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Pre-Workout Nutrition: What to Eat Before a Workout

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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 1.

Here is everything you need to know about pre-workout nutrition.

Table of Contents

Knowing What to Eat Is Important

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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 the individual and type of exercise 2.

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

Carbs

Your muscles use the glucose from carbs for fuel.

Glycogen is the way the body processes and stores glucose, mainly in the liver and muscles.

For short- and high-intensity exercise, your glycogen stores are your muscles’ main source of energy 3.

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 3.

Your muscles’ glycogen stores are limited. As these stores become depleted, your output and intensity diminish 4, 5, 6.

Studies have consistently shown that carbs can increase glycogen stores and utilization while boosting carb oxidation during exercise 6, 7, 8.

Carb loading, which involves consuming a high-carb diet for 1–7 days, is a well-known method to maximize glycogen stores 7, 8.

Protein

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

Eating protein alone or with carbs prior to exercise has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis 9, 10, 11.

One study showed a positive anabolic response after participants consumed 20 grams of whey protein before exercise 9.

Other benefits of eating protein before exercise include:

  • A better anabolic response, or muscle growth 11, 12
  • Improved muscle recovery 12
  • Increased strength and lean body mass 13
  • Increased muscle performance 11, 12, 13

Fat

While glycogen is used for short- and high-intensity bouts of exercise, fat is the source of fuel for longer and moderate-to-low-intensity exercise 14.

Some studies have investigated the effects of fat intake on athletic performance. However, these studies looked at high-fat diets over a long period, rather than prior to exercise 15, 16.

For example, one study showed how a four-week diet consisting of 40% fat increased endurance running times in healthy, trained runners 15.

Summary Carbs help maximize glycogen stores for high-intensity exercise, while fat helps fuel your body for longer, less intense workouts. Meanwhile, protein improves muscle protein synthesis and aids recovery.

The Timing of Your Pre-Workout Meal Is Key

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. However, keep in mind that the sooner you eat before your workout, the smaller and simpler the meal should be.

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.

Summary It’s recommended to consume a full meal 2–3 hours before your workout. For meals eaten closer to your workout, choose simpler carbs and some protein.

 

 

Some Examples of Pre-Workout Meals

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 Within 2–3 Hours or More

  • Sandwich on whole-grain bread, lean protein and a 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 Within an Hour or Less

  • Greek yogurt and fruit
  • Nutrition bar with protein and wholesome ingredients
  • A piece of fruit, such as a 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 nutrient compositions.

Summary A combination of carbs and protein is recommended for pre-workout meals. Fat can also be beneficial, but it should be consumed at least two hours before exercise.

 

 

 

Hydration Is Also Crucial

Your body needs water to function.

Good hydration has been shown to sustain and even enhance performance, while dehydration has been linked to significant decreases in performance 28, 29, 30, 31.

It’s recommended to consume both water and sodium before exercise. This will improve fluid balance 32, 33.

The American College of Sports Medicine ACSM recommends drinking 16–20 ounces 0.5–0.6 liters of water at least four hours before exercise and 8–12 ounces 0.23–0.35 liters of water 10–15 minutes before exercise 32.

Additionally, they recommend consuming a beverage that contains sodium to help retain fluids 32.

Summary Water is important for performance. It’s recommended to drink water and sodium-containing beverages before exercise to promote fluid balance and prevent excessive fluid loss.

 

 

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 eaten three hours to 30 minutes before a workout. However, choose foods that are easy to digest, especially if your workout starts in one hour or less. This will help you avoid stomach discomfort.

Additionally, many different supplements can aid performance and promote recovery.

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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