In this article, we will be discussing pre-workout nutrition strategies to help you perform your best in the gym and make the best muscle gains possible. We will discuss what types of foods you should eat prior to training, when you should be eating these foods and in what quantities, as well as the role of supplementation to fuel performance in the gym.
What is nutrient timing?
Nutrient timing is the manipulation of when you eat certain things in order to maximize performance. Although the effects of nutrient timing usually aren’t as drastic compared to things like your quality of sleep or total caloric intake, it’s definitely an important variable to prioritize if your goal is to perform the best you possibly can.
Let’s be clear: the most important dietary variable that will influence how you perform and respond to lifting weights is your total caloric intake. If you’re not eating enough food, it’s going to be really difficult to perform well and gain muscle even if you’re prioritizing all of the nutrient timing strategies that we are about to share with you. Therefore, your main focus should always be to make sure you’re consuming sufficient total calories to optimize recovery and build muscle.
What nutrients should you eat before working out?
The role of pre-workout nutrition is to provide adequate nutrients necessary to fuel performance. By far, the most important nutrient that is going to help fuel performance is carbohydrates. Carbs are stored as glycogen, which is one of the main fuel sources we use for exercise. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), consuming carbohydrates solely or in combination with protein increases muscle glycogen stores and helps facilitate better training adaptations .
Further, there’s evidence to suggest that fasting can hinder strength training performance, especially in higher volume training. A systematic review by Henselmans et al., showed that there does seem to be a benefit to consuming carbohydrates prior to training if you’ve been fasting for four hours or longer . This isn’t groundbreaking science, we know that training fasted isn’t the best for performance since glycogen stores are somewhat depleted before you even begin to train, and as Henselmans and colleagues noted in their paper, these studies indicate, if anything, that training in a fed state is better than a fasted state and that these benefits are not inherently due to just carbohydrates.
So then if training in a fed state is better than training in a fasted state, it’s also important to consider your protein intake. Again, the most important variable when it comes to protein is your total daily protein intake. Protein timing is less important than making sure you are consistently consuming adequate total protein.
That being said, the ISSN does suggest that protein feedings evenly spaced throughout the day (approx every 3 hours) may optimal for muscle protein synthesis and ensures you are never in a fasted state . This is where consuming protein pre-workout comes in. Let’s say you have a meal one hour before training, then workout for an hour and a half, and then don’t eat anything for another hour or so after training… that’s three and a half hours without eating anything. So it’s not a bad idea to consume protein before your training session to ensure that you’re consuming protein evenly throughout the day.
When should you eat your pre-workout meal?
As mentioned in the previous section, what’s most important is that you don’t train in a fully fasted state. In general, it’s probably best to consume your pre-workout meal no longer than 2-3 hours prior to your training. Doing so will ensure that you’re well-fed during training and allow you to space out your protein intake evenly throughout the day.
On the other hand, you don’t want to have your pre-workout meal any closer than ~30 minutes before your training because you don’t want to have a ton of food sitting in your stomach while you train. The closer you eat to your training, the smaller your meal should be and the further you eat from your training, the larger your meal should be. In both instances, your meals should contain both carbohydrates and protein.
What type of foods should you eat before your workout?
The types of carbohydrates and proteins consumed should also differ based on the proximity to training. The further your pre-workout meal is from your training, the carbohydrates you consume can be more complex since they’ll take longer to digest. Whereas, the closer you are to training, the simpler the carb source should be in order to allow for quick digestion. For example, it’d be fine to have a serving or two of beans ~two hours prior to training, but probably not 30 minutes before. If you’re short on time, a piece of fruit or toast would be better. The same logic can be used for protein. Quick-digesting proteins, like whey isolate, are preferable the closer you are to training because they’ll cause less GI distress than something like a steak.
Below are examples of appropriate meals depending on how close you’re eating before going to the gym:
Examples of pre-workout meals 2-3 hours prior to training:
- Grilled chicken breast with potatoes and steamed vegetables
- A turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread with a side of fruit
- A steak with brown rice and sauteed veggies
Examples of pre-workout snacks 30-60 minutes prior to training:
- A banana with a serving of Greek yogurt
- Toast with almond butter and whey protein
- Fruit juice and whey protein
Aside from food, hydration is also incredibly important for performance. You don’t need to have a specific amount of water prior to training, instead, check your hydration status by analyzing your urine. As long as your urine is translucent in color and doesn’t have a strong odor, you’re adequately hydrated. If it isn’t, make sure to adequately hydrate prior to training for optimal performance.
What about a pre-workout supplement?
In addition to food, pre-workout supplements can also help enhance performance in the gym. Pre-workout supplements are designed to provide a quick source of energy, improve focus, and increase endurance during workouts.
Some of the most effective pre-workout supplement ingredients include:
- Caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant that can increase alertness and energy levels, which can help improve exercise performance. A dose of 2-6mg per Kg of BW is optimal.
- Beta-Alanine: Beta-alanine is an amino acid that can improve endurance during high-intensity exercise. It works by reducing the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, delaying fatigue and allowing you to push through your workout. A dose of 3g has been shown to be effective in improving performance.
- Citrulline Malate: Citrulline is an amino acid that helps increase blood flow to the muscles, improving nutrient delivery and reducing muscle fatigue. It can also help increase endurance and delay fatigue during high-intensity exercise. You want to consume 6-8g of citrulline malate prior to training to get its benefits.
Pre-workout nutrition is an important variable to consider in order to perform your best and maximize your training. In general, if your goal is to maximize physical performance (ie: train hard and build muscle) then you’ll want to avoid training fasted. Data show that consuming carbohydrates prior to training can improve performance compared to fasting for four or more hours. Your pre-workout meal should consist of both protein and carbohydrates. The amount and types of protein and carbohydrates you should consume depend on how far from your training you’re consuming them. The closer you consume your pre-workout meal to training, the less total food you should consume and you should choose quicker digesting carbohydrates and proteins to avoid any sort of GI discomfort that could otherwise negatively affect your performance. Aside from food, supplementation is also important to consider. Caffeine, beta-alanine, and citrulline malate are some of the most common ingredients in pre-workout supplements that have been shown to provide performance benefits.
Outwork Nutrition Pre-Workout
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1. Kerksick, Chad M et al. “International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition vol. 14 33. 29 Aug. 2017, doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
2. Henselmans, Menno et al. “The Effect of Carbohydrate Intake on Strength and Resistance Training Performance: A Systematic Review.” Nutrients vol. 14,4 856. 18 Feb. 2022, doi:10.3390/nu14040856