What to Eat Before a Workout: 8 Easy Meals to Maximize Your Performance

What do you eat before a workout?

I’ve written about HOW to eat before a workout before. But I’ve come to realize that when people ask this question, they’re not looking for guidelines, but rather the specific foods that they can make — without having to think about it — to prime their bodies for a workout.

So the goal here isn’t to get that little half-percent edge on competition by being meticulous in your pre-workout nutrition. (For that, check out Ben Greenfield’s workout nutrition post and this one on 12-Minute Athlete about pre-workout meals.)

Instead it’s to eat something natural and quick, without a lot of planning, that’ll getting you 90 percent of the way towards perfect.

So that’s the motivation for this list: 8 simple, natural meals or snacks — vegan, of course — to eat before a workout. The criteria I aim for in choosing a pre-workout meal:

  • Lots of carbohydrate, a little bit of protein (a 3:1 ratio is best, but you don’t need to be exact with it)
  • Whole foods, with just a few exceptions where it will benefit performance
  • No caffeine — no doubt it helps performance, but for everyday nutrition I leave it out

I’ve divided them into categories based on when you should eat each. If you’ve got the time and aren’t worried about getting too many calories (say, for a weight loss goal) eat one from each category before a big race or workout; otherwise eat only the just-before-the-workout meal.

If You’ve Got Less than an Hour Before Your Workout

1. Dates

You’ve heard me talk about dates before. They’re my favorite natural workout fuel for runs up to marathon distance, yes, but they also happen to be my favorite “oh crap I have to run in 15 minutes and I forgot to eat anything!” snack.

Dates are high in glucose, so they work quickly — your body even begins to absorb some of the sugar from dates underneath your tongue as soon as you put one in your mouth. So if you’re in a pinch and need energy quickly, dates are where it’s at.

Get medjool dates fresh in bulk, not dried in a cardboard container. You’ll have the pit to deal with, but it’s worth it for the taste. You can add a handful of nuts to boost the protein a little bit, or get dates and nuts together in an energy bar like LARABAR.

Other fast-assimiliting fruits if you’re not digging dates: pineapple, apricot, and tart cherries.

2. Fruit juice (+ Protein Powder, Optionally)

Fruit juice is another quick energy source because it’s liquid, so digestion is minimal and the sugar reaches your bloodstream in minutes. I find I feel lighter and faster after a liquid pre-workout meal too, and whether it’s real or purely psychological, that’s a good feeling to have going into a workout.

Of course, juice is nearly devoid of protein, so an easy way to get the 3:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio is to stir in some protein powder (my favorite is hemp). But a small handful of nuts works too, or you can skip the protein entirely if the workout isn’t intense or long.

How much should you drink? Juices vary in their nutritional content, but a cup of orange juice has close to 30 grams of carbohydrate, and that’s about what I shoot for before most workouts.

If You’ve Got One Hour Before Your Workout

[fruit smoothie image]

3. Smoothie

The pre-workout smoothie is a standby for its ease of customization — it’s easy to tweak the amount of fruit and nuts/seeds (or protein powder) to reach the 3:1 ratio and throw in whatever other greens or superfoods you like.

Why isn’t the smoothie an immediately-pre-workout food? Only because of the stomach-sloshing effect: I’ve got a few bad memories of track workouts after drinking a smoothie just a few minutes beforehand. (And another one after a footlong Subway sub, but that’s another story …)

4. White Potatoes or White Rice

If sweet doesn’t do it for you and you’ve got a saltier palate, then this one’s for you. I discovered the joy of boiled, white potatoes dipped in salt at an ultramarathon aid station — it’s one of those foods you can eat when it seems nothing else will go down.

White rice is wonderful, too, especially with a drizzle of soy sauce or tamari — it’s a rare chance to enjoy a delicious, processed, white carbohydrate that you normally wouldn’t eat. And even the sodium in the salt or soy sauce will help you during your workout.

Since potatoes and white rice aren’t liquids or simple sugars, you’ll want to leave a little time for the energy to become available for your workout.

5. Apple or Banana with Nut Butter

The pre-workout food you can enjoy with your kids! The whole fruit provides the carbohydrate, and the nut butter adds healthy fats and a little bit of protein.

Apples and bananas are popular nut-butter-delivery vehicles, but feel free to choose another favorite.

If You’ve Got Two Hours or More Before Your Workout

[pinole chia waffle photo]

6. Pinole-Chia Waffles

Inspired by the favorite endurance foods of the Tarahumara from Born to Run, Pre-Race Pinole and Chia Waffles are a recipe my sister and I came up with a few years ago.

They’re a tasty alternative to traditional waffles, based on corn and oats instead of wheat flour, and were my pre-race breakfast before my first 50-miler back in 2010.

7. Oatmeal (+ Protein Powder, Optionally)

Oatmeal is a classic pre-workout meal, probably because it’s a breakfast food, and a lot of people like to workout in the morning. But because oatmeal is a whole, fibrous food, it takes longer to break down than most people give it.

Oatmeal is another food that’s easy to customize, so add nuts or seeds (ground flax and chia are popular) or even protein powder to get it to 3:1. And if you are eating it close to your workout, stirring in some fruit in place of some oats will help the energy become available in time for your workout.

8. Toast or Bagel with Nut butter

Same idea as waffles and oatmeal — whole grain for slow carbohydrate, nuts/seeds for protein — just a different way of delivering it. If you do go with the toast or bagel, choose the white version instead of processed if it’s an intense workout — the fiber in whole-grain versions will slow absorption and potentially cause digestive issues.

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Comments

  1. Love this list. Except for the nut butter that hurts my stomach right before a run!

    I love a mini cliff bar pre run

  2. Awesome! But we really want to know what the best thing is to eat after a workout!

  3. Love dates, but they hurt my teeth something fierce. I’ve gone through a few months at a time on a fruit-based diet and could only blend and drink dates. My teeth are very sensitive to sweets, so chewing them is owie ouchy. Still love dates, but have to make datorade and drink it through a straw. 🙁

  4. Love, love, love dates to fuel my long runs!! It was my main energy source when I ran 166 miles in 6 days!

  5. Purnendu says:

    Banana is my favourite – provides carbo, energy and keep you hydrated too

  6. Hi Matt,
    This list is really handy. Thanks! My usual pre-workout meal is oatmeal, but that’s mostly because I’m addicted to the stuff and eat it every day. Glad to see that it makes a good workout fuel. And now I’m dying to try the pinole chia waffle recipe too. It’s been ages since I’ve made waffles!

  7. you have changed my life. Thank you.
    Nichole

  8. Banana is what i prefer, it makes me feel good during my workout. Thanks a lot.

  9. Banana is my best during my workout, it makes me feel good and better.

  10. I save my banana for my post workout smoothie. I like a seedy bread toasted with a clean apple butter or chia jam pre workout

  11. I love dates! But left to my own devices, old probably consume half the box, lol. How many should one be eating before a workout? 2,3,4… more?

  12. Julie A. Garcia says:

    Can anyone tell me when they eat prior to their workout? ie 30 minutes before, an hour before, 3 hours? I am trying to change my planning and food but I am unsure about the actual timing of these foods in relationship to the workout before and after.

    • I think, for your pre-workout meal, the consensus is 2-3 hours for slow carbs and 1 hour for fast carbs. As for your post-workout meal, I think you should have it in 1-2 hours. My workouts usually end near lunchtime anyway.

      There are so many myths out there mixed in with truths and half-truths, and it doesn’t help that quite a lot of “experts” contradict each other, so it’s hard to give a definitive answer. What I believe is that you should experiment and find out what works for you. For example, I recently tried Greek yoghurt, but my body doesn’t seem to handle it well.

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