When it comes to nutrition, most of us know to re-fuel after a workout, but have you given enough thought to what to eat before the gym? The timing, type, and quantity of food you eat before your workout can have a big impact on your performance and how you feel. Here, we’ll cover the basics to help you fuel up for a great sweat session.
Why is pre-workout nutrition important?
Pre-workout nutrition is crucial for the body to be prepared for a workout. Would you leave for a road trip with no fuel in your car? You don’t want to jump into a tough training session on empty, either. However, there are three factors to consider when deciding what to eat before a workout:
1) How long before your workout do you plan to eat?
2) What type of workout are you planning for, and what outcomes are you working towards?
3) How long is your training session going to be?
The answers to these three questions are critical when deciding what to eat before the gym. Let’s address each question one at a time.
How long before your workout do you plan to eat? Do you have an hour to grab a quick snack or will you have 3 hours since your last large meal (and nothing in between)? You may want a meal or a larger snack if the time in between is more than an hour.
Will you work out first thing in the morning, having fasted since 5 or 6pm the night before, or do you have to squeeze in a gym session after lunch and before dinner? The time of day that you train can have a big impact on your energy levels — some people love to train fasted first thing, while others find it’s better after eating a snack or meal.
The next factor to consider is the type of workout you’re planning, which goes hand in hand with your long-term goals. If you’re going to have a leisurely weightlifting session, you might need to fuel for muscle building, versus a short HIIT cardio workout, when you don’t want a lot in your stomach.
If your goals include weight loss, you don’t want to consume too many calories, but if you’re looking to make lean gains, then you need adequate amounts of macros to build muscle.
The final consideration is the length of your workout. If you only have 20 minutes to work hard, then you probably won’t need more food during your workout, but if you’re training for an ultramarathon, you’ll need to be ingesting calories every hour or so.
With all of these factors in mind, let’s consider the macronutrients — carbohydrate, protein, and fat — and the supplements that can make up your ideal pre-workout meal.
What to eat before the gym
While some people prefer to exercise on an empty stomach, it’s crucial to have an adequate amount of the following macronutrients in your meals and snacks before you hit the gym.
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are the muscles’ main source of energy. During a workout, our muscles pull that energy from carbohydrates in our food for immediate use (glucose), or from extra energy storage in the muscles (glycogen).1
Having carbohydrates in our diets from wholegrains, fruits, and vegetables both provides fuel for all muscles throughout the day (including our brain) and helps to maximise those glycogen stores, so we can work out harder and longer and replenish those stores after a challenging workout, helping speed muscle recovery.
Research shows that long-term low-carb diets negatively impact performance in those who exercise heavily.1 Long distance runners and other endurance athletes benefit from ingesting carbohydrates during long training sessions and races (e.g. more than 60 minutes), like energy gels and sports drinks.
Consuming easy sources of glucose can help give an energy boost when your glycogen stores have already been at work. In short, having carbohydrate before a workout primes your energy levels and helps keep your glycogen stores at maximal levels.
Most athletes know that protein is key to building muscle after a workout, but there’s also a benefit to having protein before a workout. Research shows that consuming protein prior to exercise helps make it more readily available to help build and repair muscle after your workout.2
Consuming protein before a workout gives your body time to digest it and have it broken down into amino acids, which can help with muscle building and repair.
Another study showed equal benefit from the same dose of protein before and after a workout.3 Consuming adequate protein regularly can also help optimise recovery from your last workout, making you ready to perform at your best.1
Have you ever been on a cardio machine that shows you’re in the “fat-burning zone”? You can think of that as a lower intensity, longer form of exercise — like a moderate jog for more than 20 minutes.
Fats are burned for energy when our muscles have adequate oxygen to use them as energy during aerobic exercise.4 Heart-healthy fats play so many roles in optimal health, so it’s important to consume them regularly.4
Another benefit of healthy fat in your regular diet is satiety — it helps to slow down digestion and keeps you feeling more satisfied for longer which could prevent overeating. MCT oil is a common form of an easily digestible fat supplement.
Pre-workout supplements have a multitude of benefits based on your goals. If you’re looking to increase power and performance in activities like weightlifting, then creatine has been proven to be effective and safe.5
If you need a little boost of energy half an hour prior to exercise, pre-workout powders containing caffeine and B-vitamins are popular. These pre-workout supplements can delay fatigue and improve performance, which leads to better results over time.6
No matter what supplement you take before your workout, follow the instructions to make sure you consume it with or without food and with adequate water or other fluid for optimal results.
When to eat before the gym
With so much to consider, when exactly should you eat before the gym? If you’re having a meal 2-3 hours before your workout, then you want to make sure it contains all three macros (complex carbs, adequate protein, and healthy fat).
If you have less time between your meal and workout, maybe it’s more of a snack or a pre-workout shake. The size of your meal is dependent on the length and intensity of your workout. Let’s look at some specific meal ideas.
Pre-workout meal ideas
If you have 2-3 hours before your workout, consider all three macro components to keep you satisfied and optimally fuelled for exercise. Here are some ideas:
- Whole wheat toast (carbs) with peanut butter (fat, protein) and a drizzle of honey (carbs)
- Veggie Omelette (protein, fat), banana (carbs)
- Smoothie – frozen fruit (carbs), skim milk (protein, carbs), almond butter (fat)
- Lunch or dinner
- Whole wheat wrap (carbs) with tuna salad (protein, fat), apple (carbs)
- Pasta (carbs) with shrimp (protein), side salad with vinaigrette (fat)
- Salmon (protein, fat), brown rice (carbs), veggies (carbs)
If you have 1-2 hours before your workout, a combination snack (more than one macronutrient) is optimal to keep your body ready to work. Think about these options:
- Crackers or fruit (carbs) and cheese (protein, fat)
- Hummus (protein, fat) with pita (carbs)
- Yogurt (protein, carbs) with granola (carbs)
If you’re exercising in about an hour or less, a small snack of mostly carbohydrates, which are quickly digested, is your best bet. Try:
- A banana or applesauce
- Wholegrain cereal and milk
- Toast with jam
- Pre-workout mixed with water or juice
Take these ideas and customize the portion sizes to your goals based on how long you plan to work out – you might need to add more protein or carbs to help you stay at the top of your game.
It takes some trial and error to figure out what feels best on your stomach, but these key points about nutrition can help you maximize your energy and performance while you’re at the gym.
Most athletes know to drink water during their workout, but the importance of drinking water (and other fluid) before your workout is often overlooked. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends “pre-hydrating” with fluid intake for several hours before working out — specifically, about half a litre 4 hours prior to exercise and about an additional 300ml within half an hour of your workout.7
Although water is typically sufficient, consuming a source of sodium can help your body retain the fluid if you’re planning a long endurance workout (more than an hour) or if you suspect you could be dehydrated.7
Evidence shows that performance suffers when we’re in a dehydrated state, so it’s important to consume plenty of water before exercise — especially since prolonged sweating causes dehydration.
Take home message
Considering what to eat before the gym can take a bit of effort — you have to take into account when you plan to exercise, for how long, and what the goals of your workout will be.
It’s crucial to consume an overall healthy diet, with adequate carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein to keep your body performing at its best. Customise your pre-workout meals and snacks based on your goals, and keep in mind that supplements (and plenty of water with them) can also help maximise the results of your hard work in the gym. For more customised advice, you can seek out the advice of a sports dietician.