Any active individual will tell you they understand the importance of a pre workout meal, yet few individuals actually take the time to strategize correctly!

As I sit here and sift through food journals I have one athlete who eats nothing before a workout, the next is chowing down on 2 packs of fruit snacks beforehand, and the third eats so much that she finds herself cramping and throwing up halfway through her training session.

Not good my friends. Not good.

In today’s article, we will be discussing ideal pre workout meal timing, the best choices for a pre workout meal, and all natural pre workout supplements.

Why is the Right Pre Workout Fuel Important?

Fueling your body for sport is an essential component for success. If your body does not receive the right balance of nutrients prior to exercise, you’ll never make the most of your workouts. It’s no different than a car attempting to run on an empty tank of gas, essentially running on fumes. Sure it may work for a little while but eventually, that car will start to break down and not make it very far down the street.

If you truly want to be the best, you have to train hard. Yet, it’s not possible to train hard without premium fuel. Do you ever notice that you feel tired halfway through a workout? Feel extremely sore the days following a training session? Notice your stomach rumbling or cramping mid practice? None of this should not be happening on a routine basis and if it is, there is room for improvement in your pre workout meal.

The goal is to find the right timing and balance of foods as these substrates help your body return more quickly to a state of homeostasis. In other words, the more quickly and efficiently your body can get back to baseline by using nutrition to combat the stress incurred during a previous exercise session, the sooner you can give it your all in the next training session. The right fuel can help you push harder for longer, ultimately improving performance in the long run.

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Pre Workout Meal Composition

The composition (protein + carb + fat) ratio of your pre workout meal is extremely important. As you can imagine, this will differ from athlete to athlete. An ultra-endurance runner will require a different fueling strategy than a football player. A plant-based athlete will typically tolerate high fiber foods better than a keto athlete, etc, etc. However, generally speaking, there are a few guidelines you will want to adopt.

1.Keep Fat in Check.

While consuming enough dietary fat is extremely important for overall health, the worst time to consume higher amounts of fat is right before a workout. Sure, you probably realize you shouldn’t be slamming fast food before exercise. But guess what? Even larger amounts of high-quality plant-based fat (i.e. avocado, peanut butter etc.) is not ideal to consume before an intense workout.

Simply put, it takes a little more effort to digest fat. Therefore, our blood rushes to the gut to help make it happen. If most of our blood is helping out our gastrointestinal system, that means there is less to be found in our arms, legs, and brain. The end result is often unnecessary fatigue and cramps.  Save higher fat food items for post workout.

2. Avoid High Fiber

Black beans and kale are undoubtedly amazing, nutrient-dense foods. However, consuming higher amounts of fiber pre workout, especially for those of you who do not consume high fiber foods on a regular basis, will likely experience gas, bloating, and maybe even a few extra trips to the restroom. Again, save these foods for after your workout.

If you have a sensitive stomach but would prefer not to eliminate high-fiber foods pre workout, alter your method of consumption. Suck the juice out of your orange wedges and spit out the high fiber membranes (only pre-workout, otherwise, you better eat it!). Blend your kale into a smoothie vs. eating a large salad. Cook your cruciferous veggies until they can be cut with a work. Sure, they will not be as nutrient-dense but this is my compromise. Pressure cook then puree your beans into a spread or dip vs. eating whole. Lowering the lectin content may help your GI system feel a bit better.  

3. Protein Should Always be Present, but Moderate

Please don’t be that athlete that slams a bowl of pasta and nothing else. This is not ideal for blood sugar, body composition and anything in between. If you want sustained energy, include a moderate amount of protein in your pre workout meal. Roughly a lower-fat, palm size piece of animal protein or ~15-20g plant protein.

Think back to our rules on eating fat (high fat is not great before a workout)… baked or grilled chicken, white fish, turkey, will feel better going down the hatch pre workout than beef, pork, fried and breaded meats. Also, be dilligent when it comes to portions. Sure, chicken is a great all natural pre workout form of protein, but 4-5 oz will be sufficient, not 8-12!

Lastly, while high-quality grass-fed protein powder can be an excellent supplement (the key is keeping it as a supplement, not a staple!) in an athlete’s routine, we encourage trying to eating fresh, whole foods whenever possible.

4. All Natural Carbohydrate Sources Should Dominate

You might remember from 5th grade science class that carbohydrate is the primary fuel source for the brain and muscles. As a result, we want to make sure we consume ample amounts before our workout. More to come on this topic below.

Again, these are somewhat general guidelines as every athlete is different and our immune systems are as unique as our thumbprints. At the end of the day, you must listen to your body and go with what feels best to you. As long as you feel energized after consumption, your gut is strong and your stamina is steady throughout your training session or competition, you are doing well.

OK, Let’s Put it All Together. What Exactly Should My Pre Workout Meal Look Like?

First, before I dive into meal choices and composition, I want to mention one very important tip.

NEVER experiment on game day. Always practice food like you would your sport or skill. Just because something works for your teammate or colleague, does NOT mean it will work for you

In terms of meal composition, I want you to think of your plate as a pie chart. Most of you reading this will benefit from the following ratio: 50% of the plate = carbohydrate, 25% = protein and 25% low fiber veggies. Fat intake will be low, roughly 1 TBSP or less.

Please keep in mind that carbohydrate does not mean only bread, pasta and crackers! The carbohydrate family includes foods such as pasta and bread but ALSO starchy veggies such as potatoes, yams and parsnips, fruit and dairy! How many athletes do you know who eat only processed carbohydrates i.e. piles of pasta and loaves of bread before a tough practice or game, only to end up sluggish and bloated?

To compete your best you have to feel your best and to feel your best you have to eat your best.

End. Of. Story. Would you pour low-grade fuel into a Ferrari or Aston Martin? Of course not and the same motto should be applied to your body.  Only premium, all day every day, baby!

It doesn’t matter who you are or what sport you play. ALWAYS try your best to eat real food before you compete. Why? Because you are a human being and humans were designed to function best on real food.

In other words, swap the pasta for a baked potato. Swap the crackers for fruit. Swap the bread for quinoa.

Now of course your dietitian will sit with you to determine portions based on you goals, dietary habits, daily schedule etc. but here are a few general examples that will work for just about anyone.

Pre Workout Meal Ideas

Alright, now let’s put everything together. Here are a few of my favorite pre-workout meal choices.

Grilled chicken + quinoa + roasted veggies

Baked white fish + brown rice + side salad

Roasted turkey + sweet potato + grilled veggies

I would suggest adding a few tsp of olive, avocado, or coconut oil to your veggies. Drizzle on top before or after cooking.

Breakfast pre workout meal: cook ½ cup dry oats or amaranth in almond milk. About 2 minutes before your grains are finished cooking, mix in a chopped, small banana, 1 tsp cinnamon, and ½ TBSP almond butter.

Smoothies are also a great option for an early morning meal. See below for more ideas.

Final Thought: If you are a Nervous Nelly like I once was and you just can’t manage to choke down a single bite of food, please consider taking a few sips of something instead. A balanced smoothie would be ideal (see the next section of this article)  but if that is too much to start, try drinking a few sips of an organic electrolyte rich beverage such as NOOMA. Even a few sips of broth would be better than nothing.

Timing is Everything

What good is a perfectly balanced pre workout meal if your timing is off? You can spend hours Googling and planning optimal pre workout fuel but if you do not allow your body enough time to digest that premium fuel, you might be in trouble!

In a perfect situation, your pre workout meal would be consumed 3-4 hours before your practice or event.[1] This allows ample time for complete digestion. And when I say meal, I actually mean a balanced meal of protein carbohydrate and fat.

One hour prior to your practice or event is when you would consume your pre-workout snack, consisting primarily of carbohydrate.[1]

Yep, I can see some of you rolling your eyes right now. “There is no way I am going to wake up 3-4 hours before my early race in order to choke down a meal.”  While that would be a dream and I do in fact have a select few athletes who take this approach, I would not recommend it for all. Quality sleep is more critical to your health and performance in that situation. Therefore, I would recommend a mini smoothie one hour before your early morning event. Remember, liquid always digests more quickly and easily than solid, even if the macronutrient composition is the same.

Here are a few all natural pre workout examples that are easy to digest and taste great:

PB Banana Power

1 cup of your favorite milk ( I would recommend plant based for easier digestion)

1/2 TBSP peanut butter

1 small frozen banana

1 teaspoon honey

1 teaspoon of cinnamon

1-1.5 scoops (10-15g) Vital Protein Collagen Peptides

Strawberry Strength

1 cup vanilla almond milk (or milk of choice)

3/4 cup frozen strawberries (fresh is fine too but sometimes the texture is more appetizing w/ frozen)

½ TBSP cashew butter

1-1.5 scoops (10-15g) Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides

Tropical Tackle

1 cup almond milk (or milk of choice)

3/4 cup frozen pineapple

¼ cup 100% pure, organic orange juice

1 TBSP coconut oil or canned coconut creme

1-1.5 scoops (10-15g) Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides

Please note, you can always use your favorite protein powder instead of the collagen peptides in each recipe, however the peptides are a tasteless, odorless option that blends well into any flavor combo and is usually very well tolerated by my athletes across the board.

Should I Drink Caffeine Before a Workout?

Caffeine intake is a tricky question. You will see research supporting both sides of the argument. Is caffeine an ergogenic aid? Yes, for many of us it absolutely gives a boost while lowering the perceived rate of exertion.

However, genetics play more of a role than you think. Throughout my career as a dietitian, I can tell you I have worked with individuals who can drink an entire pot of coffee before bed and still sleep pretty deeply and yet I have had a select few who cannot even consume one cup of decaf at 6 am without feeling wired STILL at 9 pm that night. Unfortunately, some of us  were born to be incredibly slow caffeine metabolizers.

Additionally, depending on how you metabolize caffeine may change if it is helpful or hurtful to your performance. One athlete may have increased focus and energy while another may dehydrate more quickly and have increased anxiety. So, the decision to use caffeine need to be highly individualized.

Now, as for daily caffeine use, I will put this very simply for you. If you find that you are dependant upon caffeine each day, that is a problem. If you are angry, jittery, irritable and/or wake up tired and groggy each day, that is a problem. If you feel that you cannot have a great training session without caffeine, that is also a problem.

Remember, just because you fall asleep easily at night does not mean you are actually reaching repeated cycles of deep sleep. Many of my caffeine sensitive athletes struggle big time for that reason.

So, if you answered no to all of these questions and you make a conscious effort to dose your caffeine appropriately for you as individual, then it is likely OK for you to use caffeine in moderation.

Not sure what “moderation?” means when it comes to caffeine? A safe goal would be to aim for 2-3mg caffeine or less for every kg of body weight 60 minutes prior to your workout.[2] So, if you weigh 150 lbs, then 150 /2.2 = 68 kg x 2-3mg/kg = 135-205 mg caffeine would be appropriate for you pre workout. Sure, some studies will suggest that upwards of 3-6mg/kg is appropriate but without knowing you or your medical history, I’m sticking with 2mg/kg![3,4]

And yes, it might be time for you to start label reading or calling the manufacturer of your favorite coffee blend. Be sure to use an organic coffee grown at high altitudes and processed to remove mold myctotoxins. If you prefer decaf, be sure to use that uses swiss water processing.

Garden of Life Pre Workout Energy + Focus can

Last but not least, you are probably wondering what I would recommend for my go to all natural pre workout supplement. I am asked this question on a weekly basis and here is the answer: Garden of Life Sport SPORT Organic Plant-Based Energy + Focus.

This blend is NSF Certified for Sport and contains 85mg caffeine from Organic Coffeeberry, B vitamins from plant sources and a dose of nitrate from beets and dark leafy greens to help with blood flow and oxygen uptake.

Pro Tip: Choose the Blackberry flavor instead of the Blackberry Cherry flavor. The one with cherry includes artificial sweeteners.

Klean Athlete- Klean BCAA + ATP can

My favorite NSF certified for Sport pre-workout supplement that does NOT contain caffeine, is hands down, Klean Athlete – Klean BCAA + PEAK ATP.

This magical concoction contains amino acids to support recovery and muscle tissue repair. The BCAA + ATP supplies a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine, isoleucine and valine, as well as 400 mg of ATP in each serving, which has been shown to support peak physical performance by increasing strength, power and muscle gain.[5,6]

You can find both of these products on Amazon, however, our insider secret is to check out Wellevate. It offers professional grade supplements at the best prices you can find anywhere, ofter 20% cheaper than other sites with free shipping over $50.

We do receive a small commission from purchases but this comes at no cost to you and it helps us keep this site up and running. We encourage you to price shop, compare, and see what works best for you. Unfortunately, we can’t provide direct links to products with Wellevate, but a quick search will bring up what you’re looking for and save you some money.

The Best Natural Pre Workout for Endurance Athletes

If you’re and endurance athlete looking for steady energy, our top-secret supplement that has wowed many clients for years is actually a simple powder that was first created for diabetics. Read more about the super secret superstarch Energy by UCAN.

Eat to Compete

In summary, perfecting your pre workout meal is critical when it comes to achieving peak performance. If you truly want to feel your best and make the most of your training sessions, continue to experiment with your pre workout fuel until you have it down to a science. Be sure to use the suggestions in this article as your reference manual and please keep us posted on your accomplishments.

Now, are you ready to take your performance to the next level and learn about The Best Post Workout Shake to accelerate your recovery? Check out our posts explaining the benefits of a post workout shake and the most Essential Post Workout Shake Ingredients. We can’t wait to hear of your success!