Building muscle, strengthening and training for better sports performance takes a lot of time and energy. You have to pay your dues in the gym in sweat!
Because of this, it makes sense to try to get the most out of your exercises. An extra rep here, another set there, or more weight on the bar means faster progress toward your goals.
While your motivation, determination and training program will have a big impact on the quality of your workout, what you eat before hitting the gym can also affect your performance (1).
Like a race car, your body works best when it gets the right kind of fuel.
For this purpose, in this article we will talk about the importance of nutrition before training and what to eat before training.
The goal of the pre-workout meal
Your body is full of energy – body fat. Fat is your primary fuel source during aerobic activities such as low-intensity cardio. You also mostly burn fat during inactive parts of the day, eg. while working, watching TV or sleeping.
Fat is so rich that even very thin people can go weeks without eating. That’s good news if you’re stranded on a desert island with no food. But, of course, long-term starvation is not a healthy method of losing weight!
However, intense exercise uses a different type of fuel – glycogen. Glycogen is stored glucose chemically bound to several water molecules. We get glucose by eating carbohydrates.
Your glycogen stores are much more limited than your fat stores, and you only have enough glycogen to fuel a few hours of intense exercise. Glycogen is stored in your muscles and liver.
When you do an intense workout, like lifting weights, your body uses the glycogen in your muscles for energy. So if you do squats, the glycogen in your legs is used for fuel. Conversely, if you bench press, the glycogen in your pectorals, triceps, and deltoids is broken down and used for energy.
When your glycogen stores are depleted, you will need to rest and eat to replenish them. Attempting to train before glycogen replenishment is complete can undermine the intensity and duration of future workouts. Simply put, you would start with only partially full fuel tanks.
If your glycogen levels are lower than usual, you’ll feel weak and sluggish and won’t be able to train as hard or as hard as you’d like.
So the goal of your pre-workout meal is to maximize glycogen storage so you have enough fuel to fuel you through your workout.
Ideally, you should start the refueling process shortly after finishing your last workout. This means that your pre-workout meal should “top up” your glycogen stores to ensure you start your workout fueled.
What to eat in the meal before training
Since glycogen is what you need for fuel during your workout, the first thing to include in your pre-workout meal is carbohydrates(2). Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose and then converted into glycogen.
Good pre-workout carbohydrate sources include:
- So what
- Carbohydrate-based sports drinks
- Sports gels
The best pre-workout carbs are low in fiber. Fiber, which is indigestible plant material, contains no calories and delays the conversion of carbohydrates into glucose by keeping food in the stomach longer. It’s good for satiety and weight loss, but not very helpful for supplying muscles with fast-acting energy.
Protein can also be helpful in pre-workout meals. Consuming protein before a workout can help minimize muscle catabolism (breakdown) and increase protein synthesis after exercise (3). While some muscle breakdown is inevitable, the less you experience, the faster you’ll recover between workouts.
Good sources of protein include:
Related: 40 Great Protein-Packed Foods
The final food group, thick, should NOT make up a large portion of your pre-workout meal. Like fiber, fat is a gastric inhibitor and slows down digestion, meaning it keeps food in the stomach longer. As such, you should look for lean protein and avoid adding extra fat, even the healthy kind like olive oil, to your pre-workout meals.
As for meal size, it really depends on how many calories you eat per day, your current body composition goal (lose weight, build muscle, or maintain your current weight) and your ability to digest your meals. Bigger is not always better.
20-30 grams of protein and 75-100 grams of carbs should be enough, giving you between 400-600 calories. This should be more than enough energy to get you through your workout, but still digested by the time you start training.
When to eat a meal before training
Ideally, there should be enough time between the pre-workout meal and the workout for the food to be more or less completely digested. You want your stomach to be empty and nutrients reaching your muscles before you start your first set. Training with a stomach full of partially digested food can be very uncomfortable and also defeats the purpose of eating a pre-workout meal.
As people tend to digest food at different rates, timing your pre-workout meal may require experimentation. For example, you may feel ready to go after only an hour, or it may take two to three hours for your food to digest. The size of your meal is also important, and a large meal will take longer to digest than a pre-workout snack.
If in doubt, be careful and leave 2-3 hours between eating and training. That way, you’re less likely to feel sick during exercise.
The best pre-workout meals
So, to have enough energy for training, you need to eat a meal consisting of carbohydrates, protein and a little fat approximately 2-3 hours before training. This will give the meal enough time to digest and nutrients to reach your muscles.
Good examples of pre-workout meals include:
- Lean protein sandwich, e.g. chicken breast or turkey.
- 3-egg omelet on whole grain toast.
- Lean beef with rice and roasted vegetables.
- Oatmeal made with skim milk and topped with nuts and seeds.
- Natural low-fat yogurt topped with chopped fruit and granola.
- Protein/energy bar.
What if you don’t have time for a meal before training?
If you train early in the morning, you may not have time for a pre-workout meal. In this case, you’ll need to fuel up by eating a high-carb meal the night before. You can also boost glycogen levels by consuming fast-acting carbohydrates right before your workout, for example, while driving to the gym.
Your body digests liquids faster than liquids, so a pre-workout shake or smoothie is a good option. Just mix a ripe banana with yogurt, milk and protein powder and you’re good to go. Alternatively, you can drink a high-carb sports drink such as Gatorade, which contains glucose and other fast-acting sugars.
If none of that is possible, you can just take a pre-workout video. While you won’t be consuming carbs or protein, you’ll get a dose of caffeine and other energizers and stimulants that could help you get through your gym workout. However, this is not an ideal solution as you will still be running on empty and your training will be very exhausting.
What about speed workouts?
Fasted workouts are popular for fat loss and weight management. With speed workouts, you skip your pre-workout meal entirely and don’t eat anything before your workout. The idea is that your body is more likely to burn fat for fuel when your glycogen stores are partially depleted.
Research on fasting exercise is inconclusive, and while some studies suggest it increases fat oxidation, others have found no significant difference (4). However, anecdotally, it appears that doing cardio on an empty stomach can improve fat burning.
However, strength training in an empty stomach is probably not a good idea. Remember, glycogen is your primary source of energy during high intensity bodybuilding training. If glycogen levels are low, your strength and work capacity will deteriorate faster. This could make your workouts less effective.
So while it’s probably fine to do low- to moderate-intensity fasted cardio, fasted strength training isn’t a good idea for most people.
Learn more about pre-workout
The best pre-workout meal – The wrap
It is often said that you are what you eat. Your diet provides energy for your workouts and mealtime issues. Ideally, you should try to eat carbohydrates and protein 2-3 hours before training. This ensures that your glycogen stores are full, so you’ll have all the energy you need to fuel your workout.
If this is not possible, perhaps because you train early in the morning, consume some fast-acting carbohydrates, such as a glucose-based drink, on the way to the gym.
And while you can exercise on an empty stomach, they’re generally best left for cardio, where fat is your main source of energy. Rapid strength training can mean you can’t train as hard or as long as you normally would, reducing your workout productivity.
1– PubMed: Effect of meal frequency and timing on physical performance https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9155497/
2– PubMed: The role of carbohydrates in exercise https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6571232/
3- PubMed: Stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis by whey protein ingestion before and after exercise https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16896166/
4- PubMed: Exercise and Fasting: Current Insights https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6983467/