Everyone knows that protein is essential to consume after training, but what should you eat before a workout?
While not emphasized as much as post-workout nutrition, what you eat pre-workout might be even more critical to your results than your recovery meal!
Look – If you’re putting in the effort to work out it makes sense that you would want to maximize your results.
One of the easiest ways to improve the quality and impact of your workouts is by focusing on your pre-workout nutrition.
Optimizing your food choices and hydration before training will ensure sure your body gets everything it needs to perform at the highest level.
There are many different options for pre-workout nutrition depending on your individual needs, the type of exercise you prefer, and your goals.
Let’s explore the basics of pre-workout nutrition first, starting with the three macronutrients.
What Should You Eat Before a Workout?
If you want to get the most out of your workout, it’s important that you fuel your body properly.
The right nutrition will give your body the energy, strength, and endurance it needs to feel and perform its best.
Eating the right foods prior to exercise will also play a big role in how you recover from your workout.
Your body takes a very long time to fully digest the foods you eat – up to 6-8 hours in many cases!
Think of it this way.
Your post-workout recovery starts with the foods you eat before you even step foot in the gym!
To properly fuel your workout, you need to consume the right amounts of the three macronutrients:
The amount of each that you consume varies depending on your individual nutrition needs and the type of workout you’re doing.
Many people equate protein with bodybuilders at the gym due to the tradition of consuming a protein shake before or immediately after your workout.
It turns out that gym-goers know what they’re talking about; numerous studies have shown that consuming protein before breaking a sweat at the gym can help boost athletic performance.1
What most people don’t know is that protein can also be used for weight loss, but let’s focus on protein and its role as a pre workout fuel for now.
Protein is one of the most important macronutrients for athletes because your body requires protein to help your muscles rebuild and repair after a tough workout, among other functions.
You can get a great deal of benefit of protein by consuming it as part of a meal before you workout as part of a meal.
A protein shake using your favorite protein powder can also be a great way to get high-quality protein in a pinch.
Studies have linked the consumption of whey protein powder to a positive anabolic response when consumed before exercise, meaning that study participants who consumed whey protein powder showed increased muscle growth.2
Why Do You Need Protein Before a Workout?
The main benefits of consuming protein before a workout include:
- Increased anabolic response
- Increased strength and lean muscle mass
- Faster muscle recovery
- Increased muscle performance
Protein is broken down into into smaller bits called ‘amino acids’ during digestion, which are then used by the muscles.
Supplementing with amino acid drinks can be another, potentially more efficient way to get some of the benefit of pre-workout protein.
While protein is certainly an important pre-workout nutrient, carbohydrates may be even MORE important.
While protein plays a critical role in helping strengthen and build muscle, carbohydrates are most important when it comes to fueling those muscles.
Athletes like runners, swimmers, and cyclists, and even those very same bodybuilders we referenced before use carbohydrates as fuel for the muscles during a workout.
Your body converts carbohydrates into glucose, which is then stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen for use during short or high-intensity exercise.
Keep in mind that your body’s stores of carbohydrates are limited.
As your workout goes on, your glycogen stores will become depleted, eventually resulting in the feeling of “hitting the wall” that is commonly referred to in endurance events.
As a result, it’s critical to make sure that you take in enough carbs prior to a workout if you plan on working out at a high intensity for an extended period of time.
Some supplements help prolong, or delay the time it takes for your muscles to fatigue.
Beta-alanine for example, helps replenish intra-muscular carnosine levels, which helps produce energy.
It also produces a harmless tingling sensation, but it is one of the most commonly used endurance ingredients in pre workout supplements.
Fat might not seem like an essential element of a pre-workout meal, but certain types of exercises rely on fat as fuel.
If you’re working out at a moderate to low intensity for an extended period of time, fat is actually the body’s primary (and preferred) fuel source.
That’s why you’ll often hear low-intensity levels of exercise referred to as the ‘fat-burning zone’.
In addition, healthy fats have overall health benefits ranging from joint support to cognitive and cardiovascular health.
Fats such as omega-3s are powerful enough to improve heart health and can even reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Consuming a sufficient amount of healthy fats over an extended period of time has also been shown to boost performance.3
They should be included in almost every meal, whether pre workout, post-workout, or any time.
Healthy fats are an essential part of any diet, and while they’re not emphasized as much as carbohydrates or proteins, healthy fats should be included in a high-performance pre-workout meal plan.
When Should You Eat Your Pre-Workout Meal?
The content of your pre-workout meal is important, but the timing of the meal should also not be overlooked.
In fact, the food choices you make pre workout are entirely dependent on how soon before your workout you are eating.
In an ideal world, you’d eat a complete meal containing protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats 3-4 hours before your workout.
3-4 Hours Pre Workout:
The best time to eat a pre workout meal is 3-4 hours before you begin training.
That’s because your digestive system actually takes this long to fully break-down the foods that you eat, and can properly use them as fuel.
The ideal meal at this time would contain:
- A lean protein source like grilled chicken
- A complex carbohydrate source like brown rice
- A small salad with olive oil (healthy fats) or walnuts
This is an example of a high-performance pre-workout meal two to three hours before your workout.
However, that’s not always possible, particularly if you like to work out first thing in the morning.
If your workout starts within one to two hours, you’ll need to make simpler choices that your body can digest more quickly.
2 Hours (Or Less) Pre Workout
Eating a meal including protein and simple carbohydrates about 45 to 60 minutes before your workout will still give your body the fuel it needs.
A protein shake is a great choice for a pre-workout meal because it delivers the nutrition your body needs without making you feel overly full.
Pair your shake with a cup of whole-grain cereal and milk, or even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Cereals and bread are typically not advised on health food blogs, but pre workout nutrition doesn’t always follow the same rules.
The sugars in these ‘simple carbs’ digest rapidly and can provide a readily-available fuel source for demanding muscles.
Other good pre workout foods to eat within 2 hours of workout time also include:
- Greek yogurt and granola
- Bananas, apples, or other fruits
- Protein pancakes (try our top protein pancake recipe)
- Nutrition Bars
- Trail Mix
Remember – if eating close to your workout or game time, be sure to choose foods that are easy to digest, and keep your meal small in order to avoid stomach upset.
Pre Workout Meal Cheat Sheet
|Immediately before/during training||– sports drinks (don’t fear real sugar)|
– raw honey
– candy (if emergency calories are needed)
|– not advised – consider amino acids||– not advised|
|1.5-3 hrs before training||– oats|
– fruits (bananas, apples, berries)
|– greek yogurt|
– protein shakes or bars
|4-6 hrs before training||– brown rice|
– sweet potatoes or baked russet potatoes
– fresh vegetables
|– grilled chicken|
– cooked fish
– lean beef or pork
– cottage cheese
Should You Take Supplements Before a Workout?
There are many nutritional vitamins and supplements that are designed to help boost your athletic performance before training- but do pre workouts really work?
The best pre-workout supplements utilize ingredients with multiple studies confirming their effectiveness.
Ingredients like caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine (as mentioned earlier), and certain amino acids like betaine can help delay fatigue, boost energy, and even provide strength benefits.
Protein powder is commonly blended into a shake or smoothie that is consumed either before or after a workout.
While there are differing opinions about the right time to drink a protein shake, studies show that as long as you consume enough protein, it doesn’t matter if it’s consumed before or after a workout.4
The benefits of protein when taken pre- or post-workout are:
- Building lean muscle mass
- Gaining strength
- Faster Recovery
While the focus of protein powder in the context of this article has been how it helps boost athletic performance, protein can also help you lose weight.
Concentrated proteins are filtered to a greater degree than isolates and may be better-suited for those with a weight-loss goal.
Recommended Reading: Protein Isolate vs. Protein Concentrate – Which is Better?
Protein powder is available in many different flavors (like birthday cake) and comes in many different types and varieties.
It is likely that there is a protein powder on the market that will work for you.
Even athletes adhering to specialty diets (such as a vegan diet) will be able to find a variety of protein powder that is compatible with their diet.
Look for protein powders that are sourced domestically, and don’t contain excessive calories or added sugars.
A quality protein supplement will have beneficial effects on your workout, such as minimizing muscle damage, reducing fatigue, and increasing muscle protein synthesis.5
Another popular pre-workout supplement is creatine.
Creatine is one of the most commonly used supplements among athletes.
Studies show that creatine can:
- Contribute to building lean muscle mass
- Increase muscle fiber size
- Supporting muscle strength and power
- Reducing the amount of fatigue you feel during your workout
Creatine has been found to have beneficial effects when consumed either before or after a workout.
Adding 2-5 grams of creatine to your pre-workout protein shake is a great way to get in your nutrition and help your body build muscle and recover more quickly.
You may be using one pre-workout supplement, caffeine, without even intending to do so.
Many people consume caffeine in the form of coffee, tea, or energy drinks, but the ingredient is also included in many pre-workout supplements in order to give you an extra boost.
Studies show that caffeine is helpful in reducing feelings of fatigue during a workout, promoting fat burning, increasing performance, and boosting strength and power.6
To maximize the boost you receive from caffeine, take it 30-40 minutes before your workout.
If you don’t have time, even 15 minutes before a workout can be effective.
In addition, make sure to maintain hydration throughout your workout by prioritizing drinking plenty of water over caffeinated beverages.
What Else Should You Know About Fueling Your Workout?
Eating a nutritious meal before you workout is a huge step in the right direction for properly fueling your workouts. However, there are also other things to keep in mind in order to maximize your performance.
If you tend to put in long workouts as an endurance athlete, it’s important to consider refueling mid-workout.
If you work out for more than about 60 minutes, consider adding a snack during your workout to make sure your body doesn’t run out of glycogen.
Easily digestible carbohydrates, such as raw honey packets, gummy bears, or M&Ms can give you a mid-workout pick-me-up without making your stomach feel queasy.
These simple sugars are generally not advised when taken during the day not in a workout situation, but this is the time when you WANT those fast carbs.
Aim to get in about 15 to 25 grams of carbs for your mid-workout snack if you need it.
Resistance athletes could also consider consuming some protein halfway through their workout in the form of a protein bar or small shake.
If this is too hard on the athlete’s stomach, consider amino acids for a substitute.
These are easier to digest, and won’t have the lactose or other compounds that can put too great of a demand on your digestive system.
Refueling after your workout is also important.
Endurance athletes will need to consume carbohydrates to refill their glycogen stores and protein in order to help with muscle repair and recovery.
Resistance athletes can focus on consuming additional protein. Try to refuel within 30 minutes of your workout, if possible, for maximum effectiveness.
Check out our guide to post-workout recovery for more info on how to treat yourself properly post-workout.
The Bottom Line
Your body needs protein, carbohydrates, and fat in order to properly fuel your workouts.
The amount of each macronutrient that you need to ingest before your workout varies depending on the type of exercise you plan to do.
Protein is important for those doing resistance training and/or high-intensity exercise.
It helps prevent muscle damage, speeds up recovery, and builds lean muscle mass.
Carbohydrates are important for endurance athletes or those working out in short and high-intensity bursts.
Fat is more important for longer workouts at a more moderate to low effort level.
Consume your pre-workout meal 3-4 hours before you plan to exercise for best results.
If you have to eat closer to your workout start-time (1-2 hours), chose faster-digesting foods such as a protein shake.
Pair it with a simple carb choice like a banana, or cereal bar for some ‘quick carbs’, and you are good to go!
1Effects of resistance training and protein plus amino acid supplementation on muscle anabolism, mass, and strength | National Library of Medicine
2Stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis by whey protein ingestion before and after exercise | National Library of Medicine
3Effects of dietary fat and endurance exercise on plasma cortisol, prostaglandin E2, interferon-gamma and lipid peroxides in runners | National Library of Medicine
4Pre- versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations | National Library of Medicine
5Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise | National Library of Medicine
6Nutritional ergogenic aids and exercise performance | National Library of Medicine
7International society of sports nutrition position stand: Beta-Alanine | National Library of Medicine
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