If you’re an athlete who follows a plant-based (vegan or vegetarian) diet, you know that proper nutrition is key to maximizing your performance. Pre-workout fuel can make a significant difference in your energy levels, endurance, and overall workout experience.
Luckily, there’s a wide variety of plant-based options to choose from. In this blog post, we’ll explore the best vegan pre-workout foods to help you crush your fitness goals, as well as when to eat them and whether or not “pre-workouts” are really worth the money.
What should a vegan or vegetarian eat before the gym?
The main goal of a pre-workout meal or snack is to energize you and stabilize blood sugar levels for your workout. The pre-workout meal provides enough energy for at least the first 60 minutes of exercise. After one hour of exercise, more fuel is necessary to maintain performance.
There is a simple rule of thumb when it comes to picking out pre-workout meals– what you eat depends on when you eat. In other words, take into consideration how far in advance you’re eating before exercise when putting together a vegan pre-workout meal or snack.
Carbohydrates are the main fuel source for the muscles and brain. They are digested quickly, and the body even stores some in the liver and muscles, which is called glycogen. If you’re eating within 30-60 minutes before a workout, choose a predominantly carb-based snack, such as fruit, bread or crackers.
When you have more time to fuel for your workout, like 1 to 3 hours, eat a well-balanced meal with carbs, protein, and a little bit of fat. Both protein and fat take longer to digest, which wards off hunger. Having some protein in your system also helps with muscle growth and repair after the workout, and fat contributes to energy levels, especially for low-intensity exercise.
Best plant-based pre-workout foods
Below is a list of foods that are mostly rich in carbs, but also include some protein and fat. Choose one of these as a snack before a workout or pair some of them together to make a meal.
Bananas are nature’s energy bar, packed with easily digestible carbohydrates and potassium, an important electrolyte lost in sweat. The natural sugars in bananas offer a quick energy boost, while potassium helps prevent muscle cramps.
Any type of fruit is a good source of easily digestible carbs. Fruit alone doesn’t keep you full for long, but it quickly adds some sugar into the bloodstream. In addition, fruit has antioxidants that fight post-workout inflammation.
Opt for seasonal fruit, like citrus in the winter or berries and melons in the summer. Frozen fruit is also a refreshing treat in the hot months. If you have a sensitive stomach, remove the peel from fruit like apples or pears, which is where the fiber livers.
Oatmeal or overnight oats
A bowl of oatmeal is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates that release energy slowly. Oats also contain fiber, which can help sustain your energy levels throughout your workout but may also upset your stomach.
If you find eating oatmeal before a workout upsets your GI system, then you may want to limit the fibrous cereal. Or, start with a small serving and work your way up to a full bowl until your gut can tolerate it.
The more you put in your oatmeal or overnight oats, the more time it takes to digest. If you have a few hours to absorb the nutrients before a workout, top your oatmeal with fruit, nuts, and seeds.
Chia Seed Pudding
Chia seeds are mostly made up of protein and fat. But chia seed pudding is a well-balanced breakfast that incorporates carbs from the fruit and milk.
The type of milk in your pudding determines the protein content of the pudding. For example, soy milk and cow’s milk are much higher in protein than oat milk or almond milk. That said, chia seed pudding has all the nutrients to keep you full and energized for a workout. Eat some about 1-2 hours before exercise, so you have plenty of time to digest.
Toast with nut butter
Bread is a simple carb that is easy to digest. Whole wheat or whole grain breads take longer to absorb, due to their fiber content. Since bread is mostly carbs, it provides plenty of energy for exercise.
Topping toast with nut butter makes it more substantial, and it sticks with you longer. If you have at least 1-2 hours before exercise, top your toast with nut butter. If you only have 30-60 minutes, eat a piece of bread without toppings.
Dried fruit, like raisins or craisins
Dried fruit is high in natural sugar, which is quickly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream for fast-acting energy. If you’re running out the door for a workout, throw a few handfuls of dried fruit in a bag and eat on your way.
Just like raisins or craisins, dates are high in natural sugar and help with energy levels for exercise. They are also a good source of plant-based iron, which is necessary for red blood cells and oxygen transport throughout the body.
Potatoes and sweet potatoes
Both potatoes and sweet potatoes are rich in carbs and potassium, two nutrients that are helpful for athletes. Eating a pre-workout potato can give you quick energy and help you stay hydrated since potassium is one of the minerals lost in sweat.
If you’re looking for a quick packaged option, try a simple fruit and oat bar, like Nature’s Bakery. You may be thinking these types of bars are too high in added sugar, but that is exactly what makes them a good pre-workout snack. The sugar quickly ends up in the bloodstream for quick-acting energy.
Energy bars, like Clif bars, have the ingredients that are necessary to power you through a tough workout. Many are rich in carbs with some protein, so they are good to eat about an hour before exercise. I personally love a Clif bar before an intense hike.
If you think this salty snack is “bad” for you, think again. Pretzels are mostly carbs and sodium, two nutrients that contribute to exercise performance. Carbs provide energy, while sodium helps to replace fluid losses.
Low fiber cereal
Eating too much fiber before a workout can make you feel like you have to run to the bathroom. But a lower-fiber cereal provides carbs and some protein for quick energy. Look for one that has less than 2 or 3 grams of fiber per serving.
Why not enjoy your pre-workout fuel? A simple fruit popsicle provides the sugar your body needs to power you through endurance activity, and it has the added bonus of being refreshing on a hot or humid day.
If you prefer your crackers with a subtly sweet taste, opt for a few graham crackers before a workout. If your stomach can handle the extra fat/protein, smear them with a little bit of peanut butter.
Almonds are rich in healthy fats and protein, two nutrients that actually provide energy during a low-intensity workout. If you have easy training on hand, have a handful of almonds for sustained energy and to keep you feeling full during your workout.
What can I eat 30 minutes before a workout?
If you only have 30 minutes until your workout, choose a simple carb that is easily digestible. These items from the list above are perfect to eat right before exercise:
- Seasonal fruit
- Dried fruit
- Low fiber cereal
- Fruit popsicle
- Graham crackers
Is pre-workout suitable for plant-based athletes?
Pre-workout supplements, which are often called “pre-workouts” are a combination of supplements that are meant to give you energy for a workout. They come in powder form that is drinkable after the liquid is added.
All “pre-workouts” are different, but they generally contain a mixture of caffeine, amino acids (the building blocks of protein), creatine (a nitrogen compound that helps with muscle growth), glucose (aka carbs), and electrolytes. Most “pre-workouts” are vegan, but check the ingredients list to make sure there are no animal products.
That said, spending money on a “pre-workout” is completely unnecessary. You can get the energy you need from food and hydration. Caffeine does help with athletic performance, but there’s plenty of caffeine in coffee, tea, or sports nutrition products.
The Bottom Line
Fueling your workouts with these vegan pre-workout foods can enhance your performance and support your overall fitness goals. Remember that timing is crucial; eat these foods at the right time to allow for proper digestion. Experiment with different combinations to find what works best for your body and preferences. With the right fuel, you’ll be well on your way to achieving your fitness aspirations while staying committed to your plant-based lifestyle. Stay fit, stay fueled, and stay plant-powered!