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

By Marc Perry / July 1, 2017

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!

    Show 2 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.


    • H.C. says:

      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?

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @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.

    • Francis M says:

      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!

    • Cheryl says:

      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!!

    • Larry Hilton says:

      I like what I just read just need to make a menu I won't to make my arms bigger I have lunch at 12:00or12:30 then at 4:30 I go and workout I drank a per workout drank like c4 is good

    • DINE SH PANDA says:


    • Alex Meyers says:

      Hey Marc! Love this post (and many others on your site). Have you heard of MacroFuel? (www.macrofuelfood.com). This is a healthy meal replacement that is perfect as a pre-workout meal. You should check it out!

      • Augustine Rietsema says:

        I find MacroFuel an hour before a workout works wonders. I get through my whole workout and don't feel like I'm dragging near the end. Plus if you time it right you can get an insane pump.

    • Abdul says:


      I just want to thank u for all of these information! They're definitely helping.

      • Kristin Rooke, CPT says:

        Awesome! Glad you're getting value and learning from our articles!
        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

    • Erica says:

      Hey guys! Thanks for the article, it was very insightful. Well right now I'm following the 28 day eating plan, doing Zumba, arm curls and walking to work and back. Training can get tough and I've noticed that I get a lot more tired as the 28 day eating plan is very strict and the caloric count is not high enough to really go all out. I've added a peanut butter and banana smoothie but only take this after my workout. Helps a lot but it seems that the kilo's are clinging a bit. Any advice? I could drink it before the workout, but I need to know that this would be sufficient though. Thanks!

      • Kristin Rooke, CPT says:

        Hi Erica,
        I'm not very familiar with the 28-day eating plan or the number of calories it prescribes for weight loss. What I can tell you is that weight loss requires a caloric deficit. In general, I recommend that you keep that deficit on the small side (around 250 calories per day). When you combine a small caloric deficit with an intelligently designed workout program, you encourage your body to maintain lean muscle while primarily using fat for fuel. It also tend to help with hunger management, energy levels, and maintaining your strength and performance during your workouts.

        If you haven't already, I recommend reading Marc's article about how many calories you should eat to lose weight. That will help you estimate your average daily maintenance burn, and determine the range of calories you should aim to eat for fat loss.

        Does that help? If you have more questions, feel free to ask.

        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

    • bedanta says:

      I wake up at 7:00 in morning. I then consume a banana and a cup of chickpeas. After 30 min, I go to the gym. Is this ok ?? Also, sometimes (probably once or twice a month) I eat chocolate cake, or junk food (at a party, etc). Will this increase my weight??

      • Kristin says:

        Hi Bedanta,

        It sounds like you have some good healthy habits in place. That's great! Eating a banana and a cup of chickpeas sounds like a good pre-workout breakfast. As long as you're not experiencing indigestion or stomach aches during your workout, I think that's a completely find way to start the day. Also, enjoying dessert or junk food once per month shouldn't adversely affect your weight. In fact, letting yourself have an indulgence every once in a while (like once per month) can help you maintain a healthy nutrition routine. Keep up the great work!

        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

    • satya says:

      I eat only 2 bananas before weight training. is it OK?

      • Kristin says:

        If that gives you the energy you need for your workout, then that's totally fine. My only recommendation would be to add some protein to your pre-workout meal. For example, instead of two bananas, you could have one banana and some greek yogurt. Or you could blend up a protein shake using water, a scoop of protein powder, and a banana. But if having 2 bananas works for you, and you're seeing the results you want, keep doing what you're doing!

        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor