What to Eat Before a Workout: Common Sense Tips

magnifying glassOne of the most common questions I’m asked in the gym is  “what should I eat before I workout?”. While it may seem like a mystery, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure it out.  What to eat before a workout is a great question, and with some deductive reasoning you probably already know the answer.

We should dive into this question with the fore thought of asking more.  Let’s look at when and what to eat before and after a workout, throughout the day, dinner, and before bed. To answer all theses questions in a broad sense, think of food as fuel.

1. FAT


Fat is like kerosene (lamp oil). Lamp oil provides long lasting reliable fuel. Like lamp oil, fat also sustains power and burns slow, long and steady. It supports the other fuels we need throughout the day and keeps our bodies running at status quo.  It is the primary fuel source for healthy people at rest and low intensity activity.



If fat is kerosene, then think of Carbohydrates as gasoline for a car engine.  Just like different grades of gas, from low octane all the way to drag race fuel or even Nitrous Oxide for a race car, “carbs” have different grades as well.

This is where the glycemic index comes in. In simple terms, the glycemic index tells us how available and fast a specific food can be used in our bodies. A vegetable would be considered a lower octane, very stable, conservative fuel. A sweet potato is higher test gas for performance but not quite rocket fuel. Simple sugars, pasta’s, breads, are all very combustible unstable fuels that want to be burned very fast and violently.



The last substrate we will poke fun of is protein. As a fuel, protein is faster burning than fat, yields almost as much energy per mile as carbohydrate, but it just isn’t a preferred fuel source for activity for healthy individuals. Protein is a fuel but its primary function is restorative. Protein supports soft tissue, antibody function, hormone and cellular production, and many other vital rolls in our body. Keep in mind, we do most of our repairs during periods of prolong inactivity and rest (recovery).

Food for Thought

That was “Fuel 101”- so how does this answer anything about what to eat before a workout?  I can’t tell you exactly when and what to eat because I don’t know if you are going for a long run, or about to compete in an MMA tournament.  I don’t know if you are training to lose weight, or want to perform at the top of your ability. The purpose for your workout will determine what is best to fuel your body, so let’s look a little further at a couple of specific scenarios to help you figure this crap out.

Your activity and goals will determine what substrates, and in what quantities you will need, as well as when you will eat them.

1. Vigorous Exercise involving weights, plyometrics, strength, power or speed.
Shoulder PressIf you are about to partake in a vigorous exercise activity, no doubt you will need to eat something that will give your body energy to endure.  This is the time for a carbohydrate that will give you energy, but at a rate that you can consume over the duration of your activity.  Simple sugars will come and go, it would be more advantageous to consume a carbohydrate towards the lower middle part of the glycemic index, or pair a carb with a little bit of fat to slow how fast you burn through those more simple carbs.

2. Moderate Exercise for fat burn, like walking, jogging, elliptical, aerobics & bicycle.
steve runningIf your activity is going to be moderate, and you want to lose weight, you may want a smaller portion of a very low glycemic-index food to allow your body to catabolize existing fat stores for energy instead of the food you just ate.

Fats should be moderately consumed throughout the day, as they support metabolism and growth.  Fats will also slow down how fast we use carbohydrates for energy, slowing the transit time in our digestive track of energy and giving our blood stream a slower more steady flow of energy for a longer more productive workout.

Technically, our body is, at some rate, always burning carbs, fats, and proteins.  In order to preserve precious lean mass, we should consume protein at every meal to prevent muscle catabolism.  Our body will not burn stored fat or muscle if it is immediately available from what we eat.  So lets try to provide enough protein at each meal to prevent this, and consume just enough fat for necessary metabolic processes, but not enough fat that we store additional unused fat.  Note: all excess calories, even protein and carbs, can be stored as fat until needed for energy.

Here is a quick review…

Carbs: Before a workout, and immediately after intense exercise to replace glycogen
Proteins: 10-20 grams at various meals throughout the day to persevere mass, but mostly post workout and evenings for growth and repair
Fats: Slow and steady throughout the day, eating even amounts at each meal.


About Steve Pfiester

Certified CrossFit, TRX, Kettlebell Athletics Trainer with a B.S. in Physical Therapy. Owner of Longevity Max Fitness and BCx Boot Camp.

Posted on February 4, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I’M wondering where chocolate chip cookies fall into that spectrum. Paleo, of course. HA!
    Thanks for this information, Steve. Always a concern of mine, too. I find that if i am running, I really have to watch what i put in my gut, otherwise…well…it doesn’t stay there very long.

  2. Steve, thanks for the breakdown. Much appreciated. Maybe another post to come on examples of what you eat before your particular workouts? Thanks!

  3. Thanks Steve…nice article

  4. Reblogged this on PFITblog and commented:

    This is a great blog by Steve on what to eat before a workout and why.

  1. Pingback: Top 5 Tips Every Fitness Newbie Should Know « pFIT blog

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