Do I Have to Eat Before a Workout? How to Approach Your Pre-Workout Nutrition

This guide will cover how to eat before a workout while providing clear and practical advice to maximize your results and overall experience in and out of the gym. We’ll touch on the most critical aspects of pre-workout nutrition while dispelling some common myths.

“Do I have to eat before a workout?” This is a question I’ve received countless times over my last ten years as a health and fitness coach.

Here’s the short answer: It’s likely important because the nutrition surrounding your workout — before, during, or after — can be essential to making the most of how you feel, perform, and recover from training. But how essential is it? Does it change if you work out early in the morning? What about during your lunch break or late at night?

This guide will cover how to eat before a workout while providing clear and practical advice to maximize your results and overall experience in and out of the gym. We’ll touch on the most critical aspects of pre-workout nutrition while dispelling some common myths. Let’s get into it.

Understanding Protein and Total Calorie Needs

I know overall protein and calorie intake may not seem directly related to pre-workout nutrition, but it is. Let me quickly explain.

Generally speaking, as long as you’re consuming a sufficient amount of protein and calories across the day, you are likely in a good enough position to build muscle and strength. This, of course, is assuming that you’re also training hard enough to facilitate these adaptations, but that’s a more nuanced subject for another day.

Cropped image of a bodybuilder making himself a protein shake.

Because consuming a sufficient amount of protein and calories across the day seems to be sufficient for taking care of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and muscle glycogen replenishment for the average gym-goer, how you choose to approach your pre-workout nutrition can largely come down to preference. This may come off as vague and unhelpful at first, but once you give it some thought, it actually creates a lot of freedom in how you choose to approach your nutrition.

But first, let’s be sure you’re getting an adequate amount of total calories and protein each day.

Protein Intake

When it comes to protein intake, the current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8g protein/kg/day. This would be around 80g per day for someone who weighs 100kg (220lbs). This number is often disputed for not being enough but has been found to be adequate for meeting the minimum needs of healthy, non-exercising adults.

It’s clear that more protein is required daily for adults looking to optimize strength training adaptations. The current suggested amounts for protein intake for exercising adults is between 1.6-2.7g protein/kg/day1. This would be around 160g to 270g per day for someone who weighs 100kg (220lbs). And if you’re a healthy, active adult, there’s nothing showing that more protein per day has any negative impacts on overall health. Many of my clients are closer to 2.5g protein/kg/day, but I have had over 3g protein/kg/day to help with satiety (staying more full), while calories may be low during a dieting phase.

Now, if you’re someone who can’t get quite that much each day, don’t stress. You should be able to see similar progress with around 1.2-1.6g/kg/day. This would be around 120g to 160g per day for someone who weighs 100kg (220lbs). The caveat here is you would want to pay more attention to ensuring this intake includes protein coming from high-quality sources. Many of my more plant-based clients usually fall on this side of the range, and they continue to make great progress in the gym.

Total Calorie Intake

Calorie needs seem to vary widely across individuals. Understanding how to tailor your calorie needs depending on your goals of building muscle and losing weight or body fat starts with first understanding how many calories you need to consume to maintain your current body weight, also known as your caloric maintenance.

Determining maintenance calories is typically done by using a calculator to find your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), linked here.

If you’re not sure how many calories you’re currently consuming, I would advise you to track for a 1-2 week period using a free digital tracking app like cronometer or myfitnesspal. It’s not something you need to do forever, but it will help you gauge how many calories you currently consume, helping you more accurately understand how it impacts your overall training performance and recovery. This leads us to our main topic, pre-workout nutrition.

An Introduction to Pre-Workout Nutrition

This topic revolves around the more general term nutrient timing, which looks at the “purposeful ingestion of all types of nutrients at various times throughout the day to impact the adaptive response to acute and chronic exercise.”2 Put more simply, it looks at the overall benefits of the number, timing, and macronutrient — protein, carbohydrates, and fat — composition of meals consumed in proximity to training and how it impacts your workout performance.

Cropped view of a man standing behind his perfectly structured daily food intake.

What you choose to eat before a workout can be highly specific to what you find to be most helpful for you. That said, there are some general guidelines that can be helpful to follow. These guidelines are generally based on your goals with training and what part of the day you’re planning on training.

When You Train Will Impact What You Eat Before Workouts

In my experience, there are three main times people train throughout the day.

  1. Early morning before work
  2. During their lunch break
  3. After work or in the evening

Each time slot comes with its own unique upsides and challenges when it comes down to fueling properly for your training session.

How to Eat Before Early Morning Workouts

Eating before early morning workouts can be tricky, especially if you’re training before you have time to eat and digest a typical breakfast. I like training first thing in the morning. It helps wake me up and seems to energize me for the day ahead. It also helps get the training session completed, helping me not worry about it the rest of the day. I have many clients who share this viewpoint and would like to do the same. If you’re like me, you may not be hungry when you first wake up. Everyone is different, but I would say this is fairly common.

A “grab-and-go” breakfast is usually my recommendation for most. You want something with protein and some carbohydrates that is also light on your stomach and doesn’t involve much prep time. Here are some options I would recommend:

  • Greek Yogurt with fruit and granola.
  • Protein shake with fruit or a rice cake.
  • Toast with peanut butter, honey, and banana (you can add a protein shake here as well).

As you can see, I suggest things that are quick to consume and don’t feel heavy on your stomach. Eating something will also help manage your blood sugar during your lift, allowing you to train hard without feeling nauseous or too exhausted.

How to Eat Before Afternoon or Evening Workouts

Eating before afternoon or evening workouts is usually easier for people. Many prefer to train later in the day because they have had the opportunity to eat more calories across the day. Again, as I mentioned before, it largely comes down to preference and time constraints.

I suggest you consume a meal 1-3 hours before you plan on lifting. This gives you enough time to digest the meal before you train, helping you feel energized for the lift and not too full. The bigger the meal, the further away from the lift it should be. The smaller the meal, the closer it should realistically be to your lift. There aren’t “perfect” times, so find what works best for you and your schedule.

If you train in the evenings after you get off work, you may not have enough time to consume a meal before you train. And you’re likely too far past your lunch to have this be your pre-workout meal. If this is the case, snacks, and protein supplementation can help you ensure you are in the best position to train. This is where a protein bar or shake and a granola bar can come in clutch.

What Should Beginners Eat Before Workouts?

My recommendations for new gym-goers are usually general and relaxed. This is not me shrugging off the importance of your pre-workout nutrition; it’s more about prioritizing what’s most important when looking at the bigger picture of your overall health and fitness.

If you’re newer to the gym, I can assume you’re probably newer to the process of keeping closer track of your nutrition as well. You’re likely a bit overwhelmed by it all, and I don’t blame you. It’s a lot of information being thrown at you all at once. Because of this, I like to keep it simple.

Focus on eating something before you workout. Preferably, this is a meal that’s higher in protein and carbohydrates and lower in fat. This could be something like:

  • Greek Yogurt with Berries and Honey, or
  • Chicken Breast with Sweet Potato and Green Beans
  • Protein shake with fruit or a rice cake.

When choosing pre-workout meals, consider your personal tolerance to different foods, as well as the timing of your meal. Eating 1-3 hours before your workout allows your body enough time to digest and utilize the nutrients effectively, minimizing the risk of gastrointestinal discomfort while maximizing energy availability for the workout ahead.

If you don’t have time for a meal, a snack can be fine, too. Something with some protein and carbohydrates should help suffice you through your workout until you’re able to eat your next meal.

Your Goals Will Impact What You Eat Before Workouts

As with most fitness advice, your goals and overall experience matter in the greater context of any discussion. Pre-workout nutrition is no exception. If anything, they matter greatly in the context of how much overall energy (calories) you’re consuming across the day and how much of that energy is being allocated to carbohydrates.

For the context of this discussion, let’s assume that your main goals are to build muscle and strength while improving your overall body composition (getting leaner).

How to Eat Before a Workout to Build Muscle & Strength

Properly fueling your body for performance is key if you want to maximize your ability to build muscle and strength. If you have a goal of performing well in your workouts, eating enough calories each day is crucial. This usually means that you’re consuming enough calories to maintain your current weight (this is what we covered earlier) or, better yet, a slight surplus of a few hundred extra calories per day.

When you’re consuming this amount of calories per day, your options for pre-workout meals are abundant. We covered how to eat relative to when you’re training during the day — morning, midday, or evening — so if you skipped that part, be sure you read those recommendations.

How to Eat Before a Workout to Lose Body Fat (And Get Leaner)

A common thing you may hear is, “There is no such thing as overtraining, only under-eating.” Now, that isn’t an objectively true statement, but there’s likely some truth in it. Our body is resilient at handling physical stress, especially if we have enough energy (calories) to help recover from it. This allows us to train hard while losing body fat, but we don’t want to allow our calories to get too low.

When our ability to recover from physical stress is disrupted due to a lack of energy availability (calories being too low relative to the amount of energy expended during training), there are a host of negative physical and psychological symptoms that can come along with it. To avoid this, be sure you’re eating enough calories. This calorie calculator can help you find a good starting point for your overall calories, ensuring they’re not too low to support your exercise.

Focus on eating something before you workout. Preferably, this is a meal that’s higher in protein and carbohydrates and lower in fat. If you don’t have time for a meal, eat a snack. 

Here’s a reference guide I give to my clients:

Duration until workout – 1-3 hours

Protein intake – ~25-60g

Carbohydrate intake – 20-30% of total daily intake

Fat intake – 5-15% of total daily intake

Frequently Asked Questions

Below, you will find my answers to the most common answers people ask about pre-workout meals.

What should I eat before a morning workout if I’m not a big breakfast eater?

A “grab-and-go” breakfast is usually my recommendation. You want to consume something with protein and carbohydrates that is also light on your stomach and doesn’t involve much prep time. Eating something will also help manage your blood sugar during your lift, allowing you to train hard without feeling nauseous or too exhausted. Another recommendation I give to clients is to have a protein and carb-based snack before going to bed. This can help replenish glycogen (stored form of carbohydrates) stores in your muscles, ensuring they’re ready to lift first thing in the morning.

How long before my workout should I eat?

I recommend that you consume a meal 1-3 hours before you plan on lifting. This gives you enough time to digest the meal before you train, helping you feel more energized for the lift and not too full.

The bigger and more calorie-dense the meal (alongside more dietary fat and/or fiber), the further away from the lift it should be. The smaller and less calorie-dense (alongside less dietary fat and/or fiber), the closer it should realistically be to your lift. There aren’t “perfect” times, so find what works best for you, the way the foods make you feel, and your overall schedule.

How can I prevent stomach discomfort during my workout?

This can be a process of trial and error. I recommend that you start to pay attention to the foods that make you feel good after you eat them.

For example, does a certain food or meal make you feel sluggish after you eat it? If so, that likely isn’t the best source of energy before your workout. Conversely, if a food or meal seems to energize you after you eat it, that’s likely a good sign that it digested well and was an appropriate amount of food to consume before you lift.

Should I focus on carbohydrates, proteins, or fats before exercising?

Consuming protein around your workout can help ensure your body is in a position to build muscle or help prevent muscle breakdown, which is known as an anabolic state. Carbohydrates will be the main fuel source used during traditional strength training workouts.

It’s typically recommended to consume more proteins and carbohydrates in your pre-workout meal while keeping the consumption of dietary fat low. Dietary fat slows down digestion rates, impacting the ability for the other nutrients of the meal to be digested in time for your lift. 

Are pre-workout supplements necessary, and how do they compare to whole foods?

Supplements are supplemental to the bigger picture of your overall nutritional approach. Pre-workout supplements are not necessary, but they can help improve overall performance in the gym. But first, you want to focus on getting adequate calories from your food before you worry yourself with much else. If you find that you want a bit more energy or focus heading into a more challenging training session, pre-workout supplementation can be a nice cherry on top.

If you are training later in the day or evening, I would recommend that you find a pre-workout supplement that doesn’t contain caffeine. Caffeine is great for improving focus and performance but is known for disrupting sleep, which is not ideal. There are plenty of “non-stim” pre-workouts on the market that can still help you support more focus and improved performance.

What are the best pre-workout foods for weight loss?

This question is asked in a way that would convince you that certain foods actually lead you to lose weight. It’s not certain foods that are leading to your weight loss, but rather the total amount of calories you’re consuming and expending each day that leads you to lose weight or gain weight.

As we covered earlier in the article, calorie needs vary widely across individuals. Understanding how to tailor your calorie needs depending on your goals of building muscle and losing weight or body fat starts with first understanding how many calories you need to consume to maintain your current body weight, also known as your caloric maintenance.

Determining maintenance calories is typically done by using a calculator to find your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), linked here. From here, you can see how many calories you would need to eat to either lose or gain weight.

In terms of helpful foods or meals to consume pre-workout to lose weight, you would want to be sure that you’re not consuming too many calories before you workout. Not because this is inherently bad but because it will take away from the amount of food that you can eat across the rest of the day to maintain your calorie deficit and ensure that you’re properly fueling yourself for life’s many demands.

The Summary and Main Takeaways

While overall protein and calorie intake throughout the day are crucial for performance and recovery, the specifics of pre-workout meals can vary greatly based on personal goals, time of day, and dietary restrictions.

Whether your aim is to build muscle, lose fat, or simply maintain a healthy lifestyle, consuming a balanced intake of protein and carbohydrates, while keeping fats to a minimum before exercising, can provide the energy and endurance needed for an effective workout.

Ultimately, focusing on a diet that supports your overall fitness goals, paying attention to how your body responds to different foods, and adjusting your intake based on your workout schedule will ensure that you are appropriately fueled and ready to perform at your best in the gym.

 

  1. Roberts BM, Helms ER, Trexler ET, Fitschen PJ. Nutritional Recommendations for Physique Athletes. J Hum Kinet. 2020;71:79-108. Published 2020 Jan 31. doi:10.2478/hukin-2019-0096 ↩︎
  2. Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, Stout JR, Campbell B, Wilborn CD, Taylor L, Kalman D, Smith-Ryan AE, Kreider RB, Willoughby D, Arciero PJ, VanDusseldorp TA, Ormsbee MJ, Wildman R, Greenwood M, Ziegenfuss TN, Aragon AA, Antonio J. International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Aug 29;14:33. doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4. PMID: 28919842; PMCID: PMC5596471. ↩︎

About the Author

Austin Current

Austin is a world-class online fitness coach and the author of Science of Strength Training, an international best-selling book translated into 10+ languages. Austin has helped transform the lives of thousands of gym-goers, professional athletes, and personal trainers around the globe. He has contributed articles for major publications such as Men’s Health, Muscle & Fitness, Muscle & Fitness HERS, Barbend, T-Nation, and Penguin Random House Higher Education, among others.

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