Whether you’re interested in crafting a regimen for overall health and fitness or focused on creating a more defined musculature, nutrition should play a large role in your plans.
While it’s a simplified analogy, your body is a machine — an intricate, finely crafted organic mechanism made of up of many smaller moving parts— and any food, snacks and meals will all fuel and maintenance material.
In this guide, we’ll be focused on the best foods for what’s known as the pre-workout meal.
These are snacks and light meals that will provide your body with the energy it needs to do what you’re asking of it — burn fat or build lean muscle.
Below, I’ll give the fifty best foods and combinations, and a brief explanation of why they’re great. Since everyone is different, tailor your menu to your needs.
Here’s what you need to eat before a workout:
Full of potassium to stave off muscle cramps, these fruity relatives of the potato also have plenty of high quality carbohydrates to keep you going through any high intensity program. Plus, they pair well with many entries on this list.
While it fills the carb-protein pairing requirement, it’s something a little different. Blueberries are chock full of vitamin C and anthocyanins—antioxidants produced in red, dark blue, and purple plant foods. The phytochemicals are a vital element to stave off environmental stress, including the toxins your body produces during a workout.
Pistachios contain more potassium and vitamin K than any other nut, and will help to stave off cramps while keeping you feeling full during your routine.
Great for those of you who enjoy a morning stint at the gym, steel-cut oatmeal retains more of the essential nutrients that are stripped away during the rolling process. It contains a higher level of complex carbohydrates and non-soluble fiber, which will keep you feeling sated while your body slowly digests your breakfast.
The berries provide support for your body during the stress of the workout and will help mitigate the damage that necessarily occurs during your routine. If you need a bit of protein, add some pecans or walnuts to your bowl.
That’s right, guys—coffee with milk is a great pre-workout snack in a mug. Milk is a great source of protein and carbs, and caffeine gives you a little boost. It’s important to note that you have to balance the two liquids. Use a 1 to 1 ratio, and opt for whole milk. For those of you watching your weight, remember that it isn’t fat that makes you fat, but sugars.
Lactose is a simple sugar, which is balanced by fat content. Remove the fat and you are chugging a sugar jolt, though you may not know it. Heat your milk to keep your beverage hot.
For those of you with culinary skills, make that a veggie omelet. For the rest of us, try scrambled eggs with bell peppers, onions, and selections such as tomatoes, mushrooms, even broccoli if you desire. The egg is a perfect protein and veggies bring some vitamins to the party on your plate. Add a bit of cheese if you need a dash of fat.
You could pair it with berries, peaches, pineapple or tomatoes. It’s up to you. Cottage cheese is super-easy and packed with protein while not high in fat. Fresh or canned, fruit brings vitamins and necessary sugars to your snack. Tomatoes make it a savory affair, if you’re not keen on combining cheese and fruit. For summertime flavor, add a bit of fresh basil to your bowl.
This should be eaten at least a couple of hours before you hit the gym, to allow for sufficient digestion. Chicken, of course, is a perfectly lean protein—and six ounces or less is optimum for this light meal. Sweet potatoes are full of carotenoids—the awesome things that make fruits and veggies orange—and enough minerals and vitamins to fill a book.
Stick to half of a large specimen or an entire small one. One delicious way to enjoy both of these this summer is on the grill. Sweet potato fries (skin on) brushed with oil, garlic, and cracked black pepper are tasty enough for a party.
Some of us can’t have peanuts or tree nuts. So for this, select your favorite nut butter—almond is a great swap for peanut butter. Slice your apple, and dive in, but try not to overload on the condiment, since it is rich in fats.
No, really—that stuff that became a cultural joke in the 1980s is actually good for you. Aztec warriors could run twenty miles in a day and used the seeds of this Salvia plant to keep up their endurance. It’s incredibly protein dense, although a word of warning—drink plenty of water with it.
You can add it to your yogurt, oatmeal, or cottage cheese. However, because it comes from a desert plant, it forms mucilage when it gets wet, creating a thick gel if allowed to set.
Eat more than just iceberg or even romaine. Get adventurous and toss in some endive, spinach, and purple cabbage—and don’t settle for the stuff that comes in a bag. Slice carrots, radishes, tomatoes, and cucumbers for some added power.
Last, toss in some raw pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds) and raw sunflower kernels for protein and essential minerals like magnesium and manganese. Magnesium balances with calcium, too little of either and you’ll feel some pretty nasty muscle cramps.
If you find yourself pressed for time or headed to the gym for an impromptu workout, energy gel can offer you a boost. It’s not something you want to do on a regular basis, since it isn’t actually food, but occasional use is just fine. The high-quality types of this gel are specially formulated with electrolytes, minerals, and nutrients your body needs during a routine.
Skip the butter on your morning slice. Instead, have a healthy spread of ripe avocado. Full of healthy fats, vitamins E and A, and phytochemicals your body needs to maintain during a workout. Whole grain toast provides some carbs to keep you steady as you work your way through a routine.
This is great for those of you who are training for a running event or simply pushing your personal best on the trail. Make a cup of cooked rice, sweetened by adding two tablespoons of raisins or diced dried plums. When it’s about two minutes from being done, pour ½ a cup of whole milk over the top, cover, and finish cooking.
Stir well and let stand for a minute. Eat half a cup before your workout and tuck the other half in the fridge for breakfast tomorrow.
Serve yourself an evening boost with ½ cup cooked brown rice and two or three ounces of baked chicken. You can toss in some veggies to liven things up, but be sure to wait at least an hour before hitting the gym to give your body time to start digesting your light meal.
Brown rice contains a great deal more insoluble fiber than its pale cousin and gives your body a long, slow boost of energy with plenty of complex carbs.
Select your favorite shake mix and add a half a cup of strawberries and blueberries. You’ll get the benefits of the protein shake with a boost of antioxidants, vitamins, and healthy fruit sugars to boot.
Go for whole milk yogurt—it tastes better, and your body will absorb the calcium that it can’t with non-fat varieties. You can customize it any way you want—berries, peaches, bananas, granola, or unsalted sunflower seeds. It’s your choice.
Yep—drink up, guys. Fruit smoothies with a ½ cup yogurt or some protein powder are ideal for pre-workout fuel. They’re delicious, easy to digest, and packed with everything you need to stay strong throughout your routine.
Chickpeas, the main ingredient in this super-healthy snack food, are powerhouses of plant protein. Plus, they’re full of vitamins. So, while you could indulge in a handful of them, raw or cooked, hummus and celery, or smeared on your whole grain toast is a tasty way to go.
A Peruvian root that comes to us in a dried, pulverized form, this high protein powder can be added to any food for a boost in energy that will help you stay strong during a workout.
Avoid the doldrums with this delicious pasta dish. Simply prepare a cup of whole grain pasta and toss in chunks of roasted turkey breast and ripe avocado with some olive oil and fresh basil. This makes a creamy, satisfying dish that will fuel an evening workout. The best part is it’s just as good served up cool on a hot summer evening.
There’s a good reason Popeye was sweet on her. Olive oil is an excellent source of healthy fats, vitamin E, and antioxidants you need to maintain a healthy workout with maximum effect. While you should note that it is a fat and avoid going overboard with it, adding it to your pre-workout snack is great.
Put a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in your smoothie or whisk up a simple vinaigrette for salad, since heat tends to damage the vitamin E.
Moms all over America once fed hungry kids “ant logs”—celery stalks with peanut butter, dotted with raisins. Check it out. The insoluble fiber of the celery, the healthy fat and protein of the peanut butter, and the nutritious fruit sugars from the raisins will keep you at your best at the gym.
A mainstay of many Central American daily menus, rice and beans cooked together with veggies, chicken, and even eggs make an easy, inexpensive pre-workout meal. Beans are high in protein, so you could even skip the animal protein for this meal. Their high fiber is also excellent for the slow-burning energy you want.
This bright green cruciferous veggie is not only a potent cancer preventative food with a host of antioxidants. A cup of lightly steamed florets offers as much vitamin C as a medium orange, with more fiber to aid in digestive health. Vitamin C is responsible for cell maintenance and flushing away dead or damaged tissue, which a workout produces naturally.
Yes, it makes your pee smell funny, but that’s an effect worth living with for all the nutrition these tiny green spears provide. It’s full of folate, fiber, and vitamins A, C, E, and K. So chop some up and add it to your salad or your pasta. Or wrap some in bacon and bake in the oven until the meat is crisp.
Cooked, they provide more vitamin A than the raw version, but either way you go, these little roots are great for a pre-workout snack. They’re full of fiber, vitamins, and natural sugars that will keep you up at the gym. Pair with hummus, add to a salad, or toss them into your rice and beams.
Many people suggest that you grind them, but if you know how to chew your food, that’s not required. These tiny seeds are full of nutrients your body needs to maintain healthy function, like ALA, especially under the stress of a workout. Cook them with your oatmeal or sprinkle over your cooked pasta.
No, not chocolate syrup. If you can’t find cacao nibs—the dried, hulled, and roasted inner portion of a cacao seed—check out cocoa powder. Add it to your smoothies, yogurt, or even your oatmeal. It’s dense with necessary amino acids that dilate blood vessels and relax smooth muscles—so it’ll help your body get oxygen to your muscles and carry away waste products during an intense session at the gym through better circulation.
We’ve talked about chicken and turkey, but salmon is an excellent source of lean protein and Omega-3 fatty acids. Try thin slices of it on a whole-wheat bagel smeared with hummus or avocado.
We aren’t talking about sugar-saturated chewy granola bars. Hit the health food store and source some tasty, powerhouse granola. It should have—in addition to oats or cereal grains—nuts, seeds, and fruits, but be free of too much added sugar.
A spin on popular frozen coffee beverages, this leaves the sugar and unhealthy additives at the door. Blend a cup of iced coffee, with the ice with one scoop of chocolate or vanilla protein powder.
Remember these summertime treats as a kid? Bring back the good old days with a simple shake. You’ll need one cup of orange juice, one scoop of vanilla protein powder, and one cup of ice. Blend until smooth.
You’ll make your protein shake as usual, but to give an added boost of both flavor and nutrition to your routine, mix three teaspoons of pure coconut oil with chocolate protein powder. Garnish with unsweetened coconut flakes, if you like.
You really can’t go wrong adding fruit to any meal. A great pre-workout snack full of vitamins and minerals is a cup of fresh cantaloupe, ¼ cup black raspberries, ¼ cup sliced strawberries, ¼ cup fresh blueberries. Just keep a giant tub of this in your fridge and serve it up as needed.
This recipe is making the rounds in fitness circles, but it has the advantage of being delicious as well. Prepare a cup of cooked oats. Add two teaspoons of dehydrated/defatted peanut butter and a teaspoon of cocoa powder. Stevia has been suggested to sweeten it, but you could just as easily drizzle a bit of raw honey for its powerful health benefits and sweetness.
You need not do the standard treatment of peanut butter and jam for this. Try a savory variation with turkey and avocado for a powerful fast-breaker.
If you shop for these, be sure to read the labels and steer clear of excessive sugar content. However, if you feel intrepid and are comfortable playing in the kitchen, check out Alton Brown’s recipes for homemade bars.
Don’t go for juice—that’s little more than sugar water. Eat the whole fruit, pulp and all. Full of fiber that mitigates the fruit sugar impact, and vitamin C, this is the breakfast choice that trumps broccoli—unless you really just crave a cup of florets first thing in the morning.
Again, eat the whole thing. Don’t bother with those weird-looking spoons. They waste too much valuable fruit. Peel a very ripe pink grapefruit like an orange and enjoy sections. If it’s too bitter for you, don’t reach for the sugar. Rather, lightly sprinkle a tiny amount of salt on each slice. It’ll bring out the sweetness.
While you can easily grill or bake these little powerhouses, sometimes, it pays to experiment with different preparations. Try steaming and mashing them with a bit of butter and salt. Then, enjoy half a cup of your mash with some roasted turkey. Make it a snack or add some steamed veggies for a full-meal impact.
In many countries south of the border, you’ll see a common street vendor—the Fruit Dude. He—or she—has a cart on a busy street corner, from which bags of fresh cut fruit are assembled with a squeeze of lime, a bit of diced chili pepper, and a pinch of salt. Try this at home this summer.
You can make it any way you please—papaya, mango, pomegranate seeds, watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, berries, peaches, nectarines. Do it up in a plastic bread bag and dig in with a fork.
This snack is also a great lunch on the go. Purchase whole-wheat pita pockets, pack them with dark, leafy greens and other salad fixings, add some shredded turkey or tuna, and drizzle with homemade vinaigrette—which is super-easy to whisk together.
Now, whole eggs are all fine and good. There’s little harm done if you enjoy the yolk as well. However, if you’re aiming to trim some inches from your physique, but still want the protein, consider egg whites. You can create scrambles, omelets, and even pull off the English muffin topper with ease.
You can do this with almost any food—from peanut butter to salmon. What you’ll need are some large romaine lettuce leaves and your filling—turkey, tuna, salmon slices, avocadoes—whatever pleases you. Just keep it light and fresh.
Yes, cabbage. You can ingest this in the form of coleslaw, although a bit of shredded red cabbage on your salad is just as good.
This more mature relative of yogurt packs a powerful punch. It’s full of probiotics and protein, without any fat of which to speak. While it’s an acquired taste, add it to your morning shake for improved performance.
This grain that isn’t a grain—hint, it’s technically a “fruit”—is a complete source of protein, a great substitute for grain, and is packed with magnesium, B vitamins, and iron. Check it out, guys.
Add these wonders to your protein shake or your oatmeal. They provide valuable, healthy fats, proteins, and a host of trace minerals essential for healthy muscle function.
These little green seeds are the inner portion of a pumpkin seed. They provide manganese and magnesium, and are virtually flavorless, even while adding a wonderful crunch to cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, and even pasta.
This is pretty simple, and great when you’re in a hurry. Toast a slice of whole wheat bread, apply some peanut or almond butter, and artistically arrange slices of banana upon said schmere. Or, you can have a banana boat—simply situate the whole banana in the middle of your slice and fold. Enjoy.