Sometimes I’ll do fruit and a greek yougurt. I usually give myself time to eat and digest a bit before I run (but it’s not always like that). I’ve made the mistake of NOT eating before a workout and it was terrible.
    Karen @karenlovestorun

  3. This is so helpful! I am not great at eating before a workout. If I am running, I just can’t do it, but that’s me. I find that I perform better with maybe a banana instead of a larger amount of food. Great points made, darling!

  4. Yeah, I never do this. I used to try to eat a snack or something like that before spin, but I just don’t have the time, so I try to eat lunch kind of late to make up for it. You are amazing because if I worked out at 6, there is NO WAY I could eat before. I don’t get hungry until about 6 – my body just isn’t having it! At least I can try to drink water before working out though. That’s a simple thing that I can definitely incorporate.

  5. Love the infographic- nice work!

    I tend to stick to just protein + carbs pre-workout; I aim for 25g protein and 50g carbs; seems to work best for me. I keep my fats to during-the day.. definitely all about finding what works best though!

  6. If I am working out in the morning, I usually eat like two or three dates and that’s it. I’ve figured out that anything else upsets my stomach and makes me too full. I eat them pretty soon before I go workout because they’re fast burning carbs. I’m thinking of adding some nuts to that pre-workout snack, too, in the next few weeks!

  7. I need to eat something before I run, but it changes based on how long and I running for and how much time I have before my workout. Banana with peanut butter works for me as well as honey stinger waffles (not ideal but they are quick and easy, and sit well in my stomach even if I eat one 20 minutes before I run).

  8. Very informative post! I always eat something before I work out, which usually means I am eating something about 4:45. in the morning. It is usually a rice cake with peanut butter. On long runs I will have a banana with peanut butter. Okay and I have a blog question. Where do you go to make your pictures? Like your pre-workout nutrition image on this post looks great!

  9. Great post Amy! Before a race or workout I usually eat a banana and bagel, as I have had a lot of issues with my stomach, but before most my easy days I just have a granola bar or something similar. My body is well trained now to be able to handle 9 miles each morning on empty after the training I have done. When I do my 14+ mile workouts and long runs I always make sure to eat a good amount though

  10. Hi Amy, I loved this post, thanks so much. I used to workout on an empty stomach but you get so much more from giving yourself some energy to work with.

    I tend to try and have a smoothie before my workout (I workout at 6am too), made the night before and ready to go on the bus with me to the gym. I think sometimes a liquid meal is better before a heavy workout.

    Try this: 250ml unsweetened almond milk, half a banana, tsp flaxseed or LSA mix, tsp milled chia seeds, tsp desiccated coconut and half a portion of vanilla protein powder.

    It’s super yummy and you can add some mega greens if you need a green hit.

    1. Thanks so much Nikki! Funny you should mention smoothies as I have been loving them post workout. I tried it before my workout and I felt that I had too much in my stomach. It does sound delicious though and the one I make is similar. Hope you are having a great start to your weekend!

  11. Wow, your infographic is amazing! How did you make it?

    And great informative post. I always have troubke hydrating myself during the long runs. I just don’t know where to keep my water bottle so i end up not bothering until after the run.

  12. Great post Amy, Thank you so much for this helpful info!!
    I’m quite happy to be on a mealplan by a coach so I don’t need to think too much :-) yet I can learn so much about proper fitness nutrition and fuel. Since I changed the way I eat before my workouts (I too eat fat beforehand) I made amazing progress – it really is amazing what the right food can do to our bodies!!

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