What to eat before working out for best results

What to eat before working out for best results

Should you eat before working out? And what’s the best pre-workout meal? Find out in my guide to fueling a morning workout session.

Should you workout before or after breakfast? 

Whether you should eat before working out is a highly debated topic. 

On one side of the argument, you’ve probably heard that your athletic performance will suffer if you don’t eat first. 

But on the other side of the argument, some say that you can burn more fat by working out on an empty stomach. 

So which is right? Unfortunately the answer is: it depends. 

Potential benefits of working out on an empty stomach 

For moderate-intensity cardio workouts lasting less than 1 hour, working out on an empty stomach has been shown to:

  • Increase fat burning (1, 2). 
  • Improve insulin sensitivity, which overtime could help reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes — just note this study only looked at effects in men, not women (2).

Now, one thing to keep in mind is that while increased fat burning sounds like you’ll be losing more weight, research doesn’t show that to necessarily be the case. 

The majority of the research has found that whether you eat before or after working out has no significant effect on whether you lose weight – despite fat burning going up (3, 4, 5, 6). 

So, if you’re trying to improve your insulin sensitivity, waiting until after exercise may be a good option. 

Not everyone can tolerate eating before working out

One other factor to consider is how eating before working out makes you feel. 

If you jump out of bed and head straight to the gym, without any time to digest beforehand, you may feel sick or even get side stitches from eating right before your 30 minute zumba class. 

If that’s the case, you’re likely better off waiting until after you workout to eat. 

However, if you’re jumping out of bed and planning on running or cycling for over an hour, then you may want to think about getting in some fuel before working out. Which brings us to the next section. 

Potential benefits of eating breakfast before working out in the morning

For weight lifting and cardio sessions lasting more than 1 hour, research is pretty consistent in saying that it’s best to eat before working out. 

Some of the benefits of eating before (or during) these types of workouts include (7): 

  • Improved endurance and cardio performance.
  • Reduced muscle damage. 
  • Increased strength and power. 

But what about workouts lasting less than 1 hour? Or even HIIT workouts?

Studies so far have shown no difference in performance between individuals who ate before or waited until after working out (8, 9 , 10). 

The bottom line 

So, should you eat before working out?

For moderate to intense cardio workouts lasting more than 1 hour, or weight lifting sessions, it’s recommended to get some fuel in either before or during your exercise session. 

However, for cardio exercise lasting less than 1 hour, it’s really up to you on whether to eat or not. 

In this case, to decide whether you should eat before working out, ask yourself:

  • Will eating before give you more energy, or do you feel light-headed if you don’t eat first? If yes, then eat.
  • Will eating before working out make you want to throw up? If yes, then for everyone involved, please wait until after your workout is through.

What to eat before a morning workout.

According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, for both endurance and resistance workouts, the best pre-workout meal is one that contains both protein and carb. 

  • Carbs help maximize your glycogen stores (the main source of energy for your muscles).
  • Protein aids muscle growth and repair while also improving overall strength and power. 

For low-intensity, longer-duration activities (such as a hike), a little fat is also helpful to help fuel your body for longer. 

So how much of each nutrient should you have? And which types of carbs and proteins are best? Those answers depend on the type of activity you’re doing. 

If working out within an hour after eating, keep your meal small and simple

Just one note on the size (and composition) of your breakfast: the less time you have between eating and exercising, the easier the meal should be to digest. 

For example, if you wake up and have 2 hours before your workout, then your meal should contain protein, a healthy fat, and complex carbs. Think peanut butter overnight oats or a whole wheat english muffin with avocado and an egg. 

However, if you only have 30 minutes before your workout, you’ll want to keep the fat lower and opt for something like a homemade energy bar or Greek yogurt with some fruit. 

What to eat before a strength-training workout: 

For strength training: Eat a balance of protein and carbs.

How much protein and carbs to consume will vary person to person, as well as how much time you have before your workout. 

In general, it’s recommended to consume 20-40 grams of both protein and carbs ideally 60-90 minutes before a strength-training session*. 

However, if you only have 15-20 minutes before your workout, you may want to eat a smaller meal consisting of 10-20 grams of both protein and carbs. 

Examples of meals to eat before a strength-training workout:

  • 1 small banana + 1 cup of cottage cheese or Greek yogurt (unsweetened)
  • 2 slices sourdough or whole grain toast + 1 egg + 3 egg whites (scrambled)
  • 1 cup cooked oatmeal + ¾ cup dairy or soy milk + ½ cup nuts
  • 1 serving protein powder + 1 cup oat milk + ⅓ cup berries 
  • High protein vanilla chia pudding 

And keep in mind that portion sizes will vary based on your personal nutrition needs. 

*Note: if you have a current kidney condition, please talk with your doctor or dietitian before increasing your protein intake. 

What to eat before a morning cardio session:

For cardio: Eat mostly carbs with a little protein.

Remember, if you’re doing a short bout of cardio, like a 30 minute run, it’s not essential to have something to eat. But if you feel better with something in your stomach, then keep reading. 

However, if you’re going on a long run, bike ride, hike, or swim session, then you’re going to want to ingest a high-carb meal ideally 90 minutes before your workout. 

The general rule of thumb for how many carbs to eat is 1 gram of carb per kg of body weight for every hour of cardio. 

So, if you weigh 150 pounds and are going for a 1 hour run, you’d want to eat around 68 grams of carbs  (150 lb / 2.2 = 68.2 kg = 68.2 grams of carbs/hour). 

And for protein, aim for a 5:1 carb to protein ratio. So, in this instance, if you’re eating 68 grams of carbs, that means you’ll want about 14 grams of protein. 

Just keep in mind that the closer to working out you eat, the easier your meal (or snack) should be to digest. This means keep the fiber and fat on the low end. 

If eating 60 to 90 minutes before a cardio workout, good food choices include:

  • 1 cup of oatmeal + sliced banana + slivered almonds or scoop of nut butter.
  • 1 ½ cups whole grain cereal + ½ cup milk or soy milk. 
  • 1 cup yogurt + ¼ cup granola + ½ cup fruit. 
  • 1 medium whole grain bagel + 1-2 tablespoons peanut butter + 2-3 teaspoons fruit preserves.
  • Smoothie with 1 scoop protein powder + milk or soy milk + ½ frozen banana + ½ cup berries or other fruit.

If eating less than 60 minutes before a cardio workout, good food choices include: 

  • 1 banana or handful of grapes. 
  • Homemade energy bar or 1-2 energy bites
  • Smaller smoothie made with almond or oat milk + ½ a banana + 1/4 berries.
  • 6-ounce container unsweetened or low-sugar yogurt.
  • 8-ounces chocolate dairy or soy milk. 

Keep in mind that portion sizes will vary based on your personal nutrition needs. 

Also, if you’re preparing for a race day, there are many more tips and tricks for optimizing your nutrition that go beyond the scope of this article. 

What to eat after a morning workout 

After a workout is arguably just as important. 

Here are some general guidelines regardless of whether you exercises on a full or empty stomach: 

  • Have protein and carbs ideally within 20-30 minutes after your workout, but at least within 1 hour. 
  • Re-hydrate! If you had a shorter workout session, water may be all you need. But for longer sessions, or if you sweat quite a bit, then you’ll also want to get some sodium and potassium in as well. 

After a workout session where you ate prior to working out:

  • Consume another 10-25 grams of protein, depending on how the duration and intensity of your workout, and your individual nutrition needs for the day.
  • Choose a protein source that’s quickly absorbed by your body, such as whey protein (either from milk or in supplement form), egg protein (whole eggs or as supplement), or a vegan protein blend. 
  • Complex carbs with fiber

Examples post-workout snacks include: 

  • Glass of chocolate dairy or soy milk. 
  • Greek yogurt with fruit and chia seeds or almonds.
  • Protein shake with fruit blended in or on the side. For extra electrolytes, you can add coconut water to your shake. 
  • Protein LARA Bar 
  • Banana with 1 tablespoon of natural almond butter.
  • Whole wheat toast with avocado and 1-2 eggs. 
  • ½ cup Kodiak Protein Pancake Mix, whisked with ½ cup water and 1 egg, then cooked and served with banana slices or strawberries. 

What to eat after working out on an empty stomach:

  • 20-40 grams of protein (depending on your nutrition needs).
  • Complex carb, like oatmeal or whole grain bread.
  • Healthy fats, like avocado, hummus, or natural nut butters.

Should you take supplements before or after a workout?

While it’s not necessary to take supplements, some find that using them helps with building muscle and strength or improves endurance. 

Before trying any supplements, always talk with your doctor or dietitian first to make sure that they won’t interfere with any medications you may be taking. 

Also, as supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, it’s important to do your research to find a reputable brand. 

Supplements that may benefit physical performance and muscle building include: 

  • Creatinine: Creatine supplements are generally most effective when taken after a workout to help build muscle size and strength (11, 12).
  • Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs): Taking BCAAs (valine, leucine and isoleucine) prior to exercise may help reduce muscle damage and promote the growth of muscle. However, if you’re already getting adequate protein in each day, you may not notice much of an effect (13, 14). 
  • Caffeine: Consuming caffeine prior to exercise has been shown to improve muscle strength and power. It’s also been linked with improved performance in endurance athletes. While most studies suggest it’s peak effect kicks in around 90 minutes after ingesting caffeine, there’s also evidence to suggest it could kick in as soon as 15 minutes (15, 16, 17).

More nutrition articles to check out 

Want more info on the benefits of eating breakfast? Check out my nutrition page for more nutrition guides! 

If you found this content helpful, be sure to leave a comment and follow along on Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook for even more dietitian-approved breakfast tips and recipes! 

Disclaimer: This information is meant simply for educational purposes and should not be mistaken for personalized nutrition advice. It’s always important to talk with your doctor or dietitian before making any changes to your diet.

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About Kelli McGrane Headshot

I’m Kelli MS, RD, and my mission is to prove that eating healthier doesn’t have to be complicated or restrictive. Follow along to learn more about food and cooking, with an emphasis on breakfast and sweet treats!

About Kelli McGrane Headshot

Welcome to The Healthy Toast!

Here you’ll find healthy breakfast recipes designed by a registered dietitian with your health goals in mind.

As a dietitian I understand that a healthy breakfast is essential for giving you the fuel you need to power through your day. Which is why on TheHealthyToast, you’ll find nutrition guides plus the best healthy breakfast recipes for every diet and lifestyle.

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