What to eat before a workout: The best food to eat before the gym

A plate of grilled chicken, rice, broccoli and cubed sweet potatoes sat on a tea towle on a black marble backdrop.

Choosing what to eat before a workout is a decision not to be taken lightly - with your meal or healthy snack being the difference between a good performance and a bad one. 

With so many mixed messages on eating and exercise out there, you'll be forgiven for questioning whether it's best to eat before or after a workout - but there's perks to both. Eating the right foods pre-exercise will give you that energy boost. Whilst what you eat after a workout will aid your body's recovery process.

Timing is important too - as you'll want your body to have properly digested your meal before you hit the gym. Similarly, what you eat before your morning workout will differ from the meal you eat prior to your evening training session. To help you get to grips with it all, we asked the experts exactly what to eat before a workout. From tailoring your plate for different workouts to recommended meal times.

What to eat before a workout

The general consensus is that a balanced meal eaten before your workout will equip you for exercise. Be it weight training, a HIIT workout or running, your body needs the same fundamental food groups for support.

“Ideally you would eat a mix of complex carbohydrates and protein around 1-2 hours before a workout,” says personal trainer Jason Bone. “Complex carbohydrates are slow releasing energy and the protein will help with the recovery of muscles. A great example would be rice, broccoli and chicken.”

Eating hours ahead also allows for healthy digestion, says Mina Khan, who has been providing nutritional advice for over 25 years. “This will give your body the time it needs to digest the food you’ve eaten and give you the energy you need for your workout without leaving you feeling sluggish or full.

“I’d also recommend staying away from any foods high in saturated fat, such as fried food or processed meats,” she adds. “These take a lot of time and effort for our bodies to digest and can therefore cause discomfort and lack of energy during your workout.”

Exploring fats further,registered dietitian Roxane Bakkersays studies have shown that good fats can actually aid your workout. “Consumption of a high-fat meal before exercise has been found to significantly improve performance, as a result of increased fatty acid availability in the blood, which leads to increased lipid metabolism.

“Lipid metabolism is when fatty acids are oxidised to generate energy, making it perfect for a strenuous workout as the time taken to become exhausted is elongated,” she says.

Avocado has loads of benefits, as do eggs and even some cheeses. As with all diets that work fast, healthy fats should still be enjoyed in moderation.

What to eat before the gym

What the experts would eat before a workout at the gym:

Factoring in a full meal prior to the gym is a great way to ensure you’ll arrive rearing to go. But make sure you allow ample time for digestion - as you don’t want it repeating on you.

“If you have time an hour or two before going to the gym, I’d recommend a nice light, healthy meal containing a good portion of complex carbohydrates,” says Mina. “One excellent ingredient to have before the gym is a sweet potato.

“Whether you bake it, make sweet potato wedges or even toast a couple of slices, sweet potatoes provide a great source of Vitamin A and potassium (which is a natural electrolyte). They're also high in soluble fiber which is great for digestion.”

Protein is equally as important on your pre-gym food plate. Found in lean poultry, vegetables, pulses and dairy products, protein contains amino acids which help your body to recover post-workout.

Dietitian Roxane suggests those hitting the gym for weights-based workouts should bulk up their protein portions. “Regarding protein, there is a general consensus that for individuals participating in regular strength training their protein intake should be between 1.2-2g/kg bodyweight per day,” she says. “This is higher than the general recommendation of 0.8g/kg body weight per day.”

If you’re unable to schedule a full meal pre-gym then consider a small bowl of greek yogurt with fruit. It's an excellent source of protein and will give you that extra energy boost to put in a sub-par performance.

What to eat before a morning workout

  • Porridge with fruit or almonds
  • Wholemeal toast with peanut butter (and a few slices of apple)
  • A healthy smoothie with fruit, yogurt and seeds
  • A low-fibre, healthy cereal with milk and a banana
  • A whole-grain toasted bagel topped with an egg and avocado

According to Jason, a breakfast full of fruit, fibre and carbohydrates is what to eat before a morning workout.

“For a morning workout you might look at having a lighter meal with a mix of complex carbohydrates, simple carbohydrates and protein,” he says. He also recommends a healthy bowl of porridge: “A great meal would be porridge, raspberries and almonds with milk.”

Close up of a green smoothie in a glass on a white countertop, next to a kiwi, some blueberries and half an avocado.

(Credit: Getty)

If, however, you’re worried porridge might be a bit heavy pre-workout, try a smoothie instead, says nutritionist Mina.

“If you’re not a big breakfast fan, or you think your body may struggle to digest food in time for your morning workout, a smoothie may be the perfect option for you. Load it up with your favourite fruit, veg, yoghurt, seeds or even oats for a tasty, yet light pre-workout breakfast.”

The nutritionist also stresses that completely skipping breakfast before your early workout won’t necessarily benefit you.

“Some people prefer to workout on an empty stomach in the mornings, but this can actually limit the body’s ability to burn calories and reach its full potential,” she adds. “If you’re planning on doing any strenuous or high intensity exercise I’d always recommend eating something before a morning workout.

“Ideally, you should also wait at least half an hour (an hour would be best) before starting your workout after your breakfast.”

What you should be eating before a morning run

  • Porridge
  • Greek yogurt and fruit
  • A healthy granola with seeds, nuts and yoghurt
  • Egg omelette

“Before a morning run, it’s really important to fuel your body. Whether it’s a 2km run around the block or a 10 mile run to train for an upcoming event,” says nutritionist Mina.

“For runners, it’s also important to keep an eye on your fibre intake. Too much, and you may find yourself run into stomach problems such as gas, bloating or stomach ache instead of beating your PB.”

Like Mina, strength coach Jason says a carbohydrate-rich breakfast is what to eat before a morning-run.

“You would look at having a more simple carbohydrate meal like a cold pressed juice with apples, carrots, celery, spinach leaves and ginger,” he says. “Something light so you aren’t uncomfortable when running. The simple carbohydrates can quickly be turned into energy which will fuel your run.”

What to eat 30 minutes before a workout

If you’ve left it a bit late or need a little boost pre-workout, Jason suggests a smoothie as your snack.

“If you’re going for a slightly less intense workout having a fruit smoothie would be very beneficial,” he says. “The simple carbohydrates and fibre will give a quick release of energy. Try having a banana, strawberries and blueberries with milk.”

Mina also suggests keeping your workout snack fruit-based. A simple banana or apple will suffice and won’t lay on the stomach. They’re also both good sources of potassium - which our bodies tend to lose during exercise.

“These foods contain easy to digest carbohydrates, which will prevent you from feeling sluggish and bloated during your workout,” she says. “What’s more, they’re great for when you’re on the go as there’s no prepping involved and don’t have to be kept in the fridge.”

a profile picture of nutritionist Mina Khan
Mina Khan

Mina Khan is a nutritionist, and qualified pharmacist. She spent 25 years working as a pharmacist before moving into the health food and nutraceuticals industry. Having been brought up with Ayurvedic Medicine, she believes passionately in the use of natural ingredients to help prevent and manage a range of health conditions. She gained her Bachelor of Science (BSc) Pharmacy at the University of Sutherland - and went on to found the nutraceuticals brand, Formulate Health.

Emily Stedman
Features Editor

Emily Stedman is the former Features Editor for GoodTo covering all things TV, entertainment, royal, lifestyle, health and wellbeing. Boasting an encyclopaedic knowledge on all things TV, celebrity and royals, career highlights include working at HELLO! Magazine and as a royal researcher to Diana biographer Andrew Morton on his book Meghan: A Hollywood Princess. In her spare time, Emily can be found eating her way around London, swimming at her local Lido or curled up on the sofa binging the next best Netflix show.