Figuring out what a good pre-workout snack is can be both tricky and overwhelming.
Will carbs improve performance? Will not eating improve fat loss? Should you eat before a workout session or run?
The pre-workout snack or pre-workout meal has become a source of confusion for many fitness enthusiasts and runners, so today we’re going to clear things up and give you some ideas for what to eat and when!
This complete guide is designed to empower you with the knowledge and skills to find what works for you and your body. So read on to learn everything you need to know for the perfect pre-workout snack.
Two Most Important Factors When Picking a Pre Workout Snack
I’ve had years of experience not only as a runner, but also as a running coach and lover of all things fitness, nutrition, and personal growth. I’m so lucky to have worked with many sports dietitians and yet two very basic principles remain around all the info.
- Look at the quality and timing of your food alongside the goal of the run
- You have to experiment to find out what works for you
In other words, there is no perfect answer, but it’s a combination of these two factors that together work to help you find the right pre workout snacks that you can have without worrying about any adverse effects.
So let’s first consider timing and why it matters, and then we’ll look at how you can experiment to find what snack works for you.
Pre-Workout Snack Timing (Timing is Everything!)
Finding a balance between the right timing is one of the most important factors when picking the right pre workout snack.
This means that you could very well have found the right snack to have before a workout or run, but if your timing is off then it can cause a host of issues. (i.e. my husband running after work having not eaten since 10AM…. technically he ate, but not in the right window to prevent getting light headed!)
Let’s start with the reported reasons not to eat within 2 hours of exercise:
- Blood is diverted from digestion to the legs, a full stomach can lead to cramps
- Eating the wrong foods can lead to runner’s trots as the stomach is shaken with each footfall
- Simple sugars can spike blood sugar leading to a crash mid-workout
- Allowing the body to use stored fat and carbohydrates for fuel
Rebutted with the BETTER reasons to eat before a run:
- Sustained energy for a better workout
- Enhanced workout recovery
- Increased performance
- It’s been many hours since your last meal and you’re hungry
- Increases food calories burned so less are stored as fat
Both seem to make great points, so what should you do?
Finding the right balance between the quality and timing of your food alongside the goal of your workout or run is the key.
What to Consider If You’re Not Seeing the Right Results
You could be a runner, a cyclist, a triathlete, a gym junkie, or a yogi – nothing changes apart from the fact that you have to find the right balance.
This means if you’ve been heading out for runs (or a workout) on an empty stomach to lose body fat, not seeing results and not seeing progress then it’s time to realize that method isn’t working!
In the same way, if you’ve been loading up prior to every long run, bonking mid-way through, or having digestive issues…again stop torturing yourself by trying to follow a rule and test out other options.
I’ve written this guide to empower you with the knowledge to make the right decision for your body and your workout style so you know exactly what pre-workout snack to have and when.
Why Pre Workout Snacks Are Important for Runners and Athletes
Before I dive into the best pre-workout snack options, it’s important to understand why pre-workout nutrition matters. When we exercise, our muscles require energy to perform their best.
This energy comes from the food we eat, specifically the macronutrients, i.e., the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats we consume. Without this fuel, our performance and endurance will suffer.
Consuming the right nutrients (a combination of these three macros) before a workout can help prevent fatigue, reduce muscle damage, and improve recovery time.
These are the three nutrients we talk about over and over because they are the easiest to grasp and generally easiest to control for the effects we want: carbs, fats, and proteins.
I’ve written in-depth about these in my guide to nutrition for runners, but let’s break it down here to grasp the gist of it.
A good pre-workout meal or snack needs to cover all your bases, don’t think you just need a high carb snack ( I mean I love a cookie, but it’s not really what’s going to help you cover 10 miles).
Because you may not love my specific suggestions, let’s go through what you need to know to build your own idea meal before a run.
A key nutrient for runners is the beloved carb! While our daily diet should include largely complex carbs in the form of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (if they work for you) those aren’t always the best choice prior to a workout due to the high fiber content.
This doesn’t mean you can hop on the junk food wagon because that will lead to inflammation.
“What complex carbohydrates make up for in sustained energy release, they lose in digestibility and efficient transfer from food to energy. I suggest consuming an easily digestible form of carbohydrate before each workout as a means of raising blood sugar.” Thrive Fitness by Brendan Brazier
Below you’ll find examples of pre-workout snacks and meals, which will help to provide ideas on when to stick with simple carbohydrates or go for complex ones.
Protein can help to slow the rate at which carbohydrates are released into the bloodstream, providing a long-term source of energy. This sustained energy source means that less fueling will be required during the run.
Protein is also what our bodies need for building, repairing, and maintaining cells, tissues, and organs.
Many runners can go up to 2 hours without additional fuel during low-intensity (long slow runs) because the body is focused on utilizing fat rather than carbohydrates for fuel.
Additionally, there is some research showing that the pre-workout protein intake could reduce muscle soreness later by providing immediate access to protein for recovery.
3. Healthy Fats
During low to medium-intensity exercise – hello distance running – the body will first generate energy from available fat sources. Including more quality fat in the diet is a key component of the primal diet and vegan diet. Both show that with fat as fuel, runners tend to crave less junk and can go for hours without needing to refuel.
Why You Should Have a Pre-Workout Snack
Early morning or late afternoon where you aren’t in need of pre-workout meals, but feel a little bit hungry it’s important to grab some fuel so that you don’t find yourself mid-way through the run starving and thus ready to quit.
It can also help to stabilize blood sugar if it’s been a long time since your last meal (i.e. overnight) and give you that boost of energy that is needed.
As I mentioned above, timing is important!
How Long to Wait After Eating to Run or Workout?
You want to provide enough time for any major digestion and the energy to be absorbed by the body:
- 30 minutes for small snacks
- 3 hours for small meals
- 4 hours+ for larger meals
Download a quick reference guide of ideas for What to Eat Before a Run!
Best Pre Workout Snacks According to Workout Duration and Intensity
Your body requires different levels of energy in the form of glucose when doing a short, low-intensity workout compared to a longer or high-intensity workout.
To understand this better let’s go back to carbohydrates. They are your body’s primary source of fuel which is then broken down into glycogen which is stored in your muscles, liver, and bloodstream to be used as a source of energy when you work out.
When you go out for a run or do a workout, these glycogen reserves are converted into energy, and this contracts the working muscles.
Depending on the intensity and length of your workout, you’ll need a different portion and type of pre-workout snack to sustain your body through it.
And so, understandably, you’ll need more glycogen the more time and effort you put into your workout or run. After a 90 to 120 minute run or workout, your glycogen stores would have drained and will need to be replenished.
For this reason, here are some quick and easy pre-workout snack ideas for short (and low-intensity sessions) vs for longer (and more high-intensity) sessions:
1. Pre-Workout Snack Ideas – Under 90 Minutes (For Low-Intensity Sessions)
- A couple of dates with 1 tbsp coconut oil (see below)
- ½ a banana with 1 tbsp almond butter
- 1 small container of yogurt (limited sugar)
- A handful of trail mix (nuts, raisins, pretzels – not chocolate)
- Avocado on toast
- Kind bar (good low-sugar bar option)
- Rice cake with nut butter
- Mixed fruit with a few nuts
- Low-fiber cereal (hence my cheerios)
- Protein pancakes
2. Pre Workout Meal Ideas for Longer Runs – Over 90 Minutes (or High Intensity Sessions)
All of the above foods are still great options, but you may want a little more fuel to keep you going on runs over 13+ miles or 90 minutes.
- Bowl of oatmeal with 1 tsp nut butter, fruit
- 2 slices of bread (sourdough is great for those with stomach issues), 2 tbsp nut butter, 1 tbsp honey
- Bowl of brown rice with some eggs
- Boiled potatoes with eggs
- Greek yogurt with maple syrup and granola
- Half a turkey sandwich with avocado
How Can I Boost My Energy Pre Workout? Top Pre-Workout Foods
Instead of always reaching for an energy drink, let’s just start fueling our body with the right foods! I’ve given you a ton of ideas above, but let’s breakdown a few of the best foods for that energy boost.
The most common runner breakfast you will find is a slice of bread with nut butter and sliced banana. This is when you might opt for sourdough or white bread over whole-grain toast, to avoid any fiber issues on the run.
Whether we stumbled upon it by pure chance or through science, the fact is that it works.
- Filled with potassium, manganese, and carbohydrates the banana is great for energy and warding off muscle cramps.
- Additionally banana has been shown to help settle an upset stomach! But if you don’t love bananas, throw on some berries.
- Combining it with peanut butter slows the carbohydrate absorption and creates a steady blood sugar flow for longer energy.
You might have noticed a few foods on repeat above and there’s a reason! Let’s talk about some of these common food ideas.
Are Dates a Good Pre Workout Snack?
Dates have what is often considered an ideal ratio of carbohydrate to protein of 3:1 which will provide sustained energy.
Many runners like to slice open a date and put in a little nut butter (or coconut oil) before longer runs. This is a great option for runners avoiding grains and for those who bring whole foods along for fuel during the run.
Dates are actually a top export of Israel, so I had some of the largest ones I’ve ever seen as my snack prior to the Jerusalem Half marathon!
Are Nuts a Good Pre Workout Snack?
A perfect blend of carbs, protein and fat nuts can provide sustained energy for longer workouts.
A common complaint among distance runners is feeling hungry after a few hours of training and nuts are a great option pre and during the run to provide a little satiating fat and fuel without needing to eat a lot.
Here are some great ideas that incorporate both dates and nuts >> 21 Energy Ball Recipes
- Personally, it’s not unusual for me to have some Cheerios and a spoonful of sunflower butter before any run over45 minutes.
- Slather it on toast
- Enjoy a Perfect Bar or homemade energy bar
- Enjoy a handful of trail mix (just watch your sugars so you don’t have a big crash)
Pre-Workout Snack Mistakes to Avoid
While pre-workout snacks can significantly enhance your performance, there are some common mistakes to avoid:
Overeating Before Your Workout
Eating too much before exercise can leave you feeling sluggish and bloated. It’s important to remember that your body needs time to digest food before it can use it for energy. Aim for a moderate-sized snack that provides the right balance of macronutrients for optimal energy and performance.
Some great pre-workout snack options include:
- A banana with a tablespoon of peanut butter
- A small smoothie made with Greek yogurt, berries, and spinach
- A handful of almonds and an apple
Consuming Too Much Fat or Fiber
While healthy fats and fiber are essential for overall health and wellness, consuming too much of them before exercise can slow down digestion and leave you feeling uncomfortable. Stick to moderate amounts of these nutrients in your pre-workout snack.
Some pre-workout snacks that are low in fat and fiber include:
- A rice cake with a tablespoon of hummus
- A hard-boiled egg and a slice of whole grain toast
- A small apple with a slice of low-fat cheese
Consuming Too Much Sugar or Caffeine
While sugar and caffeine can provide an energy boost, consuming too much can lead to crashes later on.
It’s important to opt for snacks that contain natural sources of sugar like fruit and avoid caffeine-heavy snacks like energy drinks. These can cause jitters and anxiety, which can negatively impact your workout.
Some great snack options include a fruit smoothie with Greek yogurt, a small bowl of oatmeal with berries, or a whole grain English muffin with almond butter and banana slices.
Skipping Pre-Workout Nutrition Altogether
Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make is skipping pre-workout nutrition altogether. Without the right fuel, your performance will suffer, and you may be more prone to injury and fatigue.
It’s important to fuel your body with the right nutrients before exercise to ensure that you have enough energy to power through your workout. Some key nutrients to include in your pre-workout snack include:
- Carbohydrates for energy
- Protein for muscle repair and recovery
- Fluids to stay hydrated
Some pre-workout snacks that include these key nutrients include:
- A small bowl of oatmeal with a tablespoon of honey and a sliced banana
- A protein shake made with whey protein powder, almond milk, and frozen berries
- A small turkey and cheese wrap with a side of sliced veggies
Remember, the key to a successful workout is fueling your body with the right nutrients. Avoid these common pre-workout snack mistakes, and you’ll be well on your way to achieving your fitness goals.
Bonus Tip: Consider Using a Drink as a Pre Workout Snack
Who said a pre-workout snack can’t be a drink? One of the reasons I do this drink is to intentionally HYDRATE!
This is a great, two-in-one combination that covers both nutrition AND hydration making it a pre-workout powerhouse!
I know that after sleeping I’m dehydrated and I’m about to sweat buckets, so this helps me load up and then I’m less worried about how much I drink on the run…so I don’t have that sloshy stomach feeling.
Since no matter how much info I provide you ultimately always ask “but what do you eat?!”, so here’s one of my favorite pre-workout protein shake recipes:
On occasion, I will use a little bit of a pre-workout energy drink in this mix as well.
I try not to use a lot of stimulants in training because I want to be aware of how hard I’m pushing and not go too hard all the time, thus creating injuries or overtraining.
As my long runs increase to 13+ miles I will also have a little nut butter and part of a banana pre-run.
If you’re someone who would rather have a shake or smoothie than a meal, here’s another tasty idea.
Create your own with an energizing powder, protein, and healthy fats.
Here is a chocolate smoothie specifically recommended in Thrive Fitness from the founder of Vega for before long runs or races:
- 1 cup yerba mate tea (brew night before)
- 1 cup green tea (brew night before)
- 3 large Medjool dates
- 1 tbsp coconut oil
- 1 tbsp hemp protein
- 1 tbsp ground chia
- 1 tbsp spouted buckwheat grouts
- 1/2 lemon
- 1 tbsp raw carob
What Not to Eat Pre Workout?
Since I’m convincing you how important it is to eat, let’s talk about a few foods you want to shy away from pre-run or pre-sweat session and why:
- Dairy: Sorry, but your chocolate milk is better for recovery! This is because it often causes stomach issues
- Fried foods: Unfortunately, as tasty as they can be, they can simply make you feel sluggish as you try to digest them with less blood flow to the stomach.
- Large, heavy meals: Again, the body needs blood to digest and now it’s being diverted to the legs.
- Sugary cereals: You’ll get that blood sugar drop and it feels like a bonk. Instead, try Cheerios or Chex adding some fruit for sugar that has a bunch of nutrients as well.
Remember that your stomach is also a muscle, so you need to train it just like you do your legs. Start by eating small amounts of easy to digest foods prior to your runs and slowly increase what you can take in to help really fuel those long runs.
Now that you’re empowered with the knowledge to have the right pre-workout food, head on to learn about some pre-workout supplements that can change your workout game!
Looking for more Sports Nutrition tips:
- Best Meal Night Before a Long Run
- Best Race Day Breakfast
- 17 High Protein Post Workout Smoothies
- Do Pre-Workout Drinks Work?
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