Fitness enthusiasts and athletes are always seeking that extra edge to improve their body’s performance and reach their exercise goals. When it comes to food, what you consume pre- and post-workout can make a huge difference in your energy and fitness progress. Post-workout foods tend to concentrate on muscle recovery and protein for muscle repair and building, while pre-workout foods put the emphasis on maximizing performance while minimizing muscle damage. This article will outline the best pre-workout foods and how they fuel your body.
What to Eat Before a Workout: Pre-Workout Nutrition
Getting the right nutrients before your workout can give you the strength and energy you need to perform to the best of your ability. Each of the following macronutrients plays a specific role pre-workout, but you’ll want to consume them in the right ratio according to workout type.
Pre-workout protein for athletic improvement has been studied extensively, and the verdict is in: eating dietary protein, whether alone or with carbohydrates, has been shown to increase protein synthesis in muscles.
Complete proteins, which are those that contain all nine of the essential amino acids used in new muscle creation, are extremely valuable pre-workout. For this reason, many people supplement with whey protein before a workout, which has been scientifically proven to improve anabolic response before exercise.
Your muscles get the glucose they need for fuel from the carbs you eat. Your body processes and stores glucose as glycogen, which mainly resides in the muscles and the liver. During short- and high-intensity workouts, your glycogen stores serve as the main source of energy for your muscles. For longer exercises, the usefulness of carbs depends on a few factors, from your overall diet to the intensity and type of training you’re performing. That is because the glycogen stores in your muscles are limited, so when the glycogen runs out, your energy input starts to flag and you become depleted.
Studies show that eating carbs before a workout can increase your glycogen stores and help boost carb oxidation during your exercise. Carbo-loading involves a high-carb diet for 1-7 days before the exercise event (like a race or a sporting match), and is widely known as a way to maximize glycogen stores and reach peak performance.
The glycogen from carbs is good for high-intensity exercise, but healthy fats are the fuel for longer-term, moderate-to-low-intensity exercises. Several studies investigated high-fat diets in relation to exercise performance, and one of them showed that a 4-week diet consisting of 40% fat was able to increase endurance running times of trained, healthy runners. For longer, less intense workouts, fats are essential in a pre-exercise diet.
Timing Is Key: When to Eat Your Pre-Workout Meal
When it comes to how food affects your exercise performance, timing matters. To maximize your training, you need the food you eat to be at the stage in digestion where it’s accessible to your body’s demand—if you eat way in advance of your workout, your body is already storing away your nutrients by the time you want to use them, but if you eat just before your workout, your meal might still be sitting heavily in your stomach, causing cramps and discomfort during your workout instead of fueling it.
To get the most out of a full meal containing protein, carbs, and fat, eat 2-3 hours before you exercise. If that’s not an option (say if you work out at night after a busy day of running your family around and going to work), you’ll want simpler foods in the 45-60 minute window before your workout. Think of your food as more of a pre-workout snack at that point and focus on carbs and protein, like having some peanut butter toast if you’re looking for whole-food solutions, or selecting the relevant kind of protein shake.
Examples of Pre-Workout Meals
Here are some more examples of pre-workout meals and foods, along with the most effective window of time in which to eat them. A general rule to follow is to consume a mixture of protein and carbs, with fats reserved more for when you have at least a few hours to go before exercise.
If Your Workout Begins in 2–3 Hours or More
- Lean protein with brown rice and roasted vegetables
- An omelet with whole-grain avocado toast and a serving of fruit
- A whole-grain bread sandwich with lean protein and a salad on the side
If Your Workout Begins in 2 Hours
- Whole-grain cereal with milk
- A protein smoothie with bananas, mixed berries, milk, and protein powder
- A whole-grain sandwich with fruit preserve and almond butter (the grown-up’s PB&J)
If Your Workout Begins in an Hour or Less
- Greek yogurt with fruit
- Any whole fruit like an apple, orange, or banana
- A healthy trail mix or protein-rich nutrition bar with seeds and nuts
Depending on how far away your workout is, choose the category your one pre-workout meal falls into, and enjoy. Experiment to find out which foods bring you the most energy and at what time—do you prefer to plan for full meals, or would you rather have a quick snack ready at the 11th hour? There’s no wrong way to do it, so long as you have the energy you need when you need it to make your workouts count.
Supplementing Your Workout
For those hyperfocused on muscle building or natural performance enhancing, a pre-workout supplement might be useful on top of your healthy meals. Here are some of the most popular supplements used by athletes and the fitness-minded among us.
- Creatine: The protein supplement creatine has been shown to increase muscle strength, muscle fiber size, and muscle mass. It can be beneficial both before and after a workout to offset fatigue and to prevent catabolism (destructive metabolism when the body eats muscle tissue for fuel). Between 2-5 grams per day is an effective dose.
- Caffeine: While gallons of coffee consumed throughout the day at the office might not do you too many favors, caffeine before a workout can actually improve performance, increase power, and reduce feelings of fatigue. Whether in coffee, tea, energy drinks or caffeine pills, consuming caffeine 90 minutes before a workout can be an effective boost.
- Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs): These are the amino acids valine, leucine, and isoleucine. Studies show taking BCAAs at least 1 hour before a workout increases protein synthesis and decreases muscle damage. A dose of 5 grams or more is effective, though you may prefer an amino acid supplement that doesn’t stop at the three branched-chain aminos, but includes all nine essential amino acids (EAAs) necessary for muscle building.
What you eat is one aspect of workout nutrition, but the other one is water. Good hydration cannot be overestimated when it comes to workout performance: those who are adequately hydrated do better, and those who are dehydrated do and feel worse. It’s recommended that you consume water with sodium (like in a sports drink) before exercise to help improve your fluid and electrolyte balance, and The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends consuming 16–20 ounces of water at least 4 hours before exercise, and 8–12 ounces of water 10–15 minutes before exercise to enjoy peak performance. Your body needs to drink water to survive and thrive, so consider it part of your pre-workout meals too.
The Preferred Pre-Workout Mix
With protein for muscle building, carbs for glycogen support, and fats for long-term fuel, eating the right balance of food at the right time can make a world of difference. Utilize supplements to enhance your workouts and boost your nutrients, remember to always drink water, and find the ideal timing that fits not only your busy schedule, but also your pre-workout needs.