The Go-To Guide to Pre-Workout Nutrition

The Go-To Guide to Pre-Workout Nutrition

Today will mark the first guest post for my blog. Holla!

I’ve written a lot about women’s body image, strength training, positive psychology, and business, but admittedly, when it comes to all things nutrition I feel like I’m walking through murky waters. I mean come on…I’m eating a pumpkin cheesecake muffin right now before I dead lift!

Sure, maybe this white girl Fall ritual works well for me, but there are certainly some general guidelines we can take away from nutrition aficionados when it comes to pre-workout nutrition. Muffins and dead lifts do not always equal lean muscle mass, soaring energy, or optimal recovery. 

I reached out to my friend, trainer, and nutrition specialist Taji Mortazavi to fill in the gaps of my food knowledge. (<—sorry, no pumpkin muffins for you guys!) I have known Taji since high school, and we reunited in the gym as I was prepping for my bikini show last year. Desperately, I asked her for advice with my diet plan that consisted of tilapia, yams, and only green stuff. WTF??? And good thing me being heavily stimulated on pre-workout caffeine didn’t deter her from providing some great insights.

Take it away Taji:

The Go-To Guide To Pre-Workout Nutrition

Still struggling to figure out what to eat before working out? You’re not alone. There are a bunch of misleading theories about diet and how you should eat before exercising. High carb. Low carb. No carb. No food. I could go on for days. But fortunately for you, I won’t.

The key to having a good pre-workout meal is considering the following:

  • The fitness activity you’re completing
  • Your fitness goals
  • Your dietary preferences and behavior

Let’s take a moment to unpack these ideas to figure out what the optimal pre and post workout meals are for you!

Pre-Workout Question #1: What Activity Are You Completing?

Going on a long, 10-mile hike? Or a 45-minute HIIT session? You might think a workout is a workout is a workout, but different types of activity call for different pre-workout fuel sources. You might find that for a cardio-only session, 30 grams of fast-digesting carbohydrates with little fat or protein (i.e. a bowl of whole grain cereal with almond milk and a banana) might be the perfect for you. Conversely, if you’re going to a high intensity spinning class, something liquid based (i.e. a green smoothie with hemp protein powder) with a little more protein and fat might be up your ally. Check out these pre-workout meals and snacks based on activity level.


A simple smoothie made with banana, almond milk, cinnamon and a pinch of turmeric (yes, turmeric) is just enough to provide you energy, but not weigh you down. The turmeric also helps fight free-radical damage and inflammation:

  • 1 banana, frozen
  • 1 cup of almond milk
  • 1 tsp coconut oil
  • Dash each of cinnamon and turmeric

Low-Intensity Cardio (Think a Long Run or Hike)

Low-intensity cardio usually burns more fat (but this doesn’t mean it’s the only way to lose fat!). Have something small, but substantial. Adjust your intake accordingly if you’re exercising for more than 60 minutes:

  • 1-2 slices sprouted grain bread
  • 2 tbsp raw almond butter
  • ½ cup pomegranate seeds, or ½ an apple sliced

High-Intensity Cardio (Thinking Spinning, Aerobics, Sprints, or HIIT)

The key with high-intensity exercise sessions is finding something that gives you energy, but doesn’t weigh you down—especially if you’re going to be bouncing around doing burpees, jump squats, and other high-intensity moves. Try these meals

  • ½ a cup of oatmeal topped with a poached egg and a dash of paprika
  • Ham/turkey and cheese roll (use approximately 1-2 ounces of each)
  • Plain Greek yogurt with berries, flax seed, and a drizzle of raw honey

Weight Training (Think Major Muscle Groups Like Chest, Back, and Legs)

Some people think weight training pre-workout meals need to be massive because you’re doing some serious lifting. But the truth is, sometimes you actually burn FEWER calories during a weight training session compared to a cardio session. This doesn’t mean you should skimp out on weight training though (the increased muscle tissue will boost your metabolism over time). However, don’t think you need to eat a giant meal that will only weight you down. Try one of these options:

  • ½ cup of quinoa with ½ an avocado and a drizzle of low-sodium soy sauce
  • ¾ cup assorted fruit salad with ½ cup of cottage cheese
  • 1 slice sprouted grain bread, 1 slice cheddar cheese, and a sliced pear sprinkled with pumpkin pie spice

Pre-Workout Question #2: What Are Your Fitness Goals?

Are you trying to put on muscle? Loose fat? Lean out and get shredded for your high school reunion? The goals of your fitness routine impact the workouts you complete, which subsequently impact the foods you’re going eat before and after exercising.
If you’re trying to ‘grow’ and gain muscle, try adding more carbohydrate to both your pre and post-workout meals. Some meal plans call for at least 50 grams of carbohydrate in both meals (which can also be the total amount of carbs some people eat in an entire day). For those that are seriously trying to shed body fat, it’s optimal to cut back on the carbs, but maintain or even increase your protein intake.

As much as I might want to give you a formula for this, this really is something you’re going to have to figure out for yourself. Play around with different ratios of protein, fats, and carbohydrate until you figure out the optimal plan for you! For instance, as a personal trainer myself, I’ve spent several years accruing muscle mass and shedding body fat. Thus, my goals were very different when I first started exercising. Now, I’m working on maintaining my muscle mass while still working on achieving a lower body fat percentage. Compared to someone like my diet who is trying to achieve muscular hypertrophy (i.e. get swole), our pre-workout meals are clearly going to differ.


Pre-Workout Question #3: What are Your Dietary Preferences and Behavior?

Do you prefer to workout in the morning, or evening? Are you vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, or kosher? I could recommend you to eat X servings of Y until I’m blue in the face, but it doesn’t really make a difference if my suggestions go against your food preferences or general diet. For instance, most of the meal suggestions I’ve provided today focus on some sort of healthy whole grain. But if you’re gluten-free or paleo, obviously this isn’t going to work. Conversely, if you head straight to the gym after work, you might not have time for an elaborate pre-workout snack. Work within your preferences, budget, schedule, and dietary habits to create meals that fit within your macronutrient ranges and are still satisfying.

Some people view pre-workout nutrition as this scary monster lurking under your bed (or perhaps the gym’s locker room). But done the right way, pre-workout meals can be a strategic part of your diet to help reach new fitness goals!


About the Author

Taji Mortazavi is a certified personal trainer and the founder of We’re Talking About Food. Devoted to anything food or fitness-related, Taji’s goal is to democratize health so that all people can live a healthy lifestyle regardless of budget, schedule, chronic disease, and other secondary factors. Support Taji by liking We’re Talking About Food’s Facebook page OR subscribing to our monthly newsletter!


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