Author: Maria Fischer • Fact checked by: Tara D. Thies • July 6, 2021
Exercise and nutrition go hand in hand. Both are important components of living a lifestyle that meets your personal standards for healthy living. Nutrition is particularly important if you are looking to make a change in your body composition, such as losing fat or adding muscle.
It helps to consider nutrition in two ways: short-term, defining the specifics of what you eat in a single meal, and long-term, which determines the amount of nutrients you aim for over a daily or weekly time period.
This article will address short-term nutrition during the pre-workout window. When planning a meal before a workout, it’s important to think about both the composition of the meal as well as the quantity. Portion size can have a big impact on the way a meal affects your workout.
Each of the three major macronutrients has its own set of benefits and drawbacks when it comes to choosing a workout snack before you hit the gym, class, field or court.
Protein is one of the most important nutrients the body needs for activity, especially for weight training. Adequate consumption of protein is associated with improved muscle recovery and strength, which helps both during and after your workout. Over the long term, increased protein consumption can help add and maintain muscle mass.
Depending on the specific source, protein takes around two to three hours to digest. Certain types like whey protein are faster-digesting than others, such as casein and pea protein. Good sources of protein before a workout include greek yogurt, chicken, hummus, and protein shakes. The closer you get to your scheduled workout time, the less time you’ll have to clear protein from your stomach.
Carbohydrates provide the main source of fuel for the body by breaking down into glucose, which we use to provide energy for both physical and mental activity. Before this process occurs, glucose is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. You've probably heard the phrase "glycogen stores" to describe this stored energy in the body. Glycogen stores are the body's first source of energy, typically used for short-term and high-intensity exercise.
Once glycogen stores are depleted, the body has to switch to using its own fat and muscles for energy. You may also feel tired or "hit a wall" once your glycogen stores are tapped, which is another reason it's important to consume carbohydrates before a workout. Topping off glycogen by eating carbohydrates prior to your workout will delay the time it takes to become fatigued. Simple carbohydrates that contain little-to-no fiber are easily digested and available as energy for the muscle and brain quickly, often within 5 or 10 minutes of consumption.
Good sources of carbohydrates include starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and peas, fresh fruit like bananas, brown rice, oatmeal, pasta and crackers. Be mindful of the specific carb sources you consume, as some carb-heavy options like fried foods may not be the best choice before activity.
The body stores fat as a more long-term type of fuel, since it's broken down relatively slowly. The more experience you have training, the sooner your body is able to tap fat as a fuel source to spare and extend glycogen. The metabolism of fat is a longer process than it is for carbohydrates, which is why it takes longer for the fuel to reach the muscles. High intensity exercise uses carbs for fuel, since fat isn’t accessible when you workout at V02 max higher than 70%. Fats are fine to consume in moderation before a workout, but you want to be careful not to overdo it: an excess of fats can lead to an uncomfortable feeling of heaviness on the stomach, which isn't what you want prior to working out.
Excellent sources of healthy fats include avocado, peanut butter and certain types of nuts – especially almonds, pecans and walnuts. Some kinds of dairy including cottage cheese and string cheese can also be high in healthy fats. Be mindful of calorie count, since high-fat foods typically tend to be calorie-dense, meaning a relatively small portion size has a high amount of calories.
Now that you have a better idea of how to incorporate the three major macronutrients into your pre-workout meal, there are a few other things to think about.
There are several different kinds of supplements not commonly found in foods that can be added directly to a pre-workout meal, often in the form of a shake or smoothie. A few of these include:
Caffeine - associated with an energy boost and increased focus
Creatine - improves muscle stamina and performance, especially useful for intense workouts with weights
Collagen - good for improved skin and bone health, often found as its own supplement
Nitrate - shown to be beneficial for improving exercise performance and response
L-citrulline - an important amino acid, vital for muscle performance and repair
Simple carbs in a small quantity to help kickstart the digestion, metabolism, fluid absorption and burning of fat
You'll need to experiment on your own to determine the ideal quantity and ratio of these supplements, balanced with concerns like the amount of calories and grams of carbohydrates you consume before exercising.
No matter what you eat before you workout, you'll probably want to keep portions on the smaller side. Generally speaking, it'll be less harmful to eat too little food than eating too much food – although neither situation is ideal if you want to be adequately fueled.
You also want to think about when you eat before working out. This is especially true if you incorporate supplements like caffeine and creatine, which typically have a set duration of time that they last. Additionally, you don't want to experience the feeling of heaviness on your stomach that can sometimes happen as a result of eating too close to the time you exercise.
The closer you get to your workout, the less fat, protein and fiber you want sitting in your stomach. This is especially the case if you'll be competing in a sport or participating in other intense activities like running, jumping or throwing. If you want to eat a larger meal, try to do so at least one full hour before activity, if not two hours or more. Smaller pre-workout meals can usually be eaten closer to your workout – 30 to 60 minutes is fine, depending on the size of the meal.
Finally, remember to give yourself some leeway and grace with regards to planning your meals - both short-term before your workout and over the long term. No matter how committed you may be to your fitness goals, there will come a time when you'll have an opportunity to eat a meal that may not be fully in line with them. There's nothing wrong with eating this kind of meal from time to time, whether it's in celebration of an important social occasion or simply as a way to give yourself a mental break.
As is the case with almost every element of fitness, deciding on your preworkout meals is largely a matter of personal preference. As a broad rule, you want to eat a smaller-sized meal composed mostly of carbs and proteins, anywhere from 30 minutes to up to 4 hours before working out, depending on how quickly you digest your food. Spend some time experimenting with different types of foods, meal timing, and preworkout mixes so that you can find the right combination that helps you fuel your body to perform at the highest possible level whenever you are preparing for a workout or competition.
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