Pre-Workout Meal: What To Eat Before A Workout?

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I just finished up an expert Q&A for Men’s Fitness on the topic of pre and post-workout nutrition for optimal results. I spent several hours conducting in depth research to prepare for the Q&A, so I wanted to share with you what I learned about pre-workout meal nutrition. Here’s the follow up article on post-workout meal nutrition.

Pre-Workout Meal Benefits

A pre-workout meal is a whole foods meal that falls within 3 hours of your workout. When you eat the right foods in the right amounts as you will learn shortly, these nutrients can offer a number of benefits, including:

1) More Energy During Workouts – Filling up your glycogen stores (body’s energy tank) before a workout can help improve your energy levels significantly during a workout. If you have a very low carb diet, an intense workout can turn out to be very difficult to handle because glycogen stores are low. Energy levels are also affected by sleep patterns, when you have the most energy during the day, and hydration to name a few.

2) Protect Your Hard Earned Muscle – When you workout hard, especially with heavy weights, the body is in a catabolic environment, which can break down muscle tissue to use it as energy. A solid pre-workout meal can prevent muscle breakdown and improve energy repair and recovery.

3) Increased Muscle Growth – Eating protein during your workout meal can help slowly release amino acids into your blood stream, which can promote protein synthesis. If you are breaking down muscle and eating enough calories, muscle growth can be improved.

While there are benefits of a pre-workout meal, if you are on a fat loss program, you must budget in the calories of your pre-workout meal.

Some guys will have big pre and post-workout meals without any appreciation for how those extra calories effect their total calorie intake. These guys then wonder why they are not losing any fat!

Whether you are trying to lose fat, or build muscle, having an appreciation for the calorie implications of your pre and post-workout meals can be very helpful for you.

Pre-Workout Meal: What & When To Eat?

To construct the best pre-workout meal possible, we need to understand the rate of digestion of different foods to determine meal timing.

In general, dietary fat takes around 6-8 hours to digest, protein 3-4 hours, and carbs 2-3 hours (depending on the source). In this context, digestion is the amount of time it takes for food to move from the stomach to the small intestine.1 Of course, the food is still not totally digested, because from the small intestine food makes its way toward the large intestine for further digestion and absorption of water. Total elimination of food residue can take anywhere from 24 hours to several days.

Before getting into specifics, the good news is that your meal does not have to be “fully” digested to have a great, energy filled workout.

Here’s a breakdown of what your pre-workout meal should look like:

Dietary Fat – Because fat takes the longest to digest, the pre-workout meal should be relatively low in fat, so stay away from fatty meats and oils.

Protein – A moderate amount of a meat (4-8 ounces) or dairy sources that are low in fat can work. A major benefit of meat, or dairy is they contain Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA), which can help increase the rate of protein synthesis and decrease protein breakdown during and after your workout.

Carbohydrates – Low Glycemic (slowly releases into blood stream) carbohydrates should help fill up glycogen stores to help you power through a tough workout and also create a more anabolic effect.

The challenge is knowing how much food you can eat pre-workout, which is based on your own response. Some people can eat a full meal as little as an hour before a workout, while some others who have sensitive stomachs can wait 3-4 hours. In general, a meal around 500-600 calories for a 180lb man 2-3 hours pre-workout should suffice as a solid pre-workout meal during a fat loss program. You should experiment with the timing to suit your individual needs.

If you are fueling for overall performance for an intense athletic event, more carbs should be added. For muscle building, a larger pre-workout meal combined with a pre-workout protein shake can be very helpful.

Pre-Workout Meal Ideas

Let’s put together everything you’ve learned so far into simple meal ideas:

  • Oatmeal with Whey Protein Mixed In (great if you have a sensitive stomach)
  • 2 Whole Eggs, 2 Egg Whites, Peppers, Onions, Low fat Cheese, Grapefruit/Oatmeal
  • Turkey Wrap with veggies (add carbs as needed)
  • 6 Ounces Grilled Chicken with yam and asparagus

    …and don’t forget to drink plenty of water! A good 16+ ounces can help you optimize your performance.

    If for some reason it’s been longer than 3 hours since your last meal, you can consider adding a pre-workout snack, such as fruit (apple, strawberries, blueberries etc.), some yogurt, or a pre-workout protein shake can also work. In addition, for those who get up very early in the morning and don’t have time for a pre-workout meal, or snack, a simple sports drink (like G2) with 5 grams of BCAA’s can help improve energy levels and protect against catabolism (muscle breakdown).2

    I hope this was helpful for you and let me know if you have any questions!

    References

    1. Michael F. Picco, M.D.. Digestion: How long does it take?. Mayo Clinic. Oct. 30, 2012. Available at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/digestive-system/an00896. Accessed January 24, 2012
    2. Sharp CP, Pearson DR. Amino acid supplements and recovery from high-intensity resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(4):1125-30.
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  • 35 Comments on “Pre-Workout Meal: What To Eat Before A Workout?

    1. Rich
      January 27, 2012 #

      Great info as usual Marc! Thanks a bunch!!!

    2. Francis
      January 27, 2012 #

      Marc your awesome. Your posts keep me going. For the 1st time i feel like i’m getting my workouts right. YOU ROCK!!!. Can you pls list out some rich carb sources?

      1. January 29, 2012 #

        @Francis – your comment made my day. Thanks! In terms of carbs sources, I do plan on writing more articles about it, but here’s a good start:

        Starchy Carbs:
        Yams
        Sweet potatoes
        Rice
        Squash
        Steel Cut Oats

        Fruit Carbs
        Anything – I like berries the most because they are packed with anti-oxidants, they are relatively low in sugar and high in fiber, grapefruit, oranges, it’s all good. Organic is ideal if you can get it. One quick tip is consider rotating fruits with your breakfast, or as a snack – for example. So I’ll have strawberries/blueberries for a week, then I’ll have grapefruit etc.

        Fibrous Veggie Carbs
        The more the merrier – broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, asparagus, etc. No one ever gained weight eating fibrous veggies!

        Hope that’s helpful, again plan on a lot more in coming months.

    3. dave stein
      January 27, 2012 #

      Marc, Thanks for the outstanding information you send us. I wake up at 4 am and only have an apple. It seems to be enough. However, because of GERD, I can’t eat much before yoga and pillates.

    4. Dmytro
      January 28, 2012 #

      Built Lean can read thoughts! Few days ago I was thinking about nutrition before workout and…..here it is! Mark, you are the man!!!

      1. January 29, 2012 #

        @Dmytro – Haha. Happy to see I created an article that was timely for you.

    5. Thejas
      January 28, 2012 #

      i wake up early in the morning and tend to hit the gym within an hour after gettin up!is drinking a protein shake on an empty stomach advisable?
      or Wat other alternative can i have before i go to the gym!

      1. January 28, 2012 #

        @Thejas – I think a protein shake and an apple could do the trick. I would get a light protein shake that has very little carbs/fat, mostly pure protein. In other words, a heavier shake like MuscleMilk might not work so well. In place of the apple, you can also consider relatively fast digesting fruits that are higher on the glycemic index like a banana or mango. I think you should definitely experiment with different amount and types of foods and see what works for you. If you feel great before/during your workout without a meal/snack beforehand, then by all means skip the pre-workout meal and worry about the post workout nutrition.

        1. Nikhil
          September 29, 2012 #

          Hey Marc, i would like to add something to this-
          it depends on whether the guy wants to lose fat or wants to build muscle.
          in case he wants to lose fat,then a moderate to high intensity workout will leach out glycogen directly from his muscles(as his body is already carb craving),making him lose muscle mass too,so some form of proteins which are easy to digest,would work wonders if taken prior workout,in losing just the fat and not muscle mass(all this is about the morning workout)
          on the other hand,if he is interested in gaining muscle mass,then a proper meal 1-11/2 hour before workout would be essential to maintain the energy levels during the workout(which would include carbs,prots and fats in sufficient quantities.)

    6. julz
      January 29, 2012 #

      hi marc,
      i hurt myself working out (hamstrings) and was told that i did not warm out my body properly,or i was not warming up at all. is this true?kindly tell methe best warm up exercises and any other kind that will prevent such injuries
      julz

      1. January 29, 2012 #

        @julz – Sorry to hear you experienced that injury. Warming up is absolutely essential and as I get older (and smarter), I find myself spending a good 10-15 minutes warming up. My two favorite warm ups are foam rolling (which I don’t have a specific article on, although this an intro: myofascial release) then Dynamic Stretching. Preventing injury can be a complex subject, but foam rolling and dynamic stretching before a workout can make a very big difference!

    7. January 30, 2012 #

      Great info, replenishing and preparing your body for an intense workout is key for maximizing results!

    8. Kat
      February 18, 2012 #

      Great article, Marc. The more I read from you the more I love the site. I take a 6:30 am spin class or a 6 am weights class, so eating anything that early is hard to squeeze in. If I have a non-fat Greek yogurt, I always feel a little nauseous but is a banana is enough before an hour-long workout early in the morning? I don’t want to be sabotaging my workout because I’m not eating the correct pre-workout snack. Thanks.

      1. February 19, 2012 #

        @Kat – Thanks for the kinds words Kat. I really appreciate it. I plan on covering the early morning workout topic in more depth soon.

        With that said, it’s something I think you should play with. Some people do well with no pre-workout snack/meal, while others do better having a solid meal. In my humble opinion, it’s all about energy. If you can have an energy filled workout without eating anything pre-workout, then that’s totally cool. If however, you notice your energy levels are stronger after eating some fruit like berries (I love having a handful of strawberries/blueberries if I’m feeling hungry but only have 20 minutes before I workout), then go for it. A banana can certainly work too, but for me it’s a little heavier on the stomach than berries.

        Again, I think pre-workout nutrition is something you should play with to see what works best for you.

    9. B.W.
      May 6, 2012 #

      That was a fantastic article, pre workout foods made easy. I am a firm believer in using about 90% whole foods for nutrition and the rest with supplementation. I especially thing that creatine and beta alenine supplements help keep your energy levels high during and after the workout phase. Great article Marc looking forward to the next one!

    10. May 9, 2012 #

      What do you think about the eating protocol called Intermittent Fasting or Lean Gains, which highlights fasted workouts. There are a lot of people training while fasted, and gaining muscle mass as there are people who are training while fasting, and losing body fat while retaining muscle. Currently, I am doing the latter. From my understanding of biology, it takes a longer time for catabolism of the muscles, to occur.

      Just wanted to mention the last part because people are going to panic to eat something before training and if they train fasted, they are going to think they are going to lose their muscles, when in fact, they wouldn’t.

      This gives people an option, who train in the early morning, to not have to fuss or fret over chugging a pre-workout supplement like a protein shake, before heading to the gym. Doesn’t mean that people cannot choose the option of eating before training. I am just mentioning another option.

      But good article nevertheless.

      1. May 12, 2012 #

        @Buff Gyal – I am familiar with the Lean Gains/Intermittent fasting approach, which is certainly valid. One thing to keep in mind is that Martin does not train completely fasted, he usually has some BCAA’s (like 10 grams) before his workout. With that said, I’m not sure I did a great job in the article of describing this, but I’m not nearly as maniacal about meal frequency as I once was. I agree you are not suddenly going to lose muscle if you don’t eat right after/before your workout. With that said, I think workouts are all about energy. However you get the most energy for your workouts is what matters most by far, because that extra 10% you push is going to have a massive effect when combined with solid nutrition, whether you are eating 5x per day, or 1x per day.

    11. May 26, 2012 #

      Hey Marc, good article however I disagree with your point of few about fats as you have based your recommendation on the fact that fat takes longer to digest. Yes this may be the case but fat is essential for effective protein synthesis. Not to mention the fact that after having a high fat and protein meal pre session, I feel amazing and have so much more energy for the gym – eating fat 1-2 hours before wont cause any digestive discomfort and/or effect training.

      1. May 29, 2012 #

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I do also feel very satisfied with a moderate fat meal after a workout. The research points to faster digesting protein/meal post workout as generating the best results, but it’s not likely that much greater over the long term vs. a fat meal

    12. sumit
      May 31, 2012 #

      hey Marc,
      i work out early like 5.00 am so it is not possible for me to eat 1-2 hour before workout so i want to ask if it is harmful to eat just 10-15 minutes before workout or is it ok

      and as we all know water helps in good digestion so will it help in weight loss or weight gain

      1. June 3, 2012 #

        sumit – it’s definitely not harmful if you eat the right foods 10-15 minutes before your workout. You may consider a protein shake, or even a banana can do the trick, which should be very light on your stomach.

    13. Caden
      June 4, 2012 #

      I do lifting at 6:30 in the mornings for school. I usually throw up half-way thre. I don’t have time to eat a big meal in the mornings. I did wake up once early to get a good meal in but that me throw up even more. I don’t know what to do!!

      1. June 7, 2012 #

        Did you try something light like a banana, or even some gatorade (not ideal, but can work)? That’s something you may want to try.

    14. Cameron
      June 12, 2012 #

      Marc,

      I wake up to do cardio at 430am, do I need a meal before or is workin out on an empty stomach ok? My main goal uis fat loss, but I don’t want to lose muscle either. I usually hit the weights at lunchtime. Can you suggest a meal for before and after each workout. I work 6am -830pm M-F. And meals in between. I have a busy schedule working as much as I do if I could be eating the right foods at the right time that would make getting in shape all that much easier.

      Thanks,
      Cameron

      Current – 244lbs, 33% bf
      Goal – 180lbs, lot less % bf

      1. June 14, 2012 #

        @Cameron – I listed several pre-workout ideas for you in the article and not sure I can elaborate on ideas off the top of my head. Regarding post workout, check this out: Post workout meals and you may also consider checking this one out as well – Does Cardio On An Empty Stomach Burn More Fat?

    15. Cameron
      June 12, 2012 #

      I was thinking something like:

      4:30 -Cardio

      Meal 1: protein shake(Elite XT) and strawberries

      Meal 2 (8:45 am): Oatmeal and egg whites

      Pre-Workout (1/2 hr before workout): ???

      11:00 am : Weights

      Post-Workout: Protein shake (Elite XT)

      2:15 pm: 6oz chicken, sweet potato, 1 cup brocolli

      5:15 pm: 6oz chicken, sweet potato, 1 cup brocolli

      8pm: Protein shake blend (Elite XT)

      I read you should have a serving of BCAA before and after workout

      1. June 14, 2012 #

        @Cameron – I don’t think you need a pre-workout meal for in this example as you just ate at 8:45am. Your nutrition regimen looks very regimented like a bodybuilder/fitness model. I think this makes sense if you get down to 10% body fat and want to get to 6%, but where you are right now, if you just eat less calories while keeping the food natural, you’ll do great. Whether or not it’s “healthy” to have a diet like a fitness model/bodybuilder is a loaded question and one that I am unable to answer because I’m not a licensed nutritionist.

    16. Woolfey
      August 10, 2012 #

      I start work really early so dont get time to train so I workout in the afternoon after work , would you suggest a Protien shake with blended in oats about hour and half before workout?? Trying to build muscle and shred few pounds thanx

      1. August 16, 2012 #

        @Woolfey – that sounds reasonable. As long as you feel energetic during the workout and not bloated, that combination can work well and many people use it.

    17. yasir
      August 10, 2012 #

      im currently 17 years old looking to get ripped but maintaining that broad look at the same time , i have experimented with several weightlifting workouts and have gotten results but not as much as i would have hoped .i had planned to lose a lot of fat by this year but it seems that this is not the case although i have been working out for a year.Any suggestions?

      1. August 16, 2012 #

        @yasir – Yes, please check out our free Get Lean Guide. Also, check out this article – Weight Loss Plateau: Tips on How to Break It

    18. H.C.
      August 17, 2012 #

      I’m on a very low carb diet, I have been since Oct 2011. I’ve lost about 60lbs and have another 40lbs to go. I recently started playing women’s tackle football so we have pretty intense workouts at least 3 days a week. Can you please give me advise on low carb pre-workout foods to keep my energy level up throughtout practice?

      1. August 23, 2012 #

        @H.C. – that’s a tough question to answer without better understanding your activity level and your overall nutritional intake. I recommend searching for “paleo for athletes” or “low carb for athletes” online and you will come up with some decent resources. One of the challenges of a low carb diet is that it can negatively affect athletic performance. That’s why you won’t find many athletes on low carb diets. Personally, I go by how I feel. I want to eat just enough carbs to help provide nutrients and energy, but no more. You may learn that the magic level for you is around 100 grams, 150 grams, or even 200+ grams of carbs in a given day, depending on how active you are. Ultimately, you should trouble shoot to see how you feel.

    19. Francis M
      September 29, 2012 #

      Marc,
      Your knowledge is very very impressive! Thank you for sharing everything (pre post workout meals and your article on over training was so useful).

      Keep it goin!
      Francis

    20. October 9, 2012 #

      wow what a great article. I was looking for information to help me with my own pre workout nutrition. This article helped me to discover that I have all the ingredients I need in my own kitchen to build my own pre workout meal. Now I just have to make it a habit and I’m all set!!

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