The 12 Best Pre-Workout Meals To Fuel Your Burn

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It can be surprisingly difficult to find the best pre-workout meal to fuel your workout.

If you eat too much, you will feel bloated, gassy, heavy, nauseous, and sluggish.

If you don’t eat enough, or you eat the wrong foods so that you burn through your pre-workout meal too quickly, you will have low energy, won’t be able to lift as much, and hunger pangs may distract you from being able to focus on getting a good workout.

Therefore, finding the sweet spot of the best pre-workout meals and snacks can be challenging; you need to be energized and satiated without feeling overfull or like you have to run to the bathroom because whatever you ate before your workout didn’t settle well.

In this article, we have put together some ideas for the best pre-workout meals and snacks to fuel your muscle gains and cardio exercise.

We will cover: 

  • What Should You Eat Before Working Out?
  • The 12 Best Pre-Workout Meals To Fuel Your Burn

Let’s dive in! 

Greek yogurt with fruit.

What Should You Eat Before Working Out?

The best foods to eat before working out, or the ideal composition of your pre-workout meal or snack, depends on several factors, including the following:

The Type of Exercise You’re Going to Do

The type of exercise you plan to do certainly affects what constitutes the best pre-workout snack or meal.

If you are going to be doing vigorous cardio exercise that involves a lot of jostling of your stomach, such as running, jumping rope, or plyometrics, you will have to be more careful about the volume of food that you eat compared to a weightlifting workout.

In general, you don’t want to feel weighed down or “stuffed” when you lift weights or work out, so the best pre-workout snacks are energy dense but not bulky.

Although on a day-to-day basis, voluminous foods like vegetables are great choices because they are healthy, filling, and not calorically dense, these foods are not ideal as starring players in your pre-workout meal because they will make your stomach feel really full and bloated.

Opt for lower-fiber, lower-water foods like porridge, bananas, energy bars, egg salad sandwiches, etc.

Protein bars.

The Intensity and Duration Of Your Workout

The intensity and duration of your planned workout have a significant impact on the number of calories and type of macronutrients you need in your pre-workout meal or snack because the body relies on different fuel sources as these factors of your workout change.

If you are going to be doing high-intensity, explosive strength training, you will want to have carbohydrates to fuel rapid energy generation for strong muscle contractions as well as protein to keep you satiated and supply your muscles with amino acids to start repairing damage as soon as possible. 

If you are going to be doing a long endurance workout, your pre-workout meal should be almost entirely carbohydrates to top off glycogen stores, and you may need more calories to fuel a long workout.

How Long It Will Be Until You Work Out

The less time you have between your pre-workout meal or snack and your workout, the lighter you will want to keep the pre-workout snack to prevent digestive distress.

This typically means not only eating fewer calories and a smaller volume of food but limiting nutrients that slow digestion, such as fat and fiber.

Cottage cheese and berries, a pre-workout meal.

The Timing Of Your Workout in the Context Of Your Overall Diet

If you are working out first thing in the morning after an overnight fast, you might need a little bit more of a substantial pre-workout snack than if you were doing the same workout later in the day after consuming a nutritious breakfast and lunch.

Your Weight Goals

If you are trying to lose weight, you will have to be more mindful of the calorie content of your pre-workout snack, whereas if you are trying to gain weight, a pre-workout meal can be a great place to add extra calories.

Overall, the best pre-workout meals and snacks are typically relatively high in carbohydrates and contain some proteins, with a lesser relative contribution of the calories coming from fat. 

However, dietary fat increases satiety, and fat supplies the majority of the energy for low-intensity exercise, so it is certainly not inadvisable to have low-fat pre-workout snacks across the board; again, it’s important to consider the various factors of your workout and diet overall when deciding what the best pre-workout meal will be.

The 12 Best Pre-Workout Meals To Fuel Your Burn

Here are some of the best pre-workout meals to fuel your strength training workouts:

Oatmeal and berries.

#1: Oatmeal or Porridge 

Oatmeal is filling, easily digestible, and provides sustained energy with plenty of complex carbohydrates.

You can use pre-made packets (opt for low-sugar varieties), or you can make your own from quick oats, rolled oats, or steel-cut oats.

You can add fruit, nuts, seeds, plant-based milks, brown sugar, honey, coconut, and more, depending on your preferences and caloric needs.

#2: Cream of Wheat

Cream of wheat, grits, or congee can also be a good pre-workout breakfast if you’re not a fan of oatmeal. These high-carb porridges are blank canvases for adding additional flavor, and they tend to digest easily.

Egg salad.

#3: Egg Salad Sandwich

Eggs can make a good pre-workout meal, particularly if you are going to be lifting weights. 

Pairing eggs with a source of healthy carbohydrates is ideal to ensure that you will have a ready source of energy for high-intensity exercise.

An egg salad sandwich or hard-boiled eggs with crackers or fruit is a great option for a lighter pre-workout meal.

You can also have scrambled eggs or fried eggs with toast in the morning as a filling pre-workout breakfast before heading to the gym.

#4: Greek Yogurt and Fruit

Greek yogurt with fruit and/or seeds and nuts is a well-balanced, healthy pre-workout breakfast or lunch. You can add nut butter or granola if you need to increase your caloric intake.

Hummus and pita.

#5: Turkey and Cheese Wrap or Roll-Up

If you are working out later in the day, a turkey sandwich or wrap can be a great pre-workout lunch or dinner.

You can add cheese, lettuce, spinach, or other veggies.

#6: Tuna Fish on Crackers or Bread

Tuna fish is high in protein and relatively filling, so it makes a good pre-workout snack that won’t leave you feeling bloated.

You could have it on whole-grain crackers or bread or straight from the can if you’re on a low-carb diet.

#7: Hummus and Pita

If you are vegan or on a plant-based diet, hummus makes an excellent pre-workout meal.

Chickpeas, which are the base of hummus, are high in complex carbohydrates and contain some protein, so they are an ideal food to eat before working out as long as you aren’t super sensitive to fiber.

You can make a hummus sandwich or wrap, or enjoy it on a whole-grain pita or crackers, or if you are following a low-carb diet, you can dip veggies like cucumbers, carrot sticks, and celery into hummus.

Nut butters.

#8: Fruit and Nut Butter

For a lighter pre-workout snack, you can have fruit with nut butter, such as an apple with almond butter or a banana with peanut butter.

To turn it into more of a pre-workout meal, turn it into a sandwich or spread the nut butter on whole-grain toast before slicing the fruit on top.

#9: Smoothies or Protein Shakes

A pre-workout protein shake or smoothie is a great way to get plenty of protein, along with carbohydrates and healthy fats, depending on what sorts of ingredients you use. 

A basic protein shake can just include your favorite protein powder and milk, but it’s a good idea to increase the carbohydrate content by adding fruit, such as bananas and berries.

You can also add vegetables like cauliflower and spinach without changing the flavor profile too much.

Nut butters will add healthy fats to keep you full and energized for your entire workout.

Cereal.

#10: Cereal

Whole-grain breakfast cereal, such as muesli, Chex, or any relatively low-sugar option, can be one of the best pre-workout breakfasts for people with sensitive stomachs. 

Add plant-based milk if you are sensitive to dairy. Sliced bananas, blueberries, peaches, or other berries make a good topping. Adding nuts or nut butter will help keep you fuller for longer.

#11: Energy Bars or Protein Bars

Some people do best with low-sugar, natural granola bars or energy bars like 88 Acres bars or Bobo’s Oat Bars, or some type of well-balanced protein bar before exercise.

These types of bars are often designed for athletes, so they have the nutrients you need in a convenient package. Energy bars often digest easily and provide both quick and sustained energy.

#12: Cottage Cheese

Like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese is packed with protein. You can add berries or other fruits, nuts, seeds, and coconut to make a more filling, balanced pre-workout meal.

What do you like to eat before your workouts?

If your favorite go-to is a protein shake, check out our best protein shake recipes for when you whip up your next pre-workout meal.

A person enjoying a protein shake.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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