Eating Before Exercise: The Basics

Eating Before Exercise: The Basics

By: Makayla Meixner, MS, RDN 


Eating before exercise can dramatically improve your performance in both training and competition. 

However, the timing and makeup of your pre-exercise meals and snacks matter. This article discusses why it’s important to eat before exercise, what types of food to eat and when, and some examples of meals and snacks to get you started. 


Benefits of eating before exercise 

Eating before exercise is essential for supplying your body with important nutrients it needs to perform well. In general, a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack that’s moderate in protein and low in fat and fiber is recommended. 

Why? Carbohydrates digest quickly and are the main source of energy for your muscles and brain. They provide the energy needed to push through workouts, training, and competition. 

Additionally, a small amount of protein before exercise can help reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Since fat and fiber take longer to digest, it’s best to keep these to a minimum  — especially if you don’t have much time between eating and your workout. 

Here are some potential benefits of a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack before exercise:

  • Increased energy 
  • Increased strength
  • Increased endurance 
  • Faster recovery after exercise 


Types of food to eat before exercise and when

As a rule of thumb, the closer you get to your workout, the easier to digest the food should be. 

For this reason, it’s recommended to reserve full meals for 3-4 hours before exercise. These meals should be rich in carbohydrates and include some protein. So long as you give them adequate time to digest, full meals eaten before exercise may also contain some fat and fiber.  

As you get closer to your workout, it’s best to stick to much smaller meals and snacks, depending on how well you tolerate food before exercising. To avoid an upset stomach, a pre-exercise snack that’s low in fat and fiber allows your stomach time to empty before your workout. Directly before a workout (e.g. 30 minutes before or less), it’s typically best to omit fat and fiber entirely. 

Keep in mind, optimal fueling plans vary depending on the individual. Some factors to consider include weight, food preferences, exercise type, exercise duration, exercise intensity, and whether or not you’re prone to digestive issues.


Examples of what to eat before exercise 

Again, whether to eat a full meal or snack depends on how much time you have before exercise — the more time you have, the more likely you’re able to tolerate a bigger meal. Additionally, the more time you have, the more protein, fat, and fiber you’ll be able to digest before working out. 

Here are some examples of foods to eat before exercise, based on timing: 

  • Examples of what to eat 3-4 hours before exercise.
    • Granola with milk topped with blueberries and nuts + hard-boiled egg + juice
    • Grilled chicken wrap + baked chips + mixed fruit
  • Examples of what to eat 1-2 hours before exercise. 
    • Oatmeal with honey + banana 
    • Peanut butter & jelly sandwich + strawberries
  • Examples of what to eat 30-60 minutes before. 
    • Cutie oranges + pretzels
    • Fruit leather + wheat thins 
  • Examples of what to eat 30 minutes or less before exercise. 
    • Sports drinks
    • Sports gels or chews


Key Takeaways 

Eat before exercise to supply your body with the energy it needs to perform. When choosing a meal or snack before exercise, aim for something rich in carbs — the main source of fuel for your muscles and brain. 

As you get closer to the workout, choose foods that are easy to digest. Avoid meals and snacks that are high in fat or fiber. These nutrients take longer to digest and therefore may lead to an upset stomach if eaten too soon before a workout. 

Makayla Meixner is a performance dietitian and founder of Own It Nutrition. She specializes in fueling strategies for winter athletes and offers individual and group nutrition coaching services.


Phone: (970) 306-6402