What To Eat Before Exercise?

There are all kinds of theories around what to eat before you exercise. They range from eating absolutely nothing, to a crazy concoction of powders and liquids, to just eating a “normal” meal.

It should come as no surprise that there is a ton of conflicting information.

Also, there unfortunately is not going to be one answer that works for everyone in every situation.

So where do you begin?

In this blog post I try to outline some common guidelines you can use for yourself to decide if and what you should eat before you exercise.

Can You Eat Before Exercise?

I have a number of clients who wake up and immediately hit the gym. This is mostly dictated by their own time constraints. Getting kids off to school, work, and other obligations take up most of their time during the day and evening so their only free time is first thing in the morning. Due to the tight time constraints, they always workout fasted because they just don’t have the time to eat before they workout.

If this is you, then the answer to “can you eat before exercise?” is going to be no! Depending on the workout, you could possibly benefit from some pre-exercise nutrition but then that would mean you wouldn’t have the time to workout. At the end of the day, it’s better you exercise than not, so don’t worry if you should eat something or not. You can also mitigate any potential downsides of fasted exercise by making sure you at least eat some protein within a few hours after exercising[1].

Another situation where it might not be possible to eat before exercise is if you have digestive issues when doing so. Many people often consume food before exercise only to find themselves running to the bathroom in the middle of their workout[2]. If this happens to you, exercising without eating beforehand is the right thing to do. However, if you find yourself unable to eat anything even hours before exercise, I encourage you to work with a practitioner to get the bottom of the problem.

Should You Eat Something Before Exercise?

Assuming you have the opportunity to consume something before exercise, and that you can tolerate eating before exercise, the question then becomes should you?

When answering this question we need to take into account three things:

  1. Duration
  2. Intensity
  3. Your Goal

In general, if your exercise duration is going to be less than 90 minutes you are not going to get much out of eating before you exercise. Once you start to go above 90 minutes of exercise having something to eat before you exercise will most likely help your performance.

Certainly 90 minutes is not a solid line in the sand. I have exercised for well over 90 minutes completely fasted. However, I trained by slowly increasing the duration of my fasted training sessions over time and did not go from nothing to 2 hours of fasted training. In addition these longer fasted training sessions were done at a very easy aerobic intensity.

On the opposite end of the spectrum you might perform better eating something beforehand even if the exercise session is less than 90 minutes. Personally no matter how short the strength training session is, I always feel better having a meal before I exercise. I do fasted strength training when necessary, but I never feel my performance is what it could be had I eaten something. I will admit this could be placebo, but placebo or not, my performance increases when I have a meal before strength training. If performance is the goal, it doesn’t matter if it is a placebo or not.

Finally if you are training multiple times a day you will most certainly want to eat before the second training session. You may even want to consider eating before the first training session if it is long or intense enough. In general most people training twice a day will do their easier exercise in the morning and their harder exercise in the afternoon. In that case it would be fine to exercise fasted in the morning and eat a meal after and maybe even another meal before the afternoon training session.

Another factor to consider is your overall goal. At certain points in your training your goals may be performance related. At other times your goals may be metabolic adaptations or even recovery.

For example, if you want to increase your metabolic flexibility to become better at burning fat, then doing a greater proportion of your training in a fasted state would be beneficial. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if your goal is to improve your VO2 MAX you may be doing higher intensity work, in that scenario it would be more beneficial to include some food before exercise.

At certain times of the year, for example in your offseason or when you have other more important life stressors, the goal may be to lessen the stress you are under from training. In this case you might want to eliminate all fasted training regardless of whether it is low intensity or not.

What To Eat?

If you are going to eat before exercise, the next question becomes what to eat?

The answer will be completely individualized, as all nutrition is. A food that works fine for one person, may cause GI distress for someone else. This is especially true when it comes to eating around exercise because your body is under additional stress and that can exacerbate any kind of negative reaction you may have.

Protein is going to be important for anyone who is exercising regardless of your dietary practices. Getting protein around the time you exercise can help build muscle, aid in recovery, and even stave off muscle breakdown [3].

If you have a normal meal that contains protein before you exercise then you should be fine exercising a few hours later and not worry about consuming any additional protein beforehand. For example, say you have breakfast at 8AM and workout at 12 PM. If your breakfast includes some eggs and some salmon, there is no need to include more protein before you exercise.

If you choose to exercise fasted you may benefit from trying to get in a little protein before you exercise, especially when strength training. You could sip on some essential amino acids or whey protein thrown in some water while you workout. This small amount of protein before or during fasted exercise is unlikely to make much of a difference in any kind of metabolic adaptations you are seeking to gain. If you workout completely fasted you should try to get in some protein fairly soon after you finish exercising.

Do you need to do it immediately?


If you can get in some protein within an hour of finishing fasted exercise, that would be best [4].

Now that we have the most important macronutrient out of the way, it’s time to move onto the next two macronutrients, carbohydrates and fat, how much of those should you consume before exercising?

To some degree, whether and how much carbohydrates and fat you consume before exercise is going to depend on your dietary preference. If you are following a low-carb diet, then the amount of carbohydrate you consume is likely going to be less and the amount of fat may be more than someone who is not.

When performance is the goal, carbohydrates are going to be your friend[5]. However if performance is not a concern, then feel free to adjust the carbohydrate amount to fit your individual preferences.

With performance as the backdrop you might be wondering how much carbohydrates should you consume before your exercise and when to consume those carbohydrates?

Studies have shown that the amount of carbohydrates between 25-312g, consumed prior to exercise had no impact on exercise performance. The form of carbohydrate, whether it is liquid, solid, gel etc. also showed no difference in performance outcomes. In addition, consuming carbohydrate between 15 and 120 minutes before exercise also had very little impact on performance [6].

It is important to keep in mind that just because these studies showed that varying amounts, types, and timing of carbohydrates did not affect performance doesn’t mean it couldn’t impact your performance. Digestion of food is very individualized and while one person can down a banana right before working out and be fine, another person might feel terrible. Ultimately you will have to play with types, amount, and timing yourself to figure out what works best for you.

As far as amount goes, I do not think you need to ingest 312g of carbohydrates before you work out. A more reasonable recommendation would be something around 75-120g of carbohydrates beforehand. You also want to allow adequate time to digest the food before you exercise. The form in which you are consuming the carbohydrates is going to influence the speed in which you digest the food. Liquid and gel based carbohydrates are going to be digested quicker than whole food sources. You should be safe if you consume the carbohydrates two hours before exercise. By giving yourself this amount of time you can also potentially avoid hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) when you are in the middle of exercising.

Give Me A Simple Formula

There is a lot to digest (get it!) in this blog post, but nutrition is not easy, nutrition in the context of exercise is even harder. To make things easy here are some basic guidelines.

  • Not enough time to eat before exercise
    • Work out fasted, consider some essential aminos during
  • Enough time to eat before exercise
    • Exercise duration less than 90 minutes
      • Low to moderate intensity exercise
        • Fasted, optionally some protein before hand
        • If strength training consider some protein before hand or soon after
      • High intensity exercise
        • 0-75g of carbohydrates and 10-50g of protein
    • Exercise duration more than 90 minutes
      • Low to moderate intensity exercise
        • 0-75g of carbohydrates 10-50g of protein
        • If strength training consider at least some protein before hand or soon after
      • High intensity exercise
        • 75-150g of carbohydrate and 10-50g of protein

Whole food sources of carbohydrates are going to be your number one choice when it comes to picking your carbohydrate source. Remember though, that whole food sources will take the longest to digest, try to give yourself about 2 hours between the time you eat and the time you are going to exercise to properly digest your food. When consuming carbohydrates closer to the time you exercise you are going to want to choose easily digestible sources.

Ultimately the decision of if and what to eat before exercise is a modern day problem. Our ancestors did not have a choice of if or what to eat before they went out on a multi-day hunt. If there was food available they ate it, if not they still went out and hunted anyways. If you are interested in performance, then paying attention to what you eat beforehand, how much, and at what time will make a difference for you. If you are interested in the health benefits of exercise, eat a meal if you can or want to before you exercise and make it fit your preferred dietary style of eating. At the end of the day the exercise session itself is most important, so don’t stress too much about pre-exercise nutrition.

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  1. “Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise … – NCBI – NIH.” 29 Jan. 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3577439/. Accessed 2 Jan. 2021.

  2. (2014, May 3). Gastrointestinal Complaints During Exercise: Prevalence …. Retrieved January 2, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4008808/

  3. (2018, September 11). Effects of Protein Supplementation on … – NCBI – NIH. Retrieved January 7, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6142015/

  4. (2013, January 29). Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic …. Retrieved January 7, 2021, from https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-10-5

  5. (2019, May 16). Carbohydrate Availability and Physical Performance …. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6566225/

  6. (2013, January 29). Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic …. Retrieved January 8, 2021, from https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-10-5

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