Finding the ideal workout food is already complicated, but it’s even more challenging to find the right vegan pre-workout food.
We’ll break down what the ideal pre-workout food is for various scenarios. Whether your goal is to lose weight or to increase your performance, your pre-workout meal or snack should not be the same!
In the same vein, you need to eat differently if your training session is a short but intense workout than if you are going for a 2-hour run!
We’ll divide the pre-workout vegan food based on 2 intensities and 2 goals to make things simpler:
The intensity is how much effort you exert over the period.
- Short & intense session: anything less than 60-minute long where you workout in intense bursts. E.g., Crossfit, Interval training (running, cycling), Circuit routine, Lap Swimming, etc.
- Long & sustained effort: any workout that is more than 60-minute long where you work at a low-medium intensity. For example, a 15-mile run, a 20-mile ride, a long hike, etc.
Your goal is your personal target, the reason why you are working out.
- Weight loss: the primary reason why you work out is to lose some weight.
- Increase your performance: whether it’s running faster, cycling for longer, or just getting better at what you do.
Should I eat before a workout?
Put it this way. It is better to not eat anything than to eat the wrong thing before a workout.
If you were to eat something that your body disagrees with, you might get some or all of the below.
- Muscle pain
- Side stitches
- Upset guts
Ground rules for pre-workout food
To avoid that, there are a few rules you should follow.
Rule #1: Never, ever try something new before an important event like a race
The food you eat has a lot of effects on your body. You don’t want to discover an unpleasant side-effect when you are in the first miles of your marathon. On race day, always use a pre-workout food you’ve tried before.
Rule #2: Follow the serving size
Whether your pre-workout snack is an energy ball or a performance powder, follow the indicated serving size. You are not going to go twice faster because you had twice the caffeine!
Rule #3: Don’t mix pre- and post-workout food
Pre-workout food has a purpose. To keep you going while you are working out. Post-workout food is there to help you recover. Don’t mix them. It doesn’t help.
Rule #4: Water is not food. Take a lot of water!
Before any workout, drink plenty of water. To stay hydrated, drink 500ml before your workout and every 45-60 minutes.
Fasting vs. not fasting
Back to the question, should I eat before I work out?
There are some proven benefits to doing fasted workouts. In particular, they teach your body how to consume fat faster.
So if you work out often, fasting is a perfectly valid option for the low-to-medium-intensity sessions.
However, if you are not working out regularly, a fasted effort might be too hard on your body. In that case, keep reading for our favorite pre-workout foods!
1. For short but intense sessions
During short and intense sessions, your body goes through its easy-to-access energy storage quickly (blood glucose, muscle glycogen).
Once these stores are depleted, it will start to consume body fat and will ask your liver for more glucose – if you ate a pre-workout snack.
So the best way to keep your body well fuelled is to give it some food that will be quick to metabolize. But if your goal is to lose weight, you might be better off letting your body use its fat.
a. Pre-Workout foods for losing weight on short sessions
Short and intense sessions tend to consume most of the glycogen stored in your muscles quickly. Some studies show that 90% of your glycogen can be gone in as fast as 9 minutes when exercising at very high intensity.
Once these stores are depleted, the body starts to use its stored fat.
If your goal is to lose weight, you can leverage this!
Here are the top 3 pre-workout food for optimal weight loss on a short training session:
Yep, the good old coffee is a drink that has two advantages for working out:
- It promotes fat burning
- Caffeine helps with concentration and physical performance
However, coffee also has some potentially detrimental effects like gut discomfort, so try it first on a short workout!
To boost your weight loss, you can add a few teaspoons of MCT oil.
Pineapple is a great fruit for short, intense workouts. It’s quite high in carbs but also in fiber and its high water density helps with hydration.
You can either eat fresh pineapple chunks or go for my pineapple smoothie!
Oatmeal has fantastic fat-burning properties. Because it’s high in fiber and makes you feel full for longer, oatmeal is one of the best fat-burning ingredients.
Coupled with peanut butter, you have a great pre-workout combo to promote weight loss.
Check out my favorite oatmeal pre-workout recipes that can promote weight loss below!
Should I take Carnitine?
Carnitine is an amino acid that is used by muscles to burn fat. Because as vegans or vegan runners, we don’t get much carnitine from food, we only have what our body produces.
So it should be logical that taking supplemental carnitine helps with fat burning, right?
In reality, carnitine does not help. Several studies have shown that taking supplements of carnitine has no effect on fat burning on the vegan or vegetarian population.
b. Pre-workout foods to increase performance on short sessions
If your goal is not to lose weight but to increase your performance, you will target high-GI food and caffeine.
High GI food will give you immediate glucose that your muscles can burn along with their stored glycogen.
Caffeine will help you work harder and be more focused.
Bananas provide a good amount of energy while also bringing a ton of natural electrolytes.
The electrolytes help you maintain muscle functions while you sweat.
The recipes below are top-notch before an intense effort:
Banana cakes and cookies
If you don’t enjoy the texture of a smoothie for breakfast, a good alternative is to get your banana in cookies or cakes.
Coupled with wholesome flour, bananas bring all the energy you need to make your training session feel easier.
Peanut Butter Toast
Another easy solution to get your high-GI, quickly mobilizable carbs is to eat a simple peanut butter toast.
Peanut butter brings you healthy fat, while wholemeal bread provides carbs and fiber.
A fantastic option is to spread your peanut butter on my Zucchini Bread!
Beyond caffeine-loaded powders or coffee, you can find some caffeine in other places to get some of this fat-burning helper.
Steer clear of energy drinks, though! For one thing, anything sparkling will upset your stomach. Plus, if you were to opt for a sugar-loaded energy drink, the sugar rush would crush your energy more than anything!
There are good natural sources of caffeine available:
- Tea – in particular green tea. A cup of green tea will give you just enough of a kick!
- Dark chocolate. Though not as concentrated as in coffee, dark chocolate has a bit of caffeine in it.
- Guarana: not available unprocessed, but you can find vegan and organic powders like the MRM Clean Energy.
2. For long sustained efforts
If your workout is going to take longer than 60 minutes, you need to eat food that will release carbs more slowly as well as promote a slow consumption of body fat.
It is also much more important on longer efforts to make sure you consume gut-friendly food. There’s nothing worse than having to find a restroom in the middle of a long run!
Again, the food you can take for long and sustained effort can be divided into two groups. Food that promotes weight loss at the expense of sheer performance, or food that boosts your performance without necessarily focusing on trimming the fat.
a. Pre-Workout foods that help trim fat on long sessions
In a long session, you are most likely going to be working out at a lower intensity. As a result, your glycogen stores will last much longer.
This is good because it means you don’t need to load your body with high-GI food, but it also means that you will mobilize your fat storage a bit less.
So let’s have a look at what food you can it to still trigger some of that fat burning.
Nuts, and in particular walnuts, are excellent pre-workout food.
Nuts have some slow-release carbs, which helps fuel your muscles for longer. But they also have a good amount of healthy fat, which tends to help trigger fat burning.
Some nuts like hazelnuts or walnuts have a good amount of electrolytes, helping your muscles function for longer. They also provide enough protein to promote muscle recovery.
Oatmeal (again) with a low-GI syrup
Oatmeal works well for short and intense sessions but combined with slow-release carbs like brown rice syrup or maple syrup, it is excellent for long sessions at a lower intensity.
With oatmeal, you get fat burning, and with the syrup, some low-GI carbs keep you going for longer.
b. Pre-workout foods to increase performance before long sessions
What to eat before running, in particular for long runs?
For long efforts, and if you want to increase your performance, you need to provide your body with healthy fuel, food that promotes good muscle recovery and that is friendly to your guts.
The best vegan running food for these long sessions is to use a combination of a thing called BCAA, low-GI food, and caffeine.
BCAA stands for Branched Chain Amino Acids. They are essential 3 of the 9 essential amino acids that your body can’t synthesize. That means you need to find them in your food.
Given that most of the common sources of BCAA are animals, it is a bit more tricky for us on a vegan diet.
There’s a great list of vegan-friendly BCAA sources over on vegfaqs, but to summarize, the best gut-friendly sources you can consume before a workout are:
- Hemp Seeds: use our no-bake protein balls.
- Sunflower Seeds: you can make our no-bake brownie balls with sunflower seeds.
- Almonds: make some of our almond flour cookies.
- Cashews: get some in our no-bake Snickers bar – full of cashews, peanut butter, and maple syrup, the ideal combo for a workout!
- Chickpeas: our chickpea blondie bars mix chickpeas and maple syrup for a power snack before your run.
- Peanuts: our favorite workout snack with peanuts is the no-bake peanut butter oatmeal balls.
Coffee is not for many people not gut-friendly for long efforts.
As an alternative to coffee, opt for a caffeine-rich vegan pre-workout powder drink like the following:
- Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer
- Honey Badger Performance Energy
- MacroMike Pre-Workout (my personal favorite)
Many of these combine natural caffeine with amino acids and some other natural electrolytes.
Should I take a vegan protein shake before my workout?
Plant-based protein shakes are powders that, once mixed with water or dairy-free milk, create smoothie-like drinks.
They are useful to us vegan in our recovery as we tend to receive less protein in our food than meat-eaters.
When you work out, you inevitably create many micro-lesions in your muscles. Your body then needs to heal all these micro-fissures, and depending on the load of your workout, it might also need to increase the amount of muscular tissue.
Building or fixing muscle takes protein. So you need to give your body a good amount of healthy, natural amino acids to promote muscle growth.
Now should you take protein powders before a workout?
There’s no evidence that taking protein powder before a workout helps with recovery compared to taking it after. However, it makes your stomach work overtime when you want it to focus on your workout.
So, avoid protein shakes before a workout! Keep it for when you’re done.
Whether you are out on a long run, short but intense crossfit session, or commuting to work, there are plenty of vegan options to both promote weight loss or to increase your performance workout after workout.