A Strength Coach Shares His Top Pre-Workout Nutrition Tips
By Jake Boly
In this article:
When we discuss pre-workout and post-workout nutrition, oftentimes, post-workout steals the spotlight. It’s much more common to hear others discuss what you should eat following a workout than what to consume before. In theory, this makes sense, right? After all, we just exerted energy and worked out, so it’s normal to think, “What should I consume to create a positive change?”
While post-workout nutrition is certainly important for creating positive workout and recovery adaptations, pre-workout nutrition is just as important. What we eat before a workout can set our body up for better performance and post-workout recovery.
In this article, we’re going to cover what pre-workout nutrition is, why it matters, and how you can leverage it for your benefit.
Pre-workout nutrition constitutes everything that we intentionally put into our body before a workout. Generally, this means the foods, fluids, and sports supplements that we consume about two hours before our workouts that are designed to optimize performance and recovery.
In the context of working out and intent-driven training, pre-workout nutrition often entails consuming a high-quality protein and carbohydrate source that will then be used to support performance.
In reality, everything that we put into our bodies before a workout could be considered pre-workout nutrition, but for brevity and the sake of this article, we’re going to limit the context of what’s discussed to a more finite timeline (2-4 hours pre-workout) and discuss pre-workout nutrition regarding the consumption of a protein and carbohydrate source.
There are countless reasons and benefits behind why we should consider our pre-workout nutrition.
Before reading further, it’s important to note that you don’t need to be a serious athlete or lifter to be concerned about pre-workout nutrition. Positive performance and body composition changes are created through the culmination of small intent-driven actions, and pre-workout nutrition can be one of those actions that can help support growth across a variety of performance and life fronts.
The first reason why pre-workout nutrition matters is for recovery purposes. When eating throughout the day, our body is constantly digesting what we’ve consumed, then utilizing the foods and fluids consumed for fuel and recovery. The rate at which various foods and meals will be digested will vary based on multiple factors, but usually, there is always some level of digestion taking place assuming one is not fasting.
In the context of working out and muscular growth, muscle protein synthesis is usually the variable that most lifters are concerned about. Muscle protein synthesis entails the utilization of protein for muscle building and recovery. By strategically eating before and after a workout, we can create an environment that favors muscle protein synthesis which can support better recovery and growth.
The second reason why pre-workout nutrition is important to consider is for performance. We all want to perform our best and we all know what it feels like to perform with low energy levels, so by creating a strategic pre-workout nutrition plan, we can hedge our bets and prevent poor performance days due to inadequate nutrition.
We all train with different intensities and modalities, which means we need to account for our pre-workout nutrition with a level of individuality. This means making pre-workout selections based on what helps us feel and perform our best, and aligns with food options that we have readily available and enjoy. Basically, we need to individualize our plan and not follow an arbitrary cookie-cutter idea of “perfect” pre-workout nutrition.
Instead of me providing pre-workout meals and calling them the “best,” let’s instead discuss this topic from a systems point of view. Nutrition is highly individual and we need to remember that when constructing pre- and post-workout nutrition choices.
Essentially, let’s create a means of selecting pre-workout meals based on multiple criteria including:
- The type of workout you’re doing
- The adaptations you’re going for
- What types of foods are readily available for you
- What preferences you have
- Research-driven evidence of efficacy
If we can create a pre-workout nutrition flow that works for the individuality of our lives and goals, then we’ll be much better suited to create better adherence toward them.
A first question to consider when building a pre-workout nutrition plan is the type of activity you plan on performing. Are you performing long-duration endurance activities, short bouts of power, or moderate-intensity work? All of these activities will utilize different energy systems and stores throughout different points in a workout. By accounting for this, we can better select food options that are suggested to support performance better.
Here are some examples of how you could structure meals based on your activities:
- Endurance: Low fat, higher carb, moderate protein
- Lifting + Moderate Intensity: Low fat, moderate carb, and protein
From here, we can then relate the activities we’re performing to the adaptations we’re aiming for. For example, if you’re an endurance athlete, then increasing your work capacity is probably at the forefront of your goals. In this case, selecting carb sources that will sustain your workout duration will be a good bet. It could also be useful to look into intra-workout carb sources for elite endurance athletes.
If muscle gain and growth is the goal, then opting for carbs and high-quality protein sources pre-workout would make the most sense when considering muscular hypertrophy. Remember, carbs and protein have been suggested to play a role in increasing muscle protein synthesis post-workout.
Once we’ve acknowledged our workout’s activity and intensity and considered our goals, then we can begin to build meals that make the most sense for us based on our preferences, availability, and cost.
Some basic dietary points to keep in mind when optimizing pre and post-workout nutrition include:
- Reach for higher quality protein sources when available.
- Protein powder and nutritionally dense whole food proteins work well.
- Consume carbohydrate sources based on the activities you’re performing.
- For endurance activities, opt for a slightly higher carbohydrate intake.
- For moderate-intensity activities, opt for moderate carbohydrate intake.
Let’s build some examples of what pre-workout meals could look like. Remember, these are just examples, so populate your nutrition choices based on your dietary preferences!
Example 1: 1 Hour Before Run
- Oatmeal with cinnamon and a whey protein shake
- Why: Slow-digesting carb source, high-quality protein source with ample amino acid content.
Example 2: 2 Hours Before Lift
- Chicken breast/lean ground turkey/lean beef and potato with fruit
- Why: Slow and faster-digesting carb source, high-quality whole food protein.
Example 3: 30 Minutes Before Training (Lift + Run)
- Two oranges and a Greek yogurt
- Why: Faster digesting carbs and low-fat protein source to limit “fullness” feeling.
The above are examples of meals that could be to optimize pre-workout nutrition. The point of these examples is to highlight that your pre-workout meals should be constructed with the foods you prefer and have readily available.
- Opt for meals that you prefer, have available, and don’t hinder performance. Essentially, time and construct your meals based on what allows you to perform your best!
- Choose high-quality proteins, as they’ll have a better content of amino acids which can play a role in muscle protein synthesis (recovery + growth).
- Carb sources should ideally account for your daily intake and activity being performed. Since carbs can assist with muscle protein synthesis and energy levels, select carb sources, like protein sources, that you prefer and have readily available.
By working within our means, we can be better suited to build a structural plan that is realistic for our long-term growth.