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.
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 the individual and type of exercise (2).
Below is a brief look at the role of each macronutrient.
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).
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)
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.
Supplements Can Also Be Useful Before Exercise
Supplement use is common in sports. These products may enhance performance, improve strength, increase lean body mass and reduce fatigue.
Below are some of the best pre-workout supplements.
Creatine is probably the most commonly used sports supplement.
It has been shown to increase muscle mass, muscle fiber size and muscle strength and power, all while delaying fatigue (17, 18).
Even though it’s beneficial to take creatine before a workout, it seems to be even more effective when taken after a workout (18).
Taking 2–5 grams of creatine monohydrate per day is effective.
Among many other benefits, caffeine has been shown to improve performance, increase strength and power, help reduce feelings of fatigue and stimulate fat burning (17, 19).
Caffeine can be consumed in coffee, tea and energy drinks, but it can also be found in pre-workout supplements and pills.
It doesn’t really matter how you consume it, as its effects on performance are usually the same.
Caffeine’s peak effects are seen 90 minutes after consumption. However, it has been shown to be effective even when ingested 15–60 minutes prior to exercise (20).
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
BCAAs refer to the essential amino acids valine, leucine and isoleucine.
Studies have shown that taking BCAAs before workouts helps decrease muscle damage and increase muscle protein synthesis (10, 21).
A dose of 5 grams or more, at least an hour prior to exercise, is effective (21).
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that increases your muscle stores of carnosine. It has been shown to be most effective for short- and high-intensity exercises.
It does this by increasing exercise capacity and muscle endurance while reducing fatigue (22, 23, 24).
The recommended daily dose is 2–5 grams, of which at least 0.5 grams should be consumed prior to your workout (25).
Multi-Ingredient Pre-Workout Supplements
Some people prefer products that contain a blend of the supplements mentioned above.
The combination of these ingredients may have synergistic effects and improve performance significantly (26).
Caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, branched-chain amino acids, arginine and B vitamins are among the most commonly used ingredients in these products (26, 27).
These pre-workout supplements have been shown to increase work output, strength, endurance, anaerobic power, reaction time, focus and alertness (26, 27).
The particular dose depends on the product, but it’s generally recommended to take them about 30–45 minutes before exercise.
Summary Creatine, caffeine, BCAAs and beta-alanine are often recommended before a workout. Multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements combine many different ingredients for optimal benefits.
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.