What to Eat Before a Workout

The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition-related activity.

What to Eat Before a Workout

  • Jamie, a college swimmer, dips into the pool at 6 a.m. for practice, then it’s back home before his first class begins at 8:30 a.m.
  • Madeline, a 42-year-old software developer, trains in the evening for her first marathon to support her favorite charity.
  • Thomas, a 34-year-old vegetarian and aspiring actor, hits the gym each afternoon for a strength-training workout.

While their goals are different, they all have the same question: what should I eat before exercise? Jamie, Madeline, and Thomas have different pre-exercise fueling needs, depending on what they’ve eaten throughout the day and what they plan to eat once they’ve finished exercising. While their question is what to eat before exercise, they should also be asking about what, and how much, to drink – which is just as important.

Why should you eat before a workout?

Eating before activity can delay fatigue and help you exercise at your best. A tired athlete won’t perform well and may lose power, strength, and speed during a workout. Additionally, eating before exercise can help with focus and mental alertness. Exercise may feel harder and less enjoyable for a less-focused, tired athlete.

Having enough fuel on board is necessary to help optimize exercise performance. Our body’s cells require energy from glucose, which comes from carbohydrates found in the diet. Carbohydrates (including sugar) play a key role in delivering the varying energy and nutrition needs for athletes and active people and is the most important type of fuel for exercise. When it comes to getting ready for a workout, carbohydrates stored in the muscles as glycogen can be used during activity as fuel to help provide sustained energy.

Eating carbohydrate-rich foods before exercise has many benefits:

  • Restores glycogen, which is especially important for the early-morning exercisers who fasted while they were sleeping
  • Helps prevent hunger, which can be distracting during exercise
  • Feeds the brain to help with focus

Why should you hydrate before you exercise?

Drinking plenty of fluids before (and during) exercise helps prevent fatigue and dehydration, especially when exercising in hot and humid conditions. Many exercisers begin their workout slightly dehydrated, so it’s important to grab some water before hitting the gym to help optimize your performance.

What should I eat and drink before I exercise?

What to eat and how much to drink before exercise depends on several factors — one strategy does not fit all! First, it depends on what you’ve had to eat and drink before you exercise. For example, Thomas, the afternoon strength-training exerciser, may not need a pre-workout snack if he ate lunch prior to his workout. If breakfast was his only meal that day, he should plan to grab a snack an hour or two before hitting the gym.

What to eat and drink also depends on the intensity, duration, and type of exercise. A moderate-intensity training run lasting two hours requires a different fueling strategy than a high-intensity, short-duration sprint.

When planning a pre-workout snack, first consider the timing. In general, as you get closer to exercise time, the snack or meal should get smaller and higher in carbohydrates. If there are three or more hours before a workout, a carbohydrate-rich meal with some protein and fat can be consumed with plenty of time for the food to be digested and absorbed before exercise. Protein and fat take longer to digest, so as time to exercise gets closer, there should be a greater focus on consuming carbohydrate-rich foods.

Let’s revisit Jamie, Madeline, and Thomas and see what they need to eat and drink to fuel their individual performance:

  • Jamie’s 6 a.m. swim practice leaves little time for a real meal. Although he needs some carbohydrates to replace his glycogen stores after an overnight fast, he wants a quick-acting carbohydrate that he can eat on the run. Thirty grams of easily digested carbohydrates can be consumed 15 minutes before exercise, and sports foods like energy chews or gels are favorites for athletes in a hurry. Three CLIF® BLOKS™ Energy Chews provide ~25 grams of fast-acting carbohydrates. Jamie could pair the BLOKS™ with a sports drink to add fluids and more carbohydrates to his pre-workout routine. After practice, he should eat a balanced and nutritious breakfast with carbohydrates, fat, and ideally 20 grams of protein to help him recover from his morning practice. Whole-grain breakfast cereal with nuts, milk, and fruit or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with milk and a piece of fruit would be great options for Jamie.

  • Madeline trains in the evening, after work and before dinner. She’ll want to concentrate on eating a nutrient-rich lunch, like a tofu noodle bowl, and eating a mid-afternoon snack about 1–2 hours before her run. CLIF BAR® Energy Bars provide a unique blend of fast-acting and longer-lasting carbohydrates from organic ingredients, like sugar and rolled oats, alongside smaller amounts of fat, fiber, and plant-based protein to help carry her through a long training run before she eats dinner.

  • Thomas should focus on eating lunch before his strength-training workout, but he may not need a hefty pre-workout snack. While many strength trainers think they need protein pre-workout, protein is best consumed within 30 minutes after a workout to provide needed nutrients to repair and build muscle. With that said, carbohydrates are important fuel for weight lifters, so an easy-to-digest, fast-acting source like CLIF® BLOKS™ might be a good addition to his pre-workout routine. To aid with recovery, Thomas’ post-exercise nutrition routine, should focus on both carbohydrates and protein. CLIF® BUILDER’S® provides carbohydrates and 20 grams of complete, plant-based protein with essential amino acids to help rebuild muscles.

All three athletes need to be hydrated during their workouts. In general, 17 to 20 ounces of water should be consumed 2–3 hours before exercise and another 7 to 10 ounces about 20 minutes before exercise. While water is always a great choice, sports drinks can also be a great option when exercising for over an hour. They provide extra carbohydrates and the electrolyte sodium to help replenish what’s lost in sweat.

Keep in mind — while dehydration can hurt performance, overhydration can too. So, it’s always best to work with a sports dietitian to develop an eating and drinking schedule that’s right for you.

3 common mistakes to avoid when fueling up before workout:

  1. Not eating enough food

    Eating before exercise helps provide the fuel needed to power through a tough workout. Consider the entire day’s meals and snacks and plan them around your exercise to get the most out of a workout.

  2. Not eating the right food

    Choose wholesome foods. Quality carbohydrates (like oats, whole-grain breads, cereals, pasta, and rice), fruits, vegetables, and dairy or non-dairy milks are all great choices. Protein from poultry, eggs, fish, seafood, and plant-based sources (e.g., soy, beans, peas, and nuts) provide needed amino acids, and “good” fat from olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds deliver beneficial mono- and polyunsaturated fats.

    Sports foods can provide a practical form of nutrition support that is convenient, portable, and tasty. Look for those that are crafted with expertise, using wholesome, nutritious ingredients. Clif Bar & Company’s foods are great examples. They provide performance energy built around energizing, sustainably grown ingredients that are expertly combined to help optimize athletic performance before, during, and after training and competition.

  3. Too much food

    Some people feel that exercising gives them license to eat whatever and whenever they like. Exercise has many positive health benefits, and providing the body with the right fuel at the right time can enhance those benefits. With that said, it’s important to be mindful of the timing, duration, and intensity of your exercise to ensure you are not overeating — as that can negatively impact health.

Check out answers to some common questions on how to fuel for a successful workout:

  • Is caffeine needed before a workout?

    Caffeine has been shown to help improve mental alertness. Small doses of caffeine, about 120–180 milligrams (or about 1–2 cups of coffee) has the potential to make exercise feel easier, but for an athlete who regularly consumes caffeine in coffee, tea, or other foods and beverages, the effects might not be detected. According to leading health organizations, consuming caffeine in moderation (no more than 2–3 eight-ounce cups of coffee per day) is the best approach.

  • Is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich a good pre-workout snack?

    A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a portable, easy-to-make snack that provides carbohydrates, plant-based protein, and good fat. Because this snack has a balanced mix of nutrients, including a good amount of fat, it’s best to eat it a few hours before a workout to allow enough time for your body to digest and absorb this fuel.

  • What is better for a pre-workout snack?

    It depends on how much time there is before a workout, the intensity of that workout and what an athlete likes to eat. A CLIF BAR® Energy Bar, with carbohydrates combined with some plant-based protein and fat, is best consumed 1–2 hours before a workout and is a convenient on-the-go source of fuel. CLIF® BLOKS™ Energy Chews or CLIF® SHOT® Energy Gels are best used ~15 minutes before exercise or during a long workout to provide quick energy for working muscles.

Side Bar: 5 pre-workout snacks to power through activity (consume 1–2 hours before activity)

  1. 1 cup of cooked oatmeal with plant-based milk and dried fruit
  2. A mini-whole grain bagel with almond butter and a small apple
  3. Half of a 6-inch sub sandwich with turkey and a small glass of 100% fruit juice
  4. A CLIF BAR® Energy Bar or CLIF® Nut Butter Energy Bar with a glass of water
  5. A smoothie with fruit, juice or milk, and yogurt

Side Bar: 5 post-workout snacks to help support recovery

  1. A glass of water and a CLIF® BUILDER’S®
  2. A serving (or two if it was a tough workout) of CLIF® Recovery Protein Drink Mix
  3. A glass of vanilla soy milk or low-fat chocolate milk
  4. Trail mix with dried fruit, whole-grain cereal, and nuts
  5. Some cottage cheese and fruit

References

  • Burke L, Desbrow B, Spriet L. Caffeine for Sports Performance. 2013. Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL.
  • Coleman E. Carbohydrate and exercise. In Karpinski C and Rosenbloom C, eds. Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals, 6th ed. Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; 2017:21-38.
  • Murray B & Rosenbloom C. Fundamentals of glycogen metabolism for coaches and athletes. Nutrition Reviews. 2018; 76(4):243-259.
  • Murray B & Osterberg K. Fluid, electrolytes, and exercise. In Karpinski C and Rosenbloom C, eds. Sports Nutrition: A Handbook for Professionals, 6th ed. Chicago, IL: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; 2017:107-132.
  • Rosenbloom C. Sports nutrition myths that deserve to die but live on. Nutrition Today. 2017;52(2):57-61.
  • Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine. J Am Diet Assoc. 2016;116:501-528.