Pre-Workout Nutrition, Meals, and Snacks for Optimal Performance
By Stephanie Mull, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS (Co-founder of Metabolism Based Eating)
When we workout, there is a high demand for fuel to support energy production within the muscle tissue, and the food we eat directly supports these bioenergetic pathways. Proper fueling allows for maximal exertion and optimal training adaptations while delaying fatigue and minimizing cognitive deficits. There are a few important considerations, including what, when and how much to eat or drink, to get the most out of your pre-workout fueling.
What should I eat before I work out?
Glucose is the body’s primary substrate for energy production for strength/power activities and high-intensity cardiovascular activities. This applies to muscle building exercise, long-duration and high-intensity exercise. Glucose is found in carbohydrates, including starches, grains, fruits, and dairy products. It is also found in commercially made sports nutrition products, like drinks, bars, gels, and goos.
Not all carbohydrates are equal though, especially as they relate to exercise performance. Complex carbohydrates contain fiber and are more bulky to digest and metabolize. This means they take longer to leave the gut before they eventually arrive at the skeletal muscle. These slower digesting carbs may support energy demand during exercise if they are consumed at meals. Simple carbohydrates – like glucose, sucrose, and maltodextrin – take less time to digest and metabolize and are generally well tolerated when ingested before and during exercise.
Dietary fat should be minimized pre-workout to prevent delayed gastric emptying. Similar to fiber, fat takes longer to leave the gut and get to the muscles. There are triglycerides stored in the skeletal muscle that can be used as an immediate energy source in low-intensity, steady-state activities. You do not want to rely on dietary fat pre-workout to provide fuel during exercise.
Ingested protein can be beneficial to get ahead of the catabolic effects of exercise. Recent research suggests that consistent feedings with protein throughout the day work best, with an emphasis on meeting your protein target within a 24-hour period. If you choose to ingest protein immediately surrounding your workout, then the type does not matter, although whey has the most favorable research behind it as it is the quickest digesting protein.
When and how should I eat before I work out?
Timing your pre-workout nutrition is dependent upon the type of exercise, the intensity and duration of exercise, daily nutrient intake, and individual tolerance. While it is advised to eat within 2 hours before working out, some athletes cannot tolerate it. Therefore, a meal consumed 3-4 hours prior to working out may work better. Your pre-workout meal should be well balanced, consisting of 3-4 grams of carb per kilogram (kg) of body weight (or ~½ of your meal) with 0.4-0.55 G of protein per kg of body weight (or ~⅓ of your meal).
If you can eat closer to your workout, then consume 2 grams of carb per kg body weight 2 hours prior to your workout, or 1 gram of carb per kg body weight 1 hour prior to your workout, along with 0.25-0.3 g protein per kg or 15-25 grams. Lower fiber carbohydrates may be preferred as they are generally well tolerated at this time. They minimize gastrointestinal distress during exercise, such as cramping and nausea, and promote quick energy to the working muscles.
For example, a person weighing 180 lbs. or 81.8 kg would need to eat a meal 3 hours before a workout with 245 grams of carb and 41 grams of protein, or a snack 1 hour before with 82 grams of carb and 15-20 grams of protein.
Best meals for fueling
MightyMeals have a variety of nutritious and balanced options to support optimal fueling. You can utilize the bulk lean protein and carbohydrate options to portion out your meals based on your needs, preference, and tolerance. To locate individual meals and snacks that best fit into your macronutrient range, use MightyMeals macro filter and select the amount of calories, protein, carbs, and fat you need.
Pre-workout nutrition is highly individualized and is dependent upon the type of exercise you are doing, your training goals, and body composition goals. It can also influence your recovery nutrition. An optimal pre-workout meal can support muscle protein synthesis, tissue recovery, and glycogen repletion. Individual needs may vary from the above recommendations. Therefore, consider consulting a nutrition expert like myself or one of MightyMeals’ MightyFIT Nutrition Experts. For more specific nutrition planning to optimize performance, consult with a sports dietitian.
Kerksick, C.M., Arent, S., Schoenfeld, B.J. et al. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 33. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(3), 501–528. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.006