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What to Eat Before Your Workout

By Emily Wei, September 8, 2014


Have you ever scarfed down a bowl of high fiber cereal 30 minutes prior to a long run?  Skipped breakfast before a four-hour bike ride?  Eaten something you’ve never had for breakfast on the morning of a big race?  Unfortunately, I have to admit that I have done all of these things.  While these no-no’s may seem obvious to some, I’ll bet that there are a lot of beginner, intermediate, and even advanced athletes who have made these very same mistakes.   image


Luckily, by eating the right foods, you can instead reap performance-optimizing benefits:

1. Improve and maintain energy levels during workouts: By ensuring your glycogen stores are full (of the proper combination of nutrients), you can significantly improve the ease of a workout.  A low carb diet may magnify the difficulty of a workout, as low glycogen stores can cause low energy levels.  By eating properly pre-exercise, your workouts will run smoother, improving the quality of your workouts, and ultimately, your performance.

2. Protect your guns: When you’re working out hard, whether weightlifting or running stadium stairs, you are often breaking down muscle tissue.  Knowing what to eat pre-workout can help prevent muscle breakdown, speeding up recovery time and improving muscle repair.


Click here to learn how InsideTracker can provide you with personalized food recommendations that will boost your physical performance!

Glycogen: The Workout Fuel

What is glycogen, and what purpose does it serve?  Glycogen, which is largely created and stored in the muscle and liver cells, is our main form of stored carbohydrates.  When we require energy, the glycogen is converted to glucose, fulfilling our energy needs.  Muscle glycogen, comprised of stored carbohydrates in the muscles, serves as the primary fuel source for the majority of exercise that we perform.  Depending on the intensity of a workout, muscle glycogen stores can be depleted within 1-2 hours.  Once depleted, your body can only work at 50% of its maximal capacity, otherwise known as “bonking,” or “hitting the wall.”  In order to prevent bonking, and to maximize performance, fueling up properly prior to working out is crucial.  Furthermore, knowing your specific levels of key blood biomarkers, such as glucose, vitamin D, vitamin B12, can help you target which nutrients you need to work on. An InsideTracker blood analysis plan will tell you which biomarkers you need to improve, as well as suggest foods that will help you to fuel up optimally.

Option #1, No Pre-Workout Chow

If you like to workout before the sun rises, or eating before exercise makes your stomach upset, a pre-workout chow down isn’t necessary.  However, while you may not need to eat prior to a moderate intensity workout (such as a 20 minute jog), re-think your strategy if you are planning a longer, or higher intensity workout.  Consider the option of having a bedtime snack on the night before a morning workout.

Option #2, Small Snack 30 Minutes Before Workout

Follow these tips for blissful pre-workout snacking, especially when in a time crunch:

Opt for a small (100 to 200 calorie) snack 30 minutes prior to working out. Choose a low fiber, high-glycemic index (GI) carbohydrate with very small amounts of fat.

A small, high-GI carbohydrate is composed of easily digestible sugars.  This ensures that the snack is digested prior to exercise, and that the energy is available to fuel your workout.  (While the full process of digestion actually takes hours, eating a high-GI snack means that you won’t have food bouncing around in your stomach during exercise.  Although great for digestive health, fiber is actually digested in the colon, and consuming too much fiber before a workout can cause an upset stomach.  Fat actually slows digestion, and should be avoided right before a workout.  A high-GI carb is easy to digest, and provides more immediate energy.)

Below are some snack options:

High-glycemic fruits: banana, mango, papaya, pineapple, and watermelon Fruit smoothie: blend any of the above fruits w/ low-fat or nonfat yogurt Fruit juice Sports drinks Energy bars: not all bars are created equal, nor are they equally suitable for this purpose.  (Look for >15 grams of carbs, 3-5 grams of protein, and small amounts of fat!) Pretzels or rice crackers w/ jam

Small snacks work best for workouts early in the morning, or for shorter workouts (generally less than 45 minutes).  If you’ve got a long, intense workout session planned, opt for something higher in carbs and protein (see option #3, the balanced meal) in order to have more sustained energy.

Option #3: Balanced Meal 1-3 Hours Before Workout:

For an ideal pre-workout meal, consider the following:

Your pre-workout meal should account for about 50% of the calories that you expect to burn during your workout.  For example, if you are a 150 lb. male, and are going for an hour long run at 10 min/mile, you’ll burn ~600 calories during your workout, so aim for at least 300 calories during your pre-workout meal. If your workout is going to be high intensity, aim for a few more calories.  The larger the meal, the longer before exercising you should eat.  (A bigger meal should be 3 hours prior to, and a smaller meal 1 hour prior to your workout.)

 Your pre-workout meal should be balanced as follows:

50-60% carbohydrates (your body accesses carbs first; this will provide the fuel you need) 25-35% protein (protein can help keep you satiated, keep your blood glucose levels stable, and improve muscle recovery) 15% fat (a little bit of fat can be helpful for satiety.  The fat isn’t absolutely necessary, but adding something such as a bit of nut butter may help make your meal more enjoyable.  Just be sure not to over-do it.)

Below are some balanced, pre-workout meal options:


Fruit, yogurt, & granola Cereal (aim for between 3-7 g of fiber; too little fiber will mean that carbs are burned early, and too much may cause an upset stomach) & milk Oatmeal (steel-cut oats are best, as they are the least-processed type of oat cereal) w/ one scoop of mixed-in protein powder Whole-wheat waffle w/ peanut butter (or almond or sunflower seed butter) & jelly English muffin w/ scrambled eggs & vegetables Eggs w/ whole-wheat toast Cottage cheese w/ fruit Apple & PB (or other nut butter) Healthy breakfast burrito: eggs, quinoa, avocado, & goat cheese Vegetable omelet Fruit shake: blend frozen berries w/ protein powder

 Lunch and Dinner

Peanut butter, banana, & toast PB&J sandwich Arroz con leche: mix ½ cup cooked rice, ½ cup milk, some raisins, & cinnamon – ideal fuel for a long run Trail mix Chicken salad Vegetables and hummus Sweet potato & grilled chicken Pasta w/ a couple of slices of avocado, & a couple of ounces of turkey or chicken Baked potato & chicken breast Fish & wild rice Wrap w/ roast beef & vegetables

Pre-Workout Hydration:

Proper hydration is critical for optimal health, as well as maximal athletic performance; water plays a critical role in the functioning of our bodies.   Whether gearing up for a routine workout or a long race, remember that proper hydration is essential.  Don’t forget to drink that water!

 Here are a few tips on pre-workout hydration:

The day before a big workout or race, drink enough water.  Adult males should consume 3.7 L/day of total water (from both food and liquid intake), including approximately 3.0 L, or about 13 cups as total beverages, including drinking water.  Women should aim for 2.7 L/day of total water, including 2.2 L, or about 9 cups of total beverages. Individual water needs vary according to diet, physical activity, as well as climate.  If it’s humid, and the sun’s been beating down, be sure to replenish with extra water and electrolytes. Hydration sources should include water, 100% juice, or skim or nonfat milk.  You’re not properly hydrating if you’re replacing water with soda and mostly-sugar fruit juices. Two hours before your workout, drink 2 to 2.5 cups (16 to 20 oz.) of fluid.  This ensures that your body has enough time to process the liquid, and that you have a chance to empty your bladder before your workout.  Proper hydration will help facilitate the ease and effectiveness of the exercise. 30 minutes prior to your work-out, drink another 5 to 10 oz. of fluid.

An Important Last Word:

Finding what works best for you is key to a successful fuel up.  While an ideal pre-workout meal may include whole grain bread, hummus, and vegetables for some, the very same meal might wreak serious havoc on others.  Though our machinery is similar, we’re all very different.  Some of us can stomach nearly anything, while others are less impervious to high fiber pre-workout meals.  Experiment with different foods and varied timing to find what works best for your body and your workout needs. Remember that InsideTracker can give you ideas for foods that will fuel your workout and help you reach your peak performance. But do all your experimenting while you are training. Never try a new fueling plan before a big event.