Do you roll out of bed and go straight to an early morning workout on an empty stomach? Or do you hit the gym after a long day at work when you last ate at lunch five or six hours ago? Maybe you go for a long run in the afternoon after a lunch of just chicken and vegetables? What you eat before your workout can have a huge impact on how well you perform, how you feeling during, how much endurance or strength gains will result, and how well you recover after you exercise.
Many people neglect the importance of pre-exercise nutrition and hydration, especially getting enough carbohydrates in this age of low-carb diet fads, and they even deliberately exercise without being adequately nourished beforehand, thinking it will help them lose weight to exercise in a calorie deficit. However, improper fueling and hydration prior to exercise will result in earlier fatigue, which then leads to fewer calories burned, not to mention undermining endurance, strength, power, or muscle growth gains we want to get out of working out! Here's what you need to consider consuming before working out:
What are the nutrients our bodies need prior to exercise? The 2016 Position Paper on Nutrition and Athletic Performance in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics goes into much greater detail with supporting evidence from scientific research, but here are the basics you need to know to have the best possible workout:
Carbohydrates are the most efficient and preferred source of energy in the body, for all types of physical activity, but especially when performing short-burst intense exercise and for the brain (e.g. the brain plays an important role for strategizing in many sports). Simple carbohydrates are typically sugars that are one or two molecules in size and are easily absorbed into the blood. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are larger molecules such as starches, which are essentially long chains of sugars that have to be broken down into their component sugars to be absorbed by the gut into the bloodstream.
Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids, and those amino acids are important for building new muscle and other tissues of the body. Proteins are found most predominantly in meat, fish, eggs, and dairy foods, but they are also found in many plant sources such as beans, tofu, nuts, quinoa, and in many vegetables. It is ideal for the body to avoid using protein for energy, even though it can, and eating too few calories and carbohydrates can result in the body breaking down muscle and other tissue to compensate.
Fats can provide a lot of energy, especially for longer, low to moderate endurance activities. However, it is important to note that fats cannot be the sole energy source for exercise since it is much slower in yielding energy than carbohydrates. Fats can also slow down digestion and can cause 'heaviness' or abdominal discomfort when a fatty meal is eaten prior to exercise, so it is recommended to not overdo fat intake in a pre-exercise meal.
Fluids are often neglected prior to exercise, but adequate hydration before a workout is essential, as even as little as dehydration of 2% of body weight can impair cognitive function and compromise aerobic performance, and even greater degrees of dehydration can be dangerous. Fluids can come from water, juice, sports drinks, and even tea and coffee in moderate amounts, but don't forget that water is found in many foods as well, especially fruits and vegetables.
Vitamins & Minerals also play a role in exercise performance, though it is generally more important to ensure their adequacy in the overall diet rather than in the few hours leading up to a workout. Most people who consume a consistent balanced diet with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins can get the vitamins and minerals for their bodies without the need of supplementation.
What, how much and when?
A 2013 review article published by Zoorob et al. in Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice outlines pre-exercise nutrition recommendations, as well as during-exercise and post-exercise nutrition, based on research done over the past few decades. Ideally, a snack or meal should be consumed 1 to 4 hours prior to exercise – a snack or small meal containing easily digested carbohydrates when closer to 1 hour prior, and a larger meal with complex carbohydrates and a moderate amount of protein (20-30 grams) if closer to 4 hours prior, to allow for digestion and reducing the risk of abdominal discomfort or a stomach ache during the workout. For you early morning exercisers or those who aren't able to eat until just before your workout, you'll need something that has some rapidly digested carbohydrates such as fruit and some fluids.
The specific nutrients, how much, and when they need to be consumed prior to exercise depends on what type of workout you are doing. Carbohydrate recommendations are based on kilograms of body weight – if you're used to weight in pounds, divide it by 2.2 to get your weight in kg.
Endurance exercise – depending on when you eat, you'll need at least 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight and 16-24 oz of fluid for every hour prior to exercise. For exercise lasting more than 1 hour, you will definitely want to make sure you have adequate nutrients and fluid the day before as well, to make sure you will be well-fueled.
For example, if you weigh 150 lbs or 68 kg, you will need 68 grams of carbs and 16-24 oz fluid 1 hour before your workout, 136 grams of carbs and 32-48 oz fluid 2 hours before, and so on.
Strength/resistance training exercise (short bursts of muscular effort, such as weight lifting): it is best to eat a snack in the hour just before a strength-based workout. Whether or not eating protein prior to resistance training will improve strength or muscle mass is still up for debate and may be minimal if at all, but many recommend at least some carbohydrates (30-40 grams) and some protein (10-20 grams).
Foods, Not Nutrients
As much as we can talk about how many grams of carbohydrates, protein, and fat your body needs, we don't consume isolated nutrients. Instead, we eat foods that are usually a combination of 2 or 3 of those macronutrients, so we need to be able to translate those recommendations into practical food choices. Below is just a small sample of possible pre-exercise meals you could put together using the sample 150-lb person above (remember to also include additional fluids to meet the goals mentioned above).
One hour before an endurance exercise which is one hour in duration or less:
• Peanut butter & jelly sandwich on white bread and 1 cup of grapes
• 1 large banana, 1/2 cup of milk, 1 cup of Corn Flakes
• 6 oz fruited low-fat or non-fat yogurt, crushed graham crackers (1 full sheet), 1 medium apple
• 1 cup low-fat or non-fat chocolate milk or flavored almond or soy milk, 3 fig cookies, 1 small orange
30-60 minutes before strength/resistance exercise:
• 2 oz turkey with 2 slices of bread
• 1 string cheese, 1 medium apple, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter
• 6 oz fruited Greek yogurt, 1/4 cup granola
Four hours before endurance exercise, especially for activities lasting longer than one hour (divide needs over 2 small meals and a snack):
• 4 hours before: 1 cup brown rice, 3 oz baked/grilled chicken breast, 1 cup steamed carrots
• 2 hours before: peanut butter & jelly sandwich, 12 fl oz milk, 1 large banana
• 1 hour before: 12 fl oz chocolate milk, 1.5 cups grapes
Reading the Nutrition Facts labels can also help you determine how much carbohydrates, protein, and fat are in your foods of choice, though many natural whole foods don't come with labels, so an Internet resource such as the USDA Food Composition Database can be helpful when label information isn't available.
Finally, as important as it is to make sure that you get the adequate nutrients prior to your workout, it can also be overwhelming and perhaps off-putting to do the math to figure out how much is in the foods you are eating, so you don't need to make yourself crazy trying to do all this! A ballpark estimate is fine, and even if you're a little bit off, your workout won't be compromised. With some practice, perseverance, and time, you will be able to estimate what an adequate meal or snack looks like without needing to read nutrition labels.
What if my stomach doesn't like me to eat so early in the morning before my workout?
You can actually 'train' your digestive system to handle a small meal/snack before your workout. Start slow and with small amounts of easily digested food, and gradually increase what you eat to be able to tolerate at least a small snack before you exercise.
Pro athlete XYZ or my best friend follows a pre-exercise regimen that seems to work great for them – can I just copy what they do?
Maybe, if their nutritional routines roughly follow the above guidelines. Keep in mind that what works for one person may not work for someone else! Our bodies are different and fueling strategies have to be individualized, and it often requires a little trial and error to find what works for each person. Also, be careful of nutrition regimens that celebrities or professional athletes follow that are extreme or that aren't supported by science. Just because professional athletes eat a certain way, it doesn't mean it's actually the best for their bodies – they may just have a genetic profile that allows them to still perform well!
To save these helpful tips, Pin This!