Pre-Workout Nutrition: What to Eat Before a Workout

Athletes and fitness enthusiasts are always looking for ways to improve their performance and achieve their goals. Good nutrition can help your body perform better and recover faster after each workout.

Optimal nutrient intake prior to exercise will not only help you maximize your performance but also minimize muscle damage.

This is a detailed guide to pre-workout nutrition. It contains everything you need to know.

Knowing What to Eat Is Important

Fueling your body with the right nutrients prior to exercise will give you the energy and strength you need to perform better.

Each macronutrient has a specific role before a workout. However, the ratio in which you need to consume them varies by individual and the type of exercise.

Below is a brief look at the role of each macronutrient.

Carbs

Your muscles use the glucose from carbs for fuel.

For short- and high-intensity exercise, your muscle and liver stores of glycogen are your muscles’ main source of energy.

But for longer exercises, the degree to which carbs are used depends on several factors. These include the intensity, type of training and your overall diet.

Your muscles’ glycogen stores are limited. As these stores become depleted, your output and intensity diminish.

Studies have consistently shown the ability of carbs to increase glycogen stores and utilization while boosting carb oxidation during exercise.

Carb loading, which involves consuming a high-carb diet for 1–7 days, is a well-known method to maximize glycogen stores.

Protein

Smoothie in a Bottle and a Sporty Female Tying Her Shoelaces

Many studies have documented the potential of pre-workout protein consumption to improve athletic performance.

Consuming protein alone or with carbs prior to exercise has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis.

One study showed a positive anabolic response after the ingestion of 20 grams of whey protein before exercise.

Other benefits of eating protein before exercise include:

  • Promote a better anabolic response, or muscle growth
  • Improve muscle recovery
  • Increase strength and lean body mass
  • Increase muscle performance.

Fat

While glycogen is used for short- and high-intensity bouts of exercise, fat becomes the source of fuel for longer and moderate-to-low-intensity exercise.

Some studies have investigated the effects of fat intake on athletic performance. However, these studies looked at high-fat diets over a long period of time, rather than prior to exercise.

For example, a study showed how four weeks of a diet consisting of 40% fat increased endurance running times in healthy, trained runners.

The Timing of Your Pre-Workout Meal Is Key

Alarm Clock, Cereal and a Glass of Juice

The timing of your meal is also an important aspect of pre-exercise nutrition.

To maximize the results of your training, try to eat a complete meal containing carbs, protein and fat 2–3 hours before you exercise.

However, in some cases you may not be able to get in a full meal 2-3 hours before working out.

In that case, then you can still eat a decent pre-workout meal. Just keep in mind that the sooner you eat before your workout, the smaller and simpler the meal should be.

So if you eat 45–60 minutes prior to your workout, choose foods that are simple to digest and contain mainly carbs and some protein.

This will help prevent any stomach discomfort during exercise.

Some Examples of Pre-Workout Meals

Muscular Man Eating a Salad

Which foods and how much to eat depends on the type, duration and intensity of the workout.

A good rule of thumb is to eat a mixture of carbs and protein prior to exercise.

If you eat fat with your pre-workout meal, then it should be consumed at least a few hours before your workout (2).

Here are some examples of balanced pre-workout meals:

If Your Workout Starts in 2–3 Hours or More

  • Sandwich on whole grain bread, lean protein and side salad.
  • Egg omelet and whole grain toast topped with avocado spread and a cup of fruit.
  • Lean protein, brown rice and roasted vegetables.

If Your Workout Starts Within 2 Hours

  • Protein smoothie made with milk, protein powder, banana and mixed berries.
  • Whole-grain cereal and milk.
  • A cup of oatmeal topped with banana and sliced almonds.
  • Natural almond butter and fruit preserve sandwich on whole-grain bread.

If Your Workout Starts in 1 Hour or Less

  • Greek yogurt and fruit.
  • Nutrition bar with protein and wholesome ingredients.
  • A piece of fruit such as banana, orange or apple.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to eat many pre-workout meals at different times. Just choose one of these.

For best results, experiment with different timings and compositions of your pre-workout meal.

Hydration Is Also Crucial

Blue Bottle of Water

Your body needs water to function optimally.

Good hydration has been shown to sustain and even enhance performance, while dehydration has been linked to significant decreases in performance.

It’s recommended to consume both water and sodium before exercise. This will improve fluid balance.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends drinking 16–20 fluid ounces (0.5–0.6 liters) of water at least four hours before exercise and 8–12 fluid ounces (0.23–0.35 liters) of water 10–15 minutes before exercise. Additionally, they recommend consuming a beverage that contains sodium to help retain fluids.

Putting It All Together

To maximize your performance and recovery, it’s important to fuel your body with the right nutrients before a workout.

Carbs help maximize your body’s ability to use glycogen to fuel short- and high-intensity exercises, while fat helps fuel your body for longer exercise sessions.

Eating protein helps improve muscle protein synthesis, prevent muscle damage and promote recovery. Good hydration is also linked to enhanced performance.

Pre-workout meals can be consumed 2–3 hours and up to 30 minutes before workouts. However, choose foods that are easy to digest, especially if your workout starts in one hour or less. This will help you avoid any stomach discomfort.

At the end of the day, simple pre-workout nutrition practices can go a long way in helping you perform better and recover faster.

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