Pre Workout Meal Ideas

Erin Coleman, R.D., L.D.
eating fruit

To maximize energy during workouts, a nutritious pre-workout meal is crucial. The perfect pre-sweat session meal idea is based on your food preferences and at times, trial and error.

Meal Timing and Quantity Recommendations

The timing of pre-workout meals should be one to three hours before your workout -- plus a smaller snack about 20 minutes pre-workout, suggests the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. While you can slightly increase your meal size if you're participating in longer endurance exercise, it's best to not overdo it at mealtime and have additional snacks closer to your sweat session if need be. That way, you won't feel overly full or bloated, which can hinder performance.

If your cardio session lasts more than 60 minutes, the American Academy of Sports Medicine suggests drinking a sports drink containing 5 to 8 percent carbohydrates every 15 to 20 minutes for an electrolyte and energy boost. You can also choose sports gels, dried fruits, or chews as a carb source during longer workouts.

1. Whole-Grain Bagel Sandwiches

You can't go wrong when choosing a whole-grain bagel sandwich as a pre-workout meal because it provides you with the complex carbs you need to sustain energy levels long term. Try a large toasted whole-grain bagel (cut in half) topped with:

  • 2 to 4 egg whites with 2 to 4 uncured turkey bacon strips (plus an optional slice of reduced-fat cheese)
  • 1 tablespoon of low-fat cream cheese with fruit slices
  • Veggie and cheese bagel sandwich recipe
  • 1 tablespoon of peanut butter with 1 tablespoon of jelly
  • 1 tablespoon of nut butter with sliced bananas

You can also use an English muffin or two slices of whole-grain bread if you don't have a bagel handy.

2. Oatmeal Blends

As with whole grain bagel sandwiches, eating oatmeal pre-workout keeps you going strong for entire workouts, even during long distance/endurance sweat sessions. There are a number of ways to incorporate oatmeal into a pre-workout energy boosting meal:

  • Top 1 to 2 cups of cooked oatmeal with 1/2 to 1 cups of fresh fruit (or dried fruit), plus 1 tablespoon of nuts or seeds.
  • Mix 1/2 cup of oatmeal into a protein smoothie (1 cup of Greek yogurt, 1 cup of plant-based milk, 1/2 cup of fruit, and 1 tablespoon of nut butter); you can use 1 to 2 tablespoons of protein powder mixed with water instead of yogurt and milk if you'd like.
  • Try this almond blast protein & oats smoothie recipe.

3. Protein Tortilla Wraps

Another pre-workout meal idea when you're on the go is a protein-rich wrap. Use any type of healthy protein you'd like to in the wrap and add veggies plus avocado or hummus for your healthy fat. Examples of pre-workout wrap ideas (that you can add to a large whole-grain tortilla) include:

  • 2 to 3 ounces of tofu, zucchini slices, peppers, and 1/4 cup of avocado
  • 2 to 3 ounces of grilled chicken strips, leafy greens, and 1 tablespoon of hummus
  • Chicken avocado veggie wrap recipe
  • 2 to 3 ounces of turkey, a slice of low-fat cheese, and tomato slices
  • 2 to 3 ounces of salmon, asparagus spears, and 1/4 cup of avocado
  • 2 to 4 egg whites, 2 to 4 uncured turkey bacon strips, spinach, and 1/4 cup of mushrooms
  • 1 tablespoon of nut butter and 1 banana (sliced)
  • 2 to 3 ounces of tuna salad (made with light mayonnaise), mixed with 1 to 2 tablespoons of celery or pickle slices

4. Pesto Pasta Dishes

Pasta is another complex carb that will keep you energized during lengthy workouts. Add pesto sauce containing hearty-health olive oil (plus protein and veggies) to round out your pre-workout dish. Pasta meal ideas include:

  • Pesto pasta caprese salad recipe
  • 1 to 2 cups of chicken or cheese tortellini with pesto sauce (add 1/2 to 1 cup of cooked veggies)
  • 1 to 2 cups of pesto pasta, 2 to 3 ounces of grilled chicken or tofu, and 1/2 to 1 cup of cooked veggies

5. Quinoa Bowls/Quinoa Cakes

Quinoa is another starchy food that's loaded with fiber and protein, so you'll stay energized longer during exercise. Try these quinoa pre-workout meal ideas for a sweat session you won't forget.

  • Black bean, sweet potato quinoa cakes recipe
  • 1 to 2 cups of a quinoa cinnamon bowl (cooked quinoa mixed with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of almond milk, nutmeg, cinnamon and 1 teaspoon of honey)
  • 1 to 2 cups of a cooked quinoa, 2 to 3 ounces of chicken or tofu, plus 1/2 to 1 cup of veggies (add 1/4 cup of avocadoes or 1 to 2 teaspoons of olive oil for some healthy fats)
Chicken with Quinoa and Brown Rice

What Works Best?

You might have to do some trial and error when it comes to sports nutrition and pre-workout meals to see what sits the best in your stomach, especially during high-intensity training. Several hours (1 to 3 hours) before your workout, it's best to choose a healthy starch (whole grain breads, brown rice, oatmeal, whole wheat pasta, or quinoa just to name a few) coupled with some protein such as grilled chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, tofu, yogurt, cottage cheese, nuts, or nut butters.

Just prior to working out (within 20 minutes), pick a carb-rich simple sugar-containing snack, such as juice, dried or fresh fruit, an energy bar, sports chews, sports gels, or an energy drink, and eat or drink simple carbs periodically during longer workouts lasting more than 60 minutes.

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Pre Workout Meal Ideas