You’ve decided to hit the gym, lace up those running shoes, or embark on a physically demanding workout. It’s a great decision for your health, but did you know that what you eat before your workout can impact your performance? Pre-workout nutrition is an important aspect to consider as a part of your fitness routine, and it can make a world of difference in how effectively you achieve your fitness goals and how you perform and feel during workouts. In this article, we’ll explore the importance of pre-workout nutrition and provide some practical guidelines to help you maximize your exercise efforts.
Why Pre-Workout Nutrition Matters
Following a balanced, healthy diet throughout the day that aligns with your goals is the most important thing you can do to make sure you are feeling good and performing your best during a workout. This includes making sure you’re optimally timing your pre-workout meal and being mindful of its components. The next best thing you can do is have a pre-workout snack to “top off” your energy before going into a workout. Eating the right foods before a workout gives your body an additional edge to power through your training session. Here are some key reasons why pre-workout nutrition matters:
Energy Boost: Pre-workout nutrition can help kick that mid-session fatigue, maintain focus, and keep overall energy levels high. Carbohydrates play a key role here, as they are the primary fuel source for your muscles during exercise and, in general, throughout the day.
Improved Performance: Pre-workout nutrition can help maximize your potential to perform your best during exercise. You’ll be able to push a little harder and achieve better results. Optimal hydration also plays a role in this and can reduce the risk of cramping, help to maintain focus, regulate body temperature, and maintain blood pressure.
Energy Preservation: Glycogen is a form of energy stored in your muscles, which is used to get you through prolonged exercise. Having the right pre-workout snack provides immediate energy that can be used and allows your body to tap into those energy stores a little later. Having a pre-workout snack can save those energy stores for later on and allow you to do more.
Muscle Maintenance: Including a moderate amount of lean protein in your pre-workout meal or snack can aid in muscle maintenance, repair, and growth.
Optimized Digestion: Digestion plays a big role in how you feel during workouts. Choosing the wrong foods at the wrong time can lead to cramping, stomach “sloshing,” or other uncomfortable digestive issues. In general, the closer you eat to your workout, the more mindful you may need to be of foods high in fiber, fat, or protein.
Now that you understand why pre-workout nutrition matters, let’s break down the key components and timing you should consider when mapping out your pre-workout meal or snack.
Pre-workout Meal: Timing and Components
When it comes to eating a meal before a workout, timing is key. Eating a meal too far out from your workout can leave you running on empty while eating a meal too close to your workout can cause discomfort. The ideal window for a pre-workout meal for most people is 2-3 hours before exercising. Keep in mind we are individuals and more time (up to four hours) could be needed, whereas less time could also be sufficient for some.
A pre-workout meal doesn’t differ significantly from your average meal. It should be moderate in complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains, oatmeal, sweet potatoes), moderate in lean protein (such as chicken, turkey, or Greek yogurt), low in fat (opt for healthy fats like nuts, seeds, avocado), and can contain fruits and vegetables as tolerated by you.
Sample Pre-Workout Meal
The best pre-workout meal for you depends on your personal preferences, dietary restrictions, and the type of exercise you’re doing. Here are some sample pre-workout meals:
- Whole grain toast with almond butter, banana, and 2 eggs
- Greek yogurt with berries, granola, and a sprinkle of nuts
- Oatmeal with a scoop of protein powder, ground flax seeds, and a handful of mixed berries
- Grilled chicken breast with quinoa and a side salad with olive oil and vinegar
- Brown rice with tofu and stir-fried vegetables
- A smoothie made with banana, peanut butter, protein powder, and oats
Pre-workout Snack: Timing and Components
Making sure your pre-workout snack has the right food components and is timed properly is important. Fat and fiber should be avoided or significantly limited as they take longer to digest and can cause an upset stomach since you are eating a pre-workout snack so close to the time of exercise. In general, a pre-workout snack should be eaten 30-60 minutes prior and should be mostly quick-digesting simple carbohydrates. This is a good rule of thumb and can be useful for most workouts.
You can include a small amount of protein* in your pre-workout snack as tolerated. If you do, it may be better suited closer to 60-90 minutes prior. This may be more ideal for strength training workouts or if your last meal was further out (closer to 4 hours ago).
You may need to experiment and see what timing or foods work best with your body. If you are doing a light or low-intensity workout for less than an hour, you can likely skip having a pre-workout snack.
Sample Pre-Workout Snack
The best pre-workout snack for you depends on your personal preferences, dietary restrictions, and the type of exercise you’re doing. Here are some sample pre-workout snacks:
- Dried fruit
- Granola bar
- Jelly toast
- Dry cereal
- Fruit smoothie
*Can pair with nuts, nut butter, low-fat string cheese, low-fat yogurt, low-fat milk, or other protein source as tolerated.
Drink enough water throughout the day before your workout to maintain normal hydration, then top off with about 16-20 oz. of water in the few hours leading up to a workout. Consider an electrolyte-rich beverage if you’re engaging in a prolonged, intense session.
Pre-workout nutrition is an important part of your performance nutrition toolkit and is not something to be overlooked, especially if you want to make the most of your exercise routine. By providing your body with the right nutrients at the right time, along with proper hydration, you’ll enhance your performance, boost energy, and better support your muscles. Ultimately, this will help you achieve your fitness goals more effectively. So, the next time you plan to work up a sweat, remember to fuel up beforehand for a stronger, more productive workout.