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It’s important for athletes following a vegan diet to know what to eat prior to a workout. Eating the right nutrients, at the right time, can help ensure athletes are fueled to perform at their best.
Let’s take a look at what following a vegan diet involves. Then we will explore how to build an ideal vegan pre-workout meal.
What is a Vegan Diet?
An athlete who follows a vegan diet does not consume any animal-based or animal-derived products. This includes beef, chicken, turkey, pork, seafood, dairy products, eggs, and butter. Honey is also avoided by some individuals following a vegan diet (1).
Instead, all nutrients in a vegan diet are provided by plant-based sources. Plant-based sources of nutrients include: grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables.
Athletes eating a vegan diet should carefully plan their meals to ensure all their nutrient needs are met to support optimal health and sports performance.
Vegan Pre-Workout Meal
Now that you understand what following a vegan dietary pattern involves, let’s take a look at strategies for planning the pre-workout meal.
Timing Your Vegan Pre-Workout Meal
In addition to considering what types of food to eat, it is important to consider the timing of pre-workout meals and snacks. In general, the less time you have prior to the start of the activity, the less food you will want to eat with your pre-workout meal.
When possible, schedule your pre-workout meal to be eaten 3-4 hours prior to the exercise session. Your pre-workout meal should include a good source of carbohydrates, a moderate amount of protein, and be low in fat and fiber.
Planning this meal several hours before the exercise session allows time for your body to digest the meal prior to activity. It also allows time to go to the restroom before the workout if needed.
If you have less time before the workout (1-2 hours), focus on consuming carbohydrate-rich snacks for energy. Eating foods that are high in fat, fiber, and/or protein too close to the workout may cause GI distress during the activity (2).
Carbohydrates in the Vegan Pre-Workout Meal
Carbohydrates provide the energy athletes need to perform at their best. Thus, carbohydrates should be at the foundation of an athlete’s pre-workout meal.
Here are a variety of ways athletes can plan a vegan pre-workout meal that meets their carbohydrate needs.
Athlete’s following a vegan diet can enjoy a wide variety of grains with their pre-workout meal. Consider adding the following grains to your pre-workout meal to boost your intake of carbohydrates.
Adding a large serving of cooked grains, such as rice, quinoa, couscous, or barley, is a simple way to increase the carbohydrate content of your pre-workout meal.
In general, a 1/3 cup serving of cooked grains provides ~15 grams of carbohydrates. Enjoy grains as a dish, added to a vegan burrito bowl, or mixed into a soup with your pre-workout meal.
Oatmeal is a great pre-workout breakfast choice. A bowl of oatmeal provides whole grains, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Mix in fresh or dried fruit to further increase the carbohydrate content of your oatmeal.
Although oats by themselves are vegan, be mindful that ingredients added into packaged oatmeal may not be fully plant-based. It is always best to read the ingredient label to ensure the product you are buying only contains plant products.
Consider making your favorite overnight oats recipe to enjoy as your pre-workout breakfast. When prepared with a plant-based milk and plant-based yogurt, overnight oats can make for a power-packed start to the day.
Vegan Breakfast Cereal
Vegan breakfast cereals are a great way to increase the carbohydrate content of your pre-workout meal. You can enjoy vegan breakfast cereal with plant-based milk or eat it dry as a snack.
When selecting a breakfast cereal, athletes following a vegan diet should carefully review the ingredient label to ensure no animal products, such as honey, have been added to the cereal. Nature’s Path®, Barbara’s®, and Kashi® all have vegan cereal options available.
Vegan Bread, Pasta, Snack Crackers, and Bars
Breads, pastas, and snack crackers are another easy way to increase the carbohydrate content of your meal. Make sure to read the ingredient labels on your favorite products closely to ensure they do not contain animal-derived ingredients, such as honey, eggs, or milk.
Enjoying salty, carbohydrate-based snacks, such as pretzels, with your pre-workout meal can also be a good choice. Salt helps stimulate thirst, thus encouraging you to hydrate before exercise. Similar to breads and pastas, read the ingredient list closely to ensure you are purchasing a vegan product.
Vegan bars are great to have ready for a quick addition to your pre-workout meal or snack prior to exercise. When it comes to choosing vegan bars, look for products that are made with whole grains, contain a good source of plant-protein, and have limited added ingredients.
Vegan Baking Mixes
The use of vegan baking mixes can enable you to prepare your favorite muffins, breads, and pancakes to enjoy with your pre-event meal.
Simple Mills® has a variety of vegan baking mixes available including an all-purpose baking mix made with nut and seed flour. Orgain® also makes a plant-based protein pancake and waffle mix that is vegan. The mix is made with pea protein and provides 10 grams of protein per serving.
The use of plant-based milk and a vegan egg substitute, such as Bob’s Red Mill® Gluten Free Egg Replacer, can ensure the recipe meets your dietary needs.
Fruit: Carbohydrate-Rich Choice for a Vegan Pre-Workout Meal
Fruit is an excellent carbohydrate choice for athletes following a vegan diet. In addition to carbohydrates, fruit contains vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidants.
A fruit smoothie can be a great high-carbohydrate addition to your pre-workout meal. By adding in a variety of frozen fruits and banana slices you can make a high-carbohydrate smoothie that will help fuel your body for the upcoming workout.
Applesauce is another easy way athlete’s following a vegan diet can boost their carbohydrate intake. A ½ cup serving of applesauce provides ~15 grams of carbohydrates. Double check the ingredient list for the applesauce you purchase to ensure no animal-based products or sweeteners are added.
Dried fruit is also a great source of carbohydrates. A quarter-cup serving of dried fruit provides you with ~15 grams of carbohydrates. Dried fruit, such as raisins, cranberries, pineapple, apples, and mango, makes a nutritious addition to your oatmeal or vegan breakfast cereals.
When looking for ways to increase carbohydrates with your vegan pre-workout meal, don’t forget about starchy vegetables. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, corn, and green peas are all great options.
Be mindful of the toppings you add to starchy vegetables eaten with the pre-event meal. Too much oil, margarine, butter, or heavy sauces may lead to GI distress during the activity.
Protein in the Vegan Pre-Workout Meal
In addition to carbohydrates, athletes should consume a moderate amount of lean protein with their pre-workout meal (3-4 hours prior to exercise).
Here are several ideas for how athletes following a vegan diet can add protein to their pre-workout meal.
Soy is a complete protein that contains all nine of the essential amino acids that our bodies cannot produce. Vegans can add soy protein to their pre-event meals in a variety of ways.
- Tofu – Tofu is made from soybeans and comes in a variety of textures and levels of firmness. It is nutrient rich, containing protein, vitamins, minerals, and flavonoids. Firm tofu can be baked, grilled, or added to a stir-fry with vegetables and rice for a great pre-workout meal. Silken tofu blends well into a fruit smoothie. The tofu will not alter the taste of the smoothie, but will add protein and give the smoothie an extra creamy texture.
- Soy Milk – In general, plant-based milks (almond, coconut, oat) tend to be low in protein. An exception to this is soy milk. Soy milk contains ~6 grams of soy protein per cup (3).
- Edamame – Another way to boost the protein content of your pre-workout meal is with edamame (soybeans). A ½ cup serving of cooked edamame contains 9 grams of protein, along with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants (4). Consider enjoying edamame as a side dish with your meal or stirring into your pasta or rice.
Seitan is versatile in how it can be prepared. With your pre-game meal, enjoy seitan grilled with a side of rice, as a topping on a vegan burrito bowl, or as a ground beef substitute in your pasta sauce.
Nuts and Nut Butters
Nuts and nut butters are great to keep on hand to enjoy with your pre-workout meal. They contain protein, unsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, making them a nutritious addition to your meal.
Different types of nuts provide different nutritional benefits, so try to include a variety in your overall sports nutrition meal plan.
Nut butters make a great spread for sandwiches, are delicious stirred into oatmeal, and are a perfect topping for apple slices and whole grain crackers.
When selecting a nut butter, take time to read the ingredient label and choose a product that has limited added ingredients. Be mindful that not all nut butters are vegan, as some contain added sweeteners, such as honey.
Flaxseeds and chia seeds are nutrient dense seeds that provide protein, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
These seeds are versatile and can easily be added into your pre-workout oatmeal, cereal, smoothies, and yogurt. Flaxseeds and chia seeds can also be used as a vegan egg substitute in baking.
Quinoa is a type of seed that is packed full of nutritional benefits. Similar to soy, quinoa is a complete source of protein containing all 9 essential amino acids.
Not only does quinoa contain protein, it also provides carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Therefore, enjoying quinoa with your pre-workout meal will support both your protein and carbohydrate needs.
Hummus is a nutritious, plant-based food that makes a delicious spread or dip. It is made with chickpeas and contains carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Consider adding hummus to your sandwich, wrap, or enjoying as a dip with pita chips at the pre-workout meal.
Vegan Egg Substitutes
Plant-based egg substitutes are another easy way to increase the protein content of your pre-workout meal.
Just Egg® makes a vegan egg substitute that contains 5 grams of protein per serving. You can enjoy the egg substitutes scrambled, use them to make an omelet, or substitute them for eggs in your favorite recipes.
Plant-Based, High-Protein Milks
Some brands of plant-based milks are starting to offer higher protein varieties. Silk® Original Protein is an almond and cashew milk blend that contains added pea protein. A one cup serving of this beverage provides 10 grams of protein, along with calcium and Vitamin D.
Athletes can easily add protein to their vegan pre-event meal by adding plant-based, high-protein milk to their oatmeal, cereal, and smoothies.
The protein content of plant-based yogurts tends to vary based on the type of plant-based milk used in the yogurt. Similar to soy milk, soy yogurt contains soy protein with ~6 grams of protein per 6-oz container (8).
When purchasing plant-based yogurts it is best to compare the nutrition fact labels between products to find higher protein options. Some brands are starting to offer Greek-style, plant-based yogurts, which have a higher protein content than traditional plant-based yogurts.
Foods to Limit in a Vegan Pre-Workout Meal
With the pre-workout meal athletes want to provide their bodies with quick energy that can be used for the upcoming activity. Fiber slows down digestion, thus high-fiber foods are not ideal in the hour or two leading up to exercise.
Fiber is important in an athlete’s diet, but high-fiber foods are best consumed outside of the immediate pre-workout period.
Foods high in fat should also be limited during the pre-event meal. The body digests fat slowly, thus a meal high in fat may lead to GI distress during the activity (1). Therefore, avoid fried, oily, greasy, and dessert type foods with the pre-workout meal.
It is important for athletes to go into their workouts optimally hydrated. Dehydration can negatively impact both health and sports performance.
It is recommended to drink 5-7 mL/kg of body weight of fluid approximately 4 hours prior to the event (8). For a 175-pound athlete, this would be ~13 – 19 fluid ounces. In general, consuming approximately 2 cups of fluid with the pre-event meal can assist you with meeting this goal.
In the hour leading up to the event athletes should continue hydrating. Aim to drink around 8-oz of fluid during this time period.
Practice Your Vegan Pre-Workout Meal
It is important to take time to determine what vegan pre-workout meal works best for you. Individuals vary in what foods they tolerate and feel best performing on.
Do not try a new pre-workout meal or snacks for the first time prior to competition. You want to go into competition confident that your pre-workout meal has you fueled to perform at your best.
Ready to Build Your Vegan Pre-Workout Meal
You are now set with ideas of what to eat prior to a workout when you are following a vegan diet plan.
For additional sports nutrition tips for athletes following a vegan diet, check-out my blog: 9 Most Important Vegan Pantry Staples for Athletes.
If you are interested in a variety of plant-based recipes for vegan athletes, Natalie Rizzo’s Planted Performance cookbook is an excellent resource (available on Amazon).
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About the Author
Mandy is a Sports Dietitian Nutritionist in the San Antonio, TX area. She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a Licensed Athletic Trainer, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Mandy has experience working with athletes at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. She believes the key to reaching one’s full potential, both in everyday life and in sports performance, relies on a healthy nutritional foundation. Learn more about the work Mandy does here.