Evidence-Based Pre-Workout Nutrition: What's the Optimal Fuel for Your Body?

What to Eat Before a Workout for Optimal Performance

What you eat and when you eat can make a world of difference before a tough workout or competitive event. Fine-tuning your pre-workout meal will ensure your body has the nutrients it needs to perform at a high level for hours on end. Even better, it will help maximize the effects of your pre-workout supplement

Creating the optimal pre-workout meal is ultimately a matter of eating the right foods, in the right amounts, at the right time. Research gives us clues about what those criteria look like across a range of active individuals, from endurance athletes to bodybuilders to powerlifters. This article will discuss pre-workout nutrition recommendations and the best foods to eat before you exercise.

Pre-Workout Nutrition Basics 

Diet and exercise go hand-in-hand no matter what your fitness goals are. Even if you train your tail off day in and day out, your results will be lackluster if you don’t eat right. So, let’s talk about the importance of a proper pre-workout meal to fuel your body and athletic performance. 

Nutrient Timing: When to Eat Before a Workout

While there are no hard-and-fast rules for pre-workout nutrient timing, most people should aim to finish eating anywhere from one to three hours before a workout [1]. This is assuming you eat a moderate-sized complete meal with whole foods.

If you're in a pinch for time, then drinking a protein shake and eating a piece of fruit or another easily digestible source of carbs is better than working out on an empty stomach. Ultimately, you should eat whenever fits your schedule so long as you give yourself enough time to digest and assimilate your pre-workout meal.

Protein shakes

Intuitively, eating a ton of food 15 to 30 minutes before your training session will just leave your gut feeling heavy and bloated — not great for athletic performance. By the same token, you don't want to wait (too) long after your pre-workout meal that your blood sugar drops right when you start exercising.

Pre-Workout Nutrition Macros

Macronutrients — protein, carbs, and fat — are first and foremost a source of energy for the body. Whether you want to build muscle mass, burn body fat, get stronger, or be a better athlete, eating the right proportion of macros before a workout is imperative.

Carbs tend to be the main "variable" for active individuals; some insist on cutting out all carbs, while others thrive on higher carb intake. Protein intake, on the other hand, is more of a "constant" since athletes and gym-goers know they need plenty of protein to support muscle recovery and growth. As a general guideline, 20 to 30 grams of complete protein is the minimum range for a robust increase in muscle protein synthesis.

Fats fluctuate accordingly with the amount of carbs in a person's diet; the lower their carb intake, the more fat they eat and vice versa. Thus, pinpointing what's "optimal" for strength training and endurance exercise is tricky because many different approaches can work great depending on your body type and food preferences.

As such, using the macro ratios provided below is typically the most versatile way to approach your pre-workout nutrition.

Macro Ratios: What Works Best?

For gym-goers and bodybuilders, carbs are the body’s preferred energy source for high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise; thus, if your workouts include diligent strength training and/or cardio, you should include a good amount of carbs in your pre-workout meals. (And yes, this applies even if you're trying to lose weight.) However, insulin also inhibits lipolysis (fat breakdown), so you don’t want to go overboard with carb intake in the immediate hours before your workout if fat-loss is a priority.

Beyond sustaining energy levels during exercise, carbohydrates also facilitate muscle protein synthesis by increasing insulin production [2]. Carbohydrates may further bolster athletic performance by attenuating exercise-induced cortisol spikes and mitigating muscle damage [3, 4].

Assuming you’re not on a very-low-carb diet like keto, research suggests a carbohydrate to protein ratio of 3:1 for pre-workout nutrition [5]. For those who want to lose weight while maintaining athletic performance, a light snack with a 1-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein will suffice before a workout [6].

A modest amount of fat (i.e. 10 to 15 grams) will be plenty before a training session. Some gym-goers prefer low-fat pre-workout meals since they stock up on protein and carbs (which is fine). Fat is not the main fuel source for short, intense bursts of exercise like weight training and sprinting.

Nonetheless, fat is the ideal long-term energy reservoir in the body. Since fat contains about twice as many calories as carbs (per gram), it's reasonable to assume that people on a very-low-carb diet could fuel up before a workout by eating a 2:1 or 1:1 ratio of fat to protein.

What Are the Best Foods to Eat Before a Workout?

pre-workout foods

The right foods and nutrients will keep you performing at a high level while you’re working up a sweat. They also help you feel good mentally so that you are not dragging after your workout. But what are the best foods to eat before a workout?

Well, it depends on your macros and specific nutritional needs. Here are some factors to keep in mind:

  • You already know that protein is crucial for muscle growth. When it comes to nutrient timing, consuming complete protein 30 to 90 minutes before a workout will ensure you have a steady flow of essential amino acids to mitigate muscle breakdown during exercise. Whether it be a cup of Greek yogurt, a protein shake, some grilled chicken breast, or egg whites, always include a generous portion (i.e. 20+ grams) of a lean protein source in your pre-workout meals.
  • The more intense your workouts, the more glycolytic they are. As such, filling up your muscle glycogen with easy-to-digest complex carbohydrates in your pre-workout meal will propel your performance, especially if you’re about throw around (relatively) heavy weights in the gym or run some hill sprints. Examples of common carb-rich pre-workout foods include brown rice, sweet potato, whole-grain bread, oats, and fruit.
  • If you're running short on time, you can always drink a pre-workout shake with a mixture of carbohydrate powder and protein powder. For example, a scoop each of Transparent Labs Carb and 100% Grass-fed Whey Protein Isolate will go down easy while giving you the carbs and protein necessary to perform at a high level.
  • Ideally, the majority of your fat intake should come from mono/polyunsaturated sources, like avocado, olive oil, and macadamia nut butter. Some saturated fat is necessary as well, but don't get too carried away.

Once you find carb, protein, and fat sources that work best for you, try and stick to those as your go-to pre-workout foods. Remember, what's "best" for you is relative; don't be afraid to experiment with different foods and macro ratios.

Is Carb-Loading Necessary Before a Workout or Sporting Event?

Conventional sports nutrition wisdom suggests that carb-loading before a big game or training session augments athletic performance by "supersaturating" muscle glycogen stores [7]. However, carbohydrates are technically not an essential macronutrient for humans. Your body can create glucose on its own from other molecules if it needs a fuel source. This is not to say that carbohydrates are unimportant, as they certainly serve a purpose in pre-workout nutrition.

For extremely active athletes, carb-loading two to three days before a big competition may be prudent. That being said, carb-loading is by no means a necessity for performing your best, particularly if you live a sedentary lifestyle outside the gym.

Your Overall Diet Matters Most

No matter if your goal is to build bigger muscles, increase your strength, or run faster, pre-workout nutrition is only part of the equation. Make sure you eat a well-rounded diet (beyond a pre-workout meal) that features plenty of nutrient-dense whole foods.

Here are some tips to keep in mind for your nutrition plan:

  • Eat three to five meals/snacks throughout the day, each with a quality protein source.
  • Complex carbohydrates should make up the majority of your carb intake. Simple carbs are fine in moderation, but slower-digesting carbs are preferable throughout the day.
  • Emphasize unsaturated fat sources like peanut butter, almonds, avocado, fatty fish, and olive oil. Avoid synthetic trans fats from fried foods and those that are made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
  • Consume plenty of fibrous vegetables and a few servings of fruit to help meet your micronutrient and fiber needs.
  • Hydration is crucial for optimal body function and athletic performance. Active individuals should drink at least 100 fluid ounces of water daily, if not more.

If you're curious about what to eat after a workout, be sure to check out this blog on post-workout nutrition.


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