Pre-workout nutrition is one of those areas where people love to lose themselves in the minutiae. They obsess over what to eat, when to eat it, and how much of it to eat. Instead of just getting into the gym or out into the world and getting active and lifting something heavy, they read blogs and watch videos for weeks, searching for the one pre-workout meal to rule them all. They end up avoiding the gym altogether because they can’t figure out the “perfect” pre-workout meal, or whether they should eat something at all.
Even when you figure out what to eat before a workout, you can go too far. You know the type of guy. This is the guy who travels with a suitcase full of powders, pills, and packaged foods. He’s so wedded to the pre-workout ritual that he can’t skip a day—even on vacation. If he doesn’t get his 40.5 grams of waxy maize, 30.2 grams of whey isolate, and preworkout blend of superfoods he can’t operate in the gym. He crumbles without the perfect, most optimal pre-workout nutrition.
Don’t be like this. Let me tell you what to do so you can stop stressing about what to eat before a workout. Let’s simplify things.
General Rules for Pre Workout Meals
What you eat will depend on what kind of workout you’re doing, what your goals are, and what kind of diet you’re already following, but there are general rules that apply to everyone.
Keep things light. No heavy meals. If you eat too large a meal, you may have trouble digesting it, or some of the energy that’d otherwise go to your muscles will be diverted to your gut.
Eat foods you know you can easily digest. No surprises.
Salt your meals. Sodium is an enormous boon to exercise performance, particularly if you’r on the lower-carb side of things.
Powders are fine. While whole foods are usually ideal, for quick pre-workout nutrition, protein and carbohydrate powders can be very helpful and beneficial.
Include 15-20 g collagen and 50-100 mg vitamin C. This a great way to improve connective tissue health when taken pre-workout.
Protein and carbs are more important, dietary fat less important pre-workout. If all goes well you’ll be eating the fat on your body.
Oh, and you don’t have to eat anything. You can fast (it’s what I typically do). It’s just that this article is intended to help people who are interested in pre workout nutrition..
What to Eat Before High Intensity Interval Workouts
Since running, cycling, and rowing sprints and intervals burn through a ton of glycogen, most conventional sources recommend ample carbohydrates before the workout—around 4 grams per kilo of bodyweight in the hours leading up to the session. These aren’t “wrong.” If you’re a serious high intensity athlete training to compete or perform at very high levels, you should eat a good amount of carbs before your training sessions. That will maximize force output and optimize subsequent training adaptations. And besides, you’re burning through your muscle glycogen, boosting insulin sensitivity and opening up a ton of space for dietary carbohydrate to be partitioned.
If you train hard and intensely enough, you can even eat a big carb-rich pre workout meal and still reach ketosis after a session.
Unless you’re going for a specific goal and absolutely must avoid all carbohydrates, I’d recommend that everyone who wants to eat a meal before a HIIT session have 15-30 grams of fast-digesting carbs along with 30 grams of protein, half of which is collagen, 45 minutes before a workout. If you want to go a bit higher carb, get 40-60 grams two hours before in addition to the 15-30 45 minutes before.
Again: you don’t have to eat before sprints or HIIT. But if you do eat, this is what I recommend.
What to Eat Before Low Level Aerobic Workouts
The kind of low level aerobic training I recommend in Primal Endurance—where your heart rate never exceeds 180 minus your age, where you can breathe through your nose and hold an easy conversation, where it feels easy enough to maintain for well over an hour if you had to—doesn’t require much pre-workout nutrition.
If you’re metabolically-flexible or fat-adapted, I recommend fasting before these workouts to really boost fat burning and mitochondrial biogenesis. No need for food at all.
If you’re more carbohydrate-dependent, you can still probably get away with fasting, but you can also eat 15-20 grams of easily digested carbohydrates and 20 grams of protein. That could be a scoop of whey isolate protein powder, some collagen peptides, and a small potato or an apple. It could be a few eggs with a banana.
What to Eat Before Strength Training Workouts
As lifting can be a very glycogen-intensive activity, you can treat this similarly to HIIT or sprints only with a stronger focus on protein. If you’re going to eat before a lifting session, aim for 30-40 grams of protein (half from collagen), either from whey isolate or actual food plus collagen. Eat 15-30 grams of easily digestible carbohydrates, like bananas, rice, potatoes, dates, or other fruits. You could even sip on some coconut water.
Specific Foods That May Be Helpful Before a Workout
There are specific foods with uniquely ergogenic effects. that you should consider including in your pre-workout meals.
Beetroot: Improves endothelial function, increases the “pump,” boosts blood flow. Higher carb.
Pomegranates: A pomegranate extract has been shown to improve blood flow and increase blood vessel diameter when taken 30 minutes prior to a workout. Higher carb, particularly if you eat the seeds or sip on the juice.
Coffee: Provides caffeine, which has been shown to improve exercise performance. Zero calorie (unless you add milk and sugar).
Coconut water with extra salt and blackstrap molasses: This is my go-to “electrolyte energy drink,” providing potassium, carbohydrates, sodium, and magnesium. It’s a good way to add some digestible carbs to your pre workout meal along with excellent hydration.
What I Eat Before Workouts
I usually fast before workouts. It just works for me.
In fact, except for very rare occasions, either I go into the workout fasted or take 20 grams of collagen beforehand. Since collagen doesn’t directly contribute to muscle protein synthesis or affect mTOR or autophagy or fat-burning, I consider these to be fairly equivalent. The only thing that changes between fasted training and pre-training collagen is the collagen plus 50-100 mg vitamin C helps me fortify my connective tissue.
Anything resembling lower level “cardio,” like walking, hiking, standup paddling, and bike rides are all done totally fasted.
Before heavy lifting or sprints sessions, I’ll drink 20 grams of collagen peptides with some vitamin C. This isn’t to “fuel” me. The collagen provides the raw material my connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, cartilage) needs to adapt to the training stress and the vitamin C helps that collagen go where it’s supposed to—the connective tissue. This drink doesn’t contain many calories, nor does it provoke a huge insulin response that derails the fasting benefits. I’m technically breaking the fast because I’m consuming calories, but I’m retaining most of the benefits.
I favor collagen on heavier or more intense days because at my age, I’m most interested in maintaining the integrity of my joints. Having intact and durable ligaments, tendons, and cartilage is what allows me to play and stay active as I age. It’s not the big muscles, which are easy to maintain once you’ve got them. It’s the connective tissue.
If you’re trying to decide whether you should eat or not before a workout, I’ve explained the potential benefits of fasted workouts before. To summarize, fasted workouts can:
Enhance insulin sensitivity
Increase a biomarker known to correlate with muscle hypertrophy
Improve lean mass retention in endurance athletes
Improve capacity to perform without calories
Help you burn more fat and potentially lose more inches off your waist
Keep in mind that fasted training isn’t optimal if your primary concern is gaining mass. It’s great for lean mass maintenance, fat burning, and even gaining strength and muscle provided you eat enough calories when you do eat, but for pure muscle hypertrophy and weight gain and absolute performance you’re better off eating.
It’s probably smart to try both pre-workout meals and pre-workout fasting to see what works best for you.
However there’s nothing wrong with eating actual meals or taking in protein/carb supplements before a workout, nor is there anything wrong with fasting. All that matters is what works for you—what helps you stay consistent with training, what gets you the best results, what makes training the most enjoyable.
Use this article as a guide, but don’t let it decide for you. What do you eat before your workouts?
About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.