How often do you eat before you work out?
Maybe you don’t eat at all.
You know weight training is tiring and running can be tough, exercise is both mentally and physically draining.
You also know that food is fuel, your energy source for exercise.
Logically it would then make sense to eat before you hit the weights room or go pounding the pavement.
Yet, your questions remain;
“What should I eat?”
“When should I eat it?”
“Do I need to eat at all?”
“How will it impact my performance?”
“What about my recovery?”
These are the question this article will cover and by the end you’ll know what you need to eat, how much of it and when.
Let’s get going.
What is Pre Workout Nutrition?
Pre workout nutrition is the food or drink you eat before your workout and is usually consumed between 30 minutes to 4 hours before you work out.
It serves 3 primary purposes;
Provide energy during your workout
Stop the breakdown of your muscle mass
Help to maintain and build new muscle mass
Pre workout nutrition goal is to support your gym performance and the maintenance or growth of lean muscle mass.
As with most things in fitness this can optimised to bring optimal results based on your goals and preferences, which brings us to meal content and timing.
What Should You Eat Before You Work Out?
Your pre workout meal can be either a solid meal to eat or a liquid meal you can drink like a protein shake.
What you choose to have will depend largely on how close to your workout it is, training goal and your own personal preference.
As for what you should eat this is less negotiable. In your pre workout meal you want to get a mix of protein and carbohydrate.
This is for good reason too as protein helps prevent the breakdown of muscle mass and provides the body with the nutrients it needs to build or maintain muscle.
As for fat you can include some, but it has no impact on your work out performance and is more a matter of personal preference. (3)
How Close to Working Out Should You Eat Your Pre Workout Meal?
Meal timing can be split into 3 main timeframes;
30 – 60 mins before: consuming your pre workout nutrition this close to your workout means you’d be best getting it in liquid form, something like a protein shake with quick digesting carbs is suitable at this point
1 – 2 hours before: consuming your pre workout nutrition here puts you in the middle ground at which point you can either opt to eat a solid meal or have a protein shake, both will work
2 – 3 hours before: consuming your pre workout nutrition this far in advance means you can opt to have a solid meal with no worry about whether or not you’ll be fully digested when it comes to working out. Aim for slower digesting carbs for a more sustained level of energy
Whilst these guidelines can help you navigate the fundamentals of pre workout nutrition, the practicalities of it will come down to experimentation to see works best for you.
Some people prefer to drink their pre workout nutrition regardless of timing, whilst others find they feel and perform better if they eat something solid. Others still eat nothing.
Whatever the case is, I’ve got you covered.
What to Eat Before You Work Out: The Details
Bringing together everything we’ve talked about so far, here are you pre workout nutrition guidelines;
Eat between 4 hours and 30 minutes before your workout
Aim to get between 30 – 40 grams of protein within that timeframe
Aim to get between 30 – 40 grams of carbs at least 30 minutes before working out
Fat is non-essential in your pre workout meal but can be included if you want
You can eat or drink your pre workout meal depending what works best for you
A solid meal will need longer to digest
Best Pre Workout Meals to Eat (or Drink) Before You Go to the Gym
The following foods make great options as meals or shakes to get you fuelled up and ready to go.
Bananas: a great source of carbohydrate with no preparation required, perfect when combined with a protein shake for a quick pre workout meal
Oats: full of fibre oats slowly release carbohydrates to keep energy levels constant through your workout. Another low maintenance meal than can be mixed with yoghurt, protein and fruit
Chicken: a fantastic and lean protein source to help you meet your protein needs before hitting the gym, can be combined with any carb source to make a complete pre workout meal
Greek Yoghurt: with less or no fat content and approximately double the protein content of other yoghurts, Greek yogurt is the idea pre workout meal to get you fired up and ready to go. Add carbs like oats or bananas to get your carb hit too
Protein Powders: whey or other protein powders are perfect for pre workout protein hits and can be mixed with water or milk, as well as fruit and/or oats to give you the complete mix of macros you need before working out
Should You Use Pre Workout Supplements?
A lot of times the words pre workout are used when referring not just to nutrition but to a host of supplements designed to give you an edge when training.
These are often used in addition to the type of nutrition we discussed above and are designed to supplement your workout.
Which brings us to the old age question “do I need to take supplements, specifically pre workout supplements?”
To answer this question let’s take a look at the popular supplements, what they do and whether they’re worth taking.
Typically used as an ‘energy boost’ before working out, coffee is not only widely accessible but it’s also pretty inexpensive and super simple to make.
However, as most people drink it to excess and have become tolerant to its effects, it’s usefulness as a supplement is negated.
Verdict: if you rarely drink coffee or are not fully adjusted to the effects of caffeine then coffee can be a cheap accessible pre workout supplement to give you a little energy boost.
Creatine is a naturally occurring substance in the body which fuels intense activity like strength training. Supplementing with creatine ‘tops up’ your available stores and can increase strength and muscle mass. (6, 7, 8)
Verdict: creatine has varying effects on different people; it’s not essential but can help improve performance when used regularly.
Branch chain amino acids or BCAAs as they are more commonly known, are a protein supplement that can be taken in power or pill form to help prevent the breakdown of lean muscle mass when working out. (12, 13)
Their use as a supplement is largely thought to be useless when you include a pre workout meal or drink in your routine. However, there are some experts who recommend their use when training in a fasted state to help negate muscle breakdown.
Verdict: not beneficial as pre workout supplement if you’re having a pre workout meal or drink, however they may provide some benefit if you train fasted or cannot have your usual pre workout nutrition.
Pre Workout Supplements
Pre workout supplements often are a combination of all of the above supplements and can improve performance in the gym. (14)
However, they also often include other ingredients or combination of ingredients which cause a quick burst of energy followed by a crash.
Verdict: whilst there are some supplements that work, you’re usually better off saving your money and focusing on good pre workout nutrition combined with an espresso before training
You want to stay hydrated throughout the day and make sure you’re hydrated before and during your workout for optimal performance. (17)
Verdict: drink your damn water.
Do You Have to Have a Pre Workout Meal?
Given everything we’ve just covered you might be wondering if you have to have pre workout nutrition.
The answer is somewhat dependent on the situation, so let’s look at how things might shake out.
You haven’t eaten yet: if you haven’t eaten anything yet then you would be best off having some sort of pre workout meal, even if it was something small – potentially some BCAAs would do the trick
You ate earlier in the day: if you’ve already eaten earlier in the day and don’t have time or simply don’t want to eat a pre workout meal then don’t sweat it
You’re going to eat after your workout: like the above if you’re definitely going to eat after your workout then you can get away without any pre workout nutrition, even if you haven’t eaten at all
You’ve eaten all your calories for the day: if you’re training at the end of the day and have eaten all your calories already then again you don’t need to worry to much about pre workout nutrition as you’ll already be fuelled up from the day’s eating
Ultimately, it comes down to what works best for you as total calorie and macro intake across the day is more important than whether or not you had a pre workout meal. (18)
However, if you can work it into your routine to include a pre workout meal there are benefits to be obtained and you may notice a difference in your performance.
Pre workout nutrition is important in helping you perform your best when working out.
General guidelines are to get between 30 – 40 grams of both protein and carbohydrate between 30 minutes to 4 hours before you hit the gym. Fat is non-essential in this meal but can be included if you like.
If for any reason you cannot have a pre workout meal, then don’t sweat it too much. For the average gym goer meal timing has a small effect when compared to hitting your calorie and macro goal.
As for pre workout supplements, hydration is a priority but other supplements like caffeine and creatine can provide some benefit but are not ‘must haves’.