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What to Eat Before a Workout, According to an Expert Trainer

April 30, 2024

Have you ever gotten yourself all psyched up for a workout, carved out the time, gotten dressed, made your way to the gym, only to feel sluggish through the sweat sesh? It’s so frustrating. And with so many pre-workout products on the market promising great results, it’s hard to know just what to eat before a workout.

“What you consume pre-workout — anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours — can be key for helping you feel your best during your training and kickstart the recovery process after you’re finished training,” says Rachel Gregory, board-certified nutritionist and strength and conditioning coach, cofounder of the Muscle Science for Women program. “One of the mistakes I made for years was not paying attention to my pre-workout nutrition. For women especially, it’s crucial to understand that the toned physique you want is a result of how much muscle you can build.”

Here are Gregory’s top tips for optimizing your pre-workout fuel, so you can feel energized, recover smoothly, and build the body you want.

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What’s the best thing to eat before a workout?

The good news is, there are a lot of choices for what to eat. What’s more important to focus on is the right combination of macronutrients (i.e., protein, carbs, and fat). Once you have those down, how you get them depends on how much time you have between eating and your workout. “The key is to plan accordingly and adjust your intake to fit your specific needs and timing,” Gregory says.

Here are Gregory’s specific recommendations for macros:

  • Protein: “To optimize muscle protein synthesis and prevent as much muscle protein breakdown as possible, consume at least 25 grams of protein in your pre-workout meal, snack, or shake,” she says. “This will also help to kickstart the recovery process post-workout.” 
  • Carbs: “Adding some easy-to-digest carbs pre-workout can help give you a bit more energy and, again, kickstart recovery post-workout by refilling muscle glycogen stores,” Gregory notes. “The amount of carbs will vary depending on your personal macronutrient goals, but anywhere from about 15 to 40 grams is typically a solid range to shoot for.”
  • Fat: “We want to avoid too much fat pre-workout because it can slow digestion down,” she warns. “However, a small amount of fat is good to ensure steady blood sugar regulation.” She recommends about 5 to 15 grams of fat,depending on personal body size and digestion time.”

Two things to keep in check: Make sure your pre-workout protein is fairly low in fat, and your carbs are low in fiber, as fat and fiber slow down digestion, Gregory says. Though we appreciate slower digestion at other parts of the day to help manage blood sugar and keep us feeling full, during a workout it will slow you down and leave you feeling sapped.

Related: 7 Pre-Workout Drinks to Fuel Your Sweat Sesh

You asked: What if I eat 30 minutes before a workout?

Once you have your protein, carb, and fat amounts worked out, you can start to think about what specific foods to eat. Gregory recommends basing those choices on how much time you have to digest before hitting the gym. Here are her specific recommendations for what to eat before a workout, depending on when you’re eating:

If you’re eating immediately before a workout:

  • Protein: 1 scoop of essential amino acids (EAAs) with at least 3 grams of leucine.
  • Carbs: Liquid or powdered carb sources like Gatorade, or pure fruit juice. In a pinch, a few pieces of candy like Sour Patch Kids or gummy bears that contain pure sugar. (Of course, refined sugar is not an optimal choice, so avoid this as much as possible.)
  • Fat: Minimal, 5 grams or less, coming from trace protein sources or a small amount of nut butter.

If you’re eating 30 to 45 minutes before a workout:

  • Protein: 1 scoop of whey protein powder or a ready-to-drink protein shake.
  • Carbs: Fruit, rice cakes, raw honey or maple syrup.
  • Fat: 5 to 10 grams from nut butter, egg yolk, or low-fat dairy products.

If you’re eating 70 to 90 minutes before a workout:

  • Protein: Lean protein source such as chicken breast, egg whites, low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese (if you tolerate dairy). 
  • Carbs: Potatoes, white rice, cream of rice, fruit.
  • Fat: 10 to 15 grams from butter, nut butter, olive or coconut oil, nuts or seeds, egg yolk, or cheese.

When considering what to eat, “each individual should test and assess for themselves when it comes to different types and amounts of foods that work for them,” Gregory says. It may take some trial and error to figure out which foods work for you and which don’t, and where your needs fall within the ranges of amounts she offers.

Is it OK to eat anything before a workout?

Here are some specific food combinations Gregory suggests trying.

If you have 30 to 60 minutes before your workout:

  • White rice + soft-boiled egg + salt + a few pieces of fruit
  • Rice cakes + deli meat + a small dollop of mayo or guacamole on top
  • Rice cake + nut butter + protein shake with frozen berries
  • Jerky + drizzle of honey (“It sounds weird but it’s actually really tasty,” she says.)

If you have 70 minutes or longer before your workout:

  • Egg white omelet with 1 or 2 whole eggs and/or a sprinkle of cheese. Side of fruit, potatoes, or toast
  • White rice + lean protein source + small amount of fat + salt + side of fruit
  • Greek yogurt + whey protein powder + berries + a small drizzle of nut butter
  • Oatmeal or overnight oats with protein powder + berries + a dollop of nut butter

A few more expert pointers

Though there are many products marketed specifically as pre-workout, Gregory leans more toward whole-food sources. She also notes that it’s fine to lean on a few convenience items such as protein powder. “Fueling first and foremost with nutrients will lead to a much better outcome from an energy and physique enhancement perspective, as well as optimizing overall recovery,” she says.

Also, remember that hydration is key. “Ensure you’re consuming enough fluid before and during your workout, but not too much to slow you down or make you feel bloated,” Gregory says. “A combination of water and electrolytes is ideal. You can add salt to water, sip on coconut water, or supplement with powdered electrolytes.”

Finally, pre-workout is not the place to skip nourishment. “If your goal is to build a lean, toned physique, one thing you probably should not skip out on is your pre-workout fuel,” Gregory notes. “Many people miss out on gains and progress simply from not paying attention to this one thing.”

Read next: The 3 Best Workout Recovery Tips from a Sports Nutrition Consultant

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