Whether you are a regular gym go-er or fairly new to fitness, everyone seems to be looking for that extra edge to get them through their workout and drive better results. In fact, pre and post workout supplements are the fastest growing segment of the sports nutrition market. However, depending on who you talk to, the “best” pre-workout solution can vary dramatically - from working out fasted to carbo-loading. So what exactly should you be reaching for before the gym?
What to Eat Before a Workout
The truth is, what is going to give you the most benefits is highly dependent on your individual needs and style of training. There is no one-size-fits-all.
It starts by understanding how your body utilizes nutrition for different types of training. While all types of calories supply your daily fuel, the type of calories you choose for performance can make a difference in how your workout goes (1).
Here’s the breakdown on how each macronutrient plays a role in fitness and performance.
Carbohydrates are the body's quickest and easiest source of fuel, and the preferred source of energy for your brain. They are especially important for high endurance training and explosive strength - needing to be quick on your feet and pushing heavy objects typically requires carbs. In fact, it can be pretty difficult to participate in intense cardio and lifting sessions when you are low on carbs (2,3).
That’s because high level output relies on more anaerobic pathways - which is just a fancy way of saying, sources of fuel that don’t require oxygen to access. Oxygen is a key component in a number of metabolic pathways used to digest, abort, and utilize nutrients (aka carbs, fat, and protein). Glucose is the main source of fuel able to be harnessed without oxygen, allowing you to access energy more quickly (4).
When you eat carbs they are used for immediate energy (as glucose) or stored in your muscles or liver as a reserve source of energy called glycogen (the storage form of glucose), making them a highly desirable macronutrient for anaerobic training. Additionally, glucose can be used in aerobic (with oxygen) training, at lower intensities, making it a pretty great fuel source all around.
There are two main types of carbs you can choose to support your training:
- Quick Carbs
- Slow Carbs
Quick carbs come from simple sugars that are digested rapidly, giving you immediate energy. Examples of quick carbs include juice, sports drinks, gels, honey, and other high sugar foods.
Slow carbs typically come from more starchy, or fibrous foods that are slower to digest, making them a source of more long-lasting energy. Examples of slow carbs include whole grains, beans, potatoes, and pasta.
When carbs are limited in the diet, your body is forced to rely on other means to get glucose - such as protein and ketones. However, these sources tend to not be as efficient in supporting high intensity training as carbs (5,6,7).
Fat is also a highly desirable source of calories for training. Mainly because it provides twice as many calories per gram as carbs and protein, meaning you can work half as hard for the fuel. You can also store a lot more fat for reserve fuel compared to carbs that are limited by muscle and liver capacity, giving you a nearly endless supply of gas in the tank!
However, it is important to recognize that even at high intensities, aerobic pathways don’t shut off entirely, and you have the potential to still use some fat for fuel even at high levels, it just can’t support this type of training alone.
Similar to slow carbs, fat can take some time to digest and become available for fuel. Thus a majority of fat burned during training tends to come from stored body fat, not dietary fat.
Unlike fat and carbs, protein is not a desirable source of energy for training. This is mainly because the role protein plays in overall health is prioritized over fuel; it is the builder macro involved in constructing and maintaining just about every cell in your body, including your skin, hormones, and DNA. But this also includes your muscle, which is where protein's role in fitness comes into play.
You are likely never relying on one sole source of fuel during your workouts, and a mixed macro approach is typically needed to achieve optimal results. However, at the simplest level, here is how each macro is used to support different types of exercise.
|Primary Fuel Source||Type of Exercise|
Explosive movements like sprinting, power lifting, quick turns, jumps, hitting/pitching a baseball, all out finishes, etc.
Low to moderate intensity like jogging, endurance training, swimming, cycling, moderate lifting, and aerobics.
Acts to protect muscle mass, not a primary source of energy for most people.
Nutrient Timing: When to Eat
One of the biggest limiting factors in deciding what to eat before exercise is how soon you plan to train and when your last meal was.
Unless you are training at intense levels daily or multiple times a day, specific pre-workout meals are not required. Whether you workout fasted or not will not significantly impact your overall nutrition goals or ability to burn fat (14). And if you eat a meal too soon before training, this could cause stomach issues, since your digestive system is competing for blood flow with your muscles (15).
It takes two to three hours prior to exercise to fully digest your meals and utilize that energy for training. So if you have eaten a meal one to three hours before the gym, you likely don't need an additional pre-workout fueling option, unless you are feeling low on energy.
If you workout first thing in the morning and don't have time to digest food prior, you can workout fasted or try a quicker source of energy 30 to 60 minutes before training. But this is dependent on the person and how you feel during training - feel free to play with different options and find what helps you perform best.
When to consider including a pre-workout option:
- You are training multiple times a day or for more than a couple of hours at a time
- You are looking to gain muscle
- You feel low on fuel and energy
One meal is not going to outdo your overall diet, so it is also important to pay attention to how you are feeding your body all day long to support your performance. A balanced, healthy diet is sufficient for most people, but others find additional benefits in swinging their calories, carb cycling, and being more strategic with their macro intake.
By increasing your intake of certain macros on days you use them more, you can potentially utilize your calories more efficiently and fuel your workouts better. Use the following breakdown to customize a specific macro based meal plan that supports your workout routine.
At rest and low intensity, your body is using mostly fat for long-lasting energy.
- How your daily calorie needs change: At rest, you are at a lower overall calorie burn, and can decrease your total calorie intake on these days by 10 to 20%.
- How your daily macro needs change: You are using less carbohydrates and can decrease your intake of carbs and fat on these days while keeping protein the same.
During moderate exercise, your body is still using mostly fat for energy but starts using some carbs for quick energy.
- How your daily calorie needs change: You are at a moderate calorie burn and should keep calorie intake close to your estimated TDEE.
- How your daily macro needs change: You should eat a moderate amount of carbs around the time your workout, and keep fat and protein intake at normal levels.
When performing at high intensity, your body is burning mostly carbs for fast energy, as well as some fat for sustained endurance.
- How your daily calorie needs change: On these days you have a higher overall calorie burn and increased fat burning potential. You may want to slightly increase total calories on these days by 5 to 10%.
- How your daily macro needs change: Increase carbs slightly to replenish lost fuel and keep protein and fat intake the same.
Pre Workout Meal Examples
While, the best pre workout meals can differ greatly from one person to the next, we do know that a well balanced approach works well for most. Depending on when you are planning to exercise, here are some of the best food options to consider before hitting the gym:
Meals (2 to 3 hours before) -
If you have the time window to eat a full meal before you workout, this is a great opportunity to load up on quality options. Meals should include a mixed balance of lean protein, starchy carbs and a moderate amounts of fat to promote longer digestion, and sustained energy. Some great meal examples include:
- Chicken, roasted sweet potatoes and veggies
- Pasta with marinara and grass-fed beef
- Stir-fried tofu and veggies over rice
- Protein shake with milk, fruit, and peanut butter
- Breakfast Burritos
- Steak Gyros
- Black Bean and Quinoa Veggie Burger
- Creamy tuna pasta
- Thai Shrimp Noodle Bowl
- Steak Kabobs and Quinoa Salad
Snacks (>2 hours before) -
As you get a little closer to your exercise window, you'll want to cut down on food volume and use a similar macro approach as your meals. Adding in some more quick source carbs can also help you top off your gas tank. Here are some mini meals to try:
- Greek yogurt with honey and granola
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
- Whole grain crackers with deli meat and cheese
- A banana and spoonful of peanut butter
- Protein waffle with syrup
- Trail mix granola bar or protein bar
- Cereal with milk
Quick Fuel (30 min to 1 hour before) -
Right before you exercise, quick carbs are your go to. Additionally, you’ll want to scale back on high fat foods and high fiber foods to reduce stomach issues. Some fast fuel sources include:
- Low fat fruit smoothie
- Low fat chocolate milk
- Fruit juice or sports drink
- Low fat muffins
- A piece of fruit
Often times people will turn to pre-workout supplements to boost their training output. It is essential to note that while these options may potentially increase energy, mental focus, and perceived stamina, they do not actually supply any fuel to your body - only calories can do that. Thus, these options don't override a balanced diet and general nutrition needs.
If you are tuning to supplements for a potential pre-workout boost, keep in mind that these are regulated differently than food and it can feel like a challenge to find a trusted option. Your best bet is to choose products with ingredients that are clearly listed (no proprietary blends) and look for ingredients you recognize, as well as a third-party certification. You can also do your own research and see what is giving you a potential benefit in various mixes and powders.
Hydration and Performance
Part of supporting your performance with good nutrition also means focusing on hydration. In fact, some of your fatigue and workout struggles could be related to poor fluid intake (16).
Water helps regulate your body temperature, but it also plays a role in transporting nutrients to and from your muscles for use. Thus, if you’re not drinking enough water or fluids each day, your not going to perform well regardless of what you’re eating.
Perfecting Your Pre-Gym Routine
Ultimately, optimizing your nutrition game depends on your level of training, overall eating habits, and individual needs. It may take some time to find what works best for you, and you also may find that training on an empty stomach is preferred. Play with different options and see what you’re body responds to.
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