What Your Body Needs Before a Workout: Five Great Healthy Pre-Workout Meals

To get the most out of your workout, you need to be mentally and physically prepared to get your sweat on. That means fueling your body with the right foods so that you have the energy you need to perform at your peak. 

In order to fuel your body properly, you need to understand the role that different macronutrients play in providing your body with energy and helping you get through your workout. Whether you prefer to create your own pre-workout culinary masterpieces or prefer to have more direction on exactly what to eat, we’ve got all the information you need to know about what your body needs before a workout.

Understanding Macronutrients

Macronutrients include carbohydrates, fat, and protein, and each of them play a different role in helping to fuel your body. The ratio in which you need to consume macronutrients will vary from person to person depending on your individual body and the type of exercise you’re doing.

Carbohydrates

If you’ve ever heard marathon runners talking about “carbo loading,” you probably have at least some understanding of the role that carbohydrates play in fueling our bodies for exercise. 

The primary source of fuel for the muscles is derived from glycogen, which is derived from carbohydrates. 

However, the muscles use carbs at a higher rate when you’re performing short or high-intensity forms of exercise. During longer exercises done at a lower intensity, you may burn fewer carbs depending on your overall diet and the type of training you are doing. We are only able to store a certain amount of glycogen, which means that when runners refer to “hitting the wall” in a marathon, they’re talking about the moment where glycogen stores are depleted and performance begins to decline. Carbs are an important component of any pre-workout meal.

Fat

Unlike carbohydrates, which are used for short and high-intensity exercise efforts, fat is the main source of fuel for exercise performed at moderate-to-low intensity or for longer periods of time. 

Our bodies are able to store large amounts of fat, so fat is not an important component of a pre-workout meal in the same way that carbohydrates are. However, it is important to eat a diet that provides an ample amount of healthy fats in order to help you stay satiated and ensure that your body has an adequate supply of fat for your workouts.

Protein

While protein isn’t used by the body as an energy source in the same way that carbohydrates and fat are, it does have an important role in athletic performance. Studies have shown that eating protein either alone or with carbs before exercising helps to increase muscle protein synthesis, and it can also encourage a positive anabolic response, helping to boost performance. 

Protein also provides other important benefits when consumed before a workout, including:

  • Faster muscle recovery
  • Improved muscle performance
  • Increased anabolic response/muscle growth
  • Increased lean body mass and strength

Healthy Pre-Workout Meals

An ideal pre-workout meal should provide ample amounts of carbs and protein. Carbs provide the energy your body needs to perform in the short-term, while protein keeps you from getting hungry mid-workout and can help you fight off the post-workout munchies. Most people prefer not to eat a full meal right before they workout, so most of these options are on the lighter side. 

However, if you have a few hours between your meal and your workout, you might opt for larger portions. Try any of these healthy and simple pre-workout meals before your next workout and see if you notice a difference in your performance.

Nut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

A classic PB&J (or the nut butter of your choice) can really hit the spot pre-workout, and it’s actually a great source of fuel. Your body will receive carbohydrates in the form of the sugar in the jelly and the bread in the sandwich, while the nut butter provides some protein to help keep you feeling full. If you’re not going to be working out for a long time or at a hard effort, consider aiming for just half of a sandwich.

Smoothie

Worried about feeling sluggish during your workout if you eat a meal beforehand? Try a smoothie packed with fruit and a protein-rich yogurt, like greek yogurt. Smoothies are easy to digest, which helps avoid stomach upset and that worn-out feeling during a workout. 

Making your own smoothie with fruit and the yogurt of your choice will help you avoid the added sugar that comes in so many pre-made smoothies, so skip those if you can, though workout-specific shakes aren’t a bad route if you want to go pre-made! 

The carbs from the fruit and the protein from the yogurt will give you the energy you need to get through the workout, and the liquid from the water and ice will help you stay cool and hydrated.

Salmon with Rice and Veggies

If you’re looking for something more hearty before you workout, try baked salmon with brown rice and roasted vegetables. This balanced, healthy meal will give you all the fuel you need to get through your workout, with healthy carbs provided by the brown rice and vegetables and protein and healthy fats from the baked salmon. This is a great go-to pre-workout option if you have the time to meal prep and know you’ll be working out for a longer or more intense effort.

Greek Yogurt with Fruit and Granola

A simple pre-workout snack that’s easy to take anywhere is greek yogurt with fruit and granola. It makes a delicious light breakfast option or an ideal snack before you get ready to sweat, thanks to the high protein content in the yogurt and the carbs offered by the fruit and granola. However, be careful when choosing your yogurt and granola, as both of these can be packed with added sugar if you’re not careful. Choose plain greek yogurt if you can, as it’s less likely to feature a bunch of added sugar, and you’ll get plenty of sweetness and flavor from the fruit and granola.

Oatmeal with Nut Butter and Fruit

If you’re a morning workout person, eating oatmeal topped with some nut butter and fruit is a great pre-workout option. Oatmeal is easily digested by most people and is unlikely to cause an upset stomach, which is why it’s the pre-workout meal of choice for many marathon runners. Nut butter provides some protein and fat for satiety, while the fruit adds flavor and extra carbs. 

Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Workout

It goes without saying that what you eat before you workout will play a major role in how you feel during and after you exercise, but there are other important guidelines to keep in mind that can also impact performance. 

Timing Your Meal

It’s important to get the timing of your meal or snack right when it comes to working out. In general, eating a snack about 30 minutes to an hour before your workout is a good rule of thumb if you don’t have time to eat an entire meal or would prefer not to. 

If you prefer to eat a full meal prior to your workout, it is best to eat two to three hours before your workout in order to give your body time to start digesting the meal and using the macronutrients for energy. If you’re prone to digestive issues or gastrointestinal distress during workouts, it’s probably best to stick with a small snack rather than eating a full meal.

Hydrate Properly

Eating well is important, but your body also needs a sufficient  amount of water in order to get the most out of your workout. Although each person is different and the amount of fluid you need will depend on the intensity of your workout, the temperature, and how much water you normally drink, a good rule of thumb is to drink two cups of water two to three hours prior to your workout and one cup of water ten to twenty minutes before a workout

Then, continue to drink water during your workout, particularly if you’re doing intense physical activity, are a heavy sweater, or are working out in a hot environment. Aim to consume about one cup of water for every 15 to 30 minutes of exercise

The key is to find the right amount of water to consume so that you are hydrated and are able to perform at your peak, but not hydrating so much that you feel nauseous or become overhydrated. 

If you’re working out in your living room to your favorite dance video, keep a water bottle handy and try to grab a few sips of water at the end of each song, or if you’re out for a run, take a hand-held water bottle with you to make sure you stay hydrated.

Sources:

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/eat-before-workout

https://www.self.com/story/what-a-registered-dietitian-says-you-should-eat-before-and-after-a-workout

https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/ss/slideshow-foods-for-workout

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5596471/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6571232/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16896166/

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