Some of us work out incredibly well on an empty stomach.
The rest of us… not so much!
If you’re not into “fasted training” (working out on an empty stomach), then you definitely want to make sure you get a meal in before working out.
But sometimes, you’ll find that your workout time is coming up too soon, and you don’t want to pack in a full meal.
For those situations, it’s time for a solid pre workout snack. This list has a few ideas, but first, let’s discuss nutrition and philosophy.
Pre workout snack nutrition
The idea is to grab a quick bite that will give us energy, but not make us feel too heavy or bloated. So first, let’s talk about what we don’t want.
Below, we talk about the do’s and don’ts of what to eat before working out, with sources cited to back it up. If you’re already up to speed on the science, you can click here to continue to the list.
What we don’t want in a pre workout snack
Too much fiber
Fiber is great… but you know where we’re going with this. Too much may lead to a bowel movement, as increased amounts of fiber lead to increased number of bowel movements — not what we want when in the gym!
Too much fat
A 2004 Australian research study showed that fat intake before a workout impaired the ability to utilize carbohydrates, and did not improve performance.
That same study also mentions that carbohydrates before working out (especially if 3-4 hours before) do improve performance. Because of this, we’re going to stick with carbohydrates and protein.
Also, a gram of fat contains more calories than a gram of carbohydrates or protein (9g vs. 4g), so it’s easier to make mistakes in estimating how much you really need – leading us to our next point:
Too many calories in general
This is a snack, not a meal. If you’re dieting, you should always count your calories. Even though it’s just before your workout, this snack does count towards the calories you take in for the day.
Calories aren’t the only thing, but when it comes to weight, they are still the primary factor.
What we do want
As mentioned in the study above, carbohydrates pre workout improve performance. But what about the specifics?
Simple or complex carbs?
In terms of workout performance, it doesn’t matter. Across the long term of taking simple or complex carbs within the 24 hours pre workout, it doesn’t matter – performance was not significantly different in different groups.[4,5]
In those studies, starches and simple glucose (dextrose) both outperformed placebo (zero-calorie, zero-carb artificially sweetened drinks) for athletes.
However, in terms of fat burning, more complex starchy carbohydrates actually work better – they aid in increased free fatty acid utilization during exercise, and blunt the blood sugar spike that simple sugars provide up front.
For that reason, we’re going to suggest complex carbohydrates for dieters, but with one caveat: if you need a snack immediately before working out, or you want the insulin / blood sugar spike because you’re bulking up, then go for simple sugars or a combination of both.
Protein and amino acids
Protein timing is a hotly debated contest, and right now, the general consensus based upon the most well-performed meta-analysis of all protein timing studies states this: protein timing largely does not matter.
What’s most important is that you get enough protein in throughout the day. If there is such a thing as a “protein window”, it’s possibly something more like 5-6 hours.
So why are we recommending protein?
It might sound contradictory to the research explained above, but the simple fact is that most dieters and athletes are not getting enough protein. If you are here because you need a pre workout snack, we’re willing to say that you haven’t eaten for a few hours. And now you’re going to go work out for an hour or so, and then you need to get home and prepare food…
At that point, you’re potentially brushing up to the postulated 5-6 hour “anabolic window of opportunity”, which simply isn’t worth risking. Plus, it’ll mean you just spent 20-25% of your day straight not eating any protein.
So we’re not adding protein and amino acids here for timing-specific performance or muscle-building – we’re adding it because it avoids running into pitfalls later.
Pre Workout Snack Ideas
On to our carbohydrate and protein-based snacks:
Fat-Free Greek yogurt and protein powder
You can make a really nice pudding with fat-free greek yogurt and the protein powder of your choice. It’s about as simple as it gets, and this is a bit of a higher-protein option.
Any flavor of protein works well, but chocolate or a chocolate peanut butter type is usually best when used with yogurt alone.
Low-fat yogurt can work as well, depending on your dietary goals.
Fat-Free Greek Yogurt and Fruit
An alternative to the option above, this is a higher-carb option. You can also balance all three – protein powder, yogurt, and fruit if you like. In that case, vanilla flavored protein powder works best.
For either of the above options, you can see what protein powder is best for you here.
Whole wheat toast with sliced banana and cinnamon
A quick and tasty carb-laden snack, but it might be smarter to use only one piece of toast, a half of a banana, and then you can have half of a serving of protein as well.
Grilled chicken, mixed veggies, and rice
We haven’t had vegetables yet, but this is a quick and obvious staple. Just make sure you keep it on the light side – 3oz of chicken should be fine, and don’t overwhelm yourself with an entire plate of rice.
Trail mix is a perfect and quick idea – and it’s even better with yogurt!
Sweet potato and tilapia (or any other kind of fish)
Sweet potatoes and yams are some of the best carb sources out there. You don’t need an entire potato though – make sure you weigh it!
Tilapia is a fat-free staple, but any fish, like salmon, will do.
Oatmeal, fruit, and vanilla protein powder
Oats are another great carb source, staple of bodybuilders for years. With vanilla protein powder and various fruits, you’ll never get bored.
You can also cook in ⅓ to ½ cup of egg whites instead of the water. It won’t smell as good, but the taste will be relatively unhampered and the extra protein is worth it.
Egg white omelet sandwich
Egg whites make up nature’s “perfect protein”, and spicing them up and throwing them between some bread makes for a super quick carb/protein breakfast.
Use some low-fat or fat-free mayo with your tuna, add some celery, dill spice, and slop it in a couple of pieces of bread and you’re off to the races.
Tuna also mixes very well with greek yogurt – best if not sweetened.
Milk and cereal (healthy cereal)
Find some cereal (the kind that’s not glorified candy), add your preferred milk, and have at it. Just beware – it’s easy to get roped into eating multiple bowls of cereal – weigh your food, measure your milk, and count your calories!
That sums up the list. Drop comments below with ideas of your own!
Consider a pre workout supplement like Nitramine
If your workouts are lacking because you’re not focused or you need more than just some food, then it might be time to take a look at a pre workout supplement.
The best pre workout supplement of 2014 and beyond is Myokem’s Nitramine, which is a focus-driven formula that has a reasonable 150mg caffeine to get you going.
On this site, you can read more about Nitramine, compare prices, and even get a free sample below!
Keep your muscles full with the right amino acids (mTOR Pro) and protein powder!
To boost your muscle amino acid levels before and during your workout, stay tuned for news on Myokem’s new intra-workout formula, mTOR Pro.
And for recommendations on the best protein powder, you can see what protein powder is best for you here.