Pre-workout nutrition isn’t black and white. There’s no wrong or right way to how you should eat before a workout, but there are guidelines you could follow for maximum results.
Eating a diet rich in carbs, fat, and protein before a workout can bolster your performance, aid with building muscle, and help with weight loss. Keep reading as we dig deeper on working out after eating, the right foods to eat, and meal ideas you could try.
Should You Eat Before Or After Workout?
The answer lies in personal preference and sometimes fitness goals. Of course, other factors such as health issues, nutritional approach, or timing are crucial, but both approaches have their pros and cons, and there isn’t one right way to do it.
First off, your body will respond differently in the two scenarios giving different outcomes that may not align with your goals. Scientifically, eating before a workout is called fed exercise, while eating after is fasted exercise. Let’s have a more in-depth look at both.
From the name, it simply means you partake in training while you haven’t consumed anything in the last eight hours or more, probably first thing in the morning. The approach has its benefits such as:
- No substantial effect on stamina and performance, especially if it’s a short duration exercise.
- Use of body fat as a source of fuel leading to weight loss.
- Loss of body fat
Nonetheless, there are disadvantages such as muscle mass loss and excess fatigue.
The Body’s Use Of Fat As Fuel
Your body primarily depends on glucose from carbohydrates as the main fuel source for the body. When it’s inadequate, the body reverts to body fat which may not offer strength, but it works.
Loss Of Body Fat
Studies show that your body can lose up to 20% of body fat when you exercise before eating (4). However, this may not be the case.
Theoretically, the body will use up fat reserves/ triglycerides to power through the exercise leading to fat loss over time. However, the body responds differently for everyone seeing that some will lose weight while others experience no effects.
Nonetheless, fasted exercise does have positive effects on general body composition and blood sugar levels that remain more stable when compared to fed exercise.
No Substantial Effect On Performance
Research into the difference in performance between fed and fasted exercise shows that the body can sustain itself either way, and there are no effects on performance. Studies showed that eating before and after didn’t affect how you exercised; however, the type of exercise may differ (1).
HIIT and resistance training may be more strenuous for the body and may require you to feed before the workout. Therefore, it means the body has no problem sustaining itself on short-duration exercises but could be a problem for long-duration training.
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Fed exercise is the opposite of fasted; you get to eat before your workout, therefore, building on the glycogen you’ll need to sustain you through the training. The main reason you should eat before a workout is for strength, that’s what this strategy entails.
Feeding before your workout will have you taking carbs that turn to glucose and glycogen that will support your training; this means your body won’t have to use fat or protein reserves from muscle. Fed exercise has proven to be very advantageous, especially for bodybuilders and athletes, because they get to intake foods at the right time, which is before their workout, leading to better outcomes.
One disadvantage of pre-workout nutrition is sugar levels. Taking carbs means sugar also gets into your bloodstream, explaining why blood sugar is higher before and during exercise when you eat before working out (2).
These glucose and insulin levels attained with pre-workout meals could affect your body composition and may be a factor to determine when looking at your fitness goals.
With fasted exercise, you’re eating after a workout, meaning you reserve all the nutrients from your meal, while with fed exercise, your body gets the energy it needs to push through. Both approaches are okay with pre-workout nutrition; it only depends on your fitness goals and preferences.
For example, bodybuilders should eat before a workout because they indulge in intense exercise, sometimes even twice a day. Their body may not have enough glycogen stores to support them to do a fasted exercise, meaning they will have ineffective training, not to mention the negative effects such training would have on their muscle mass.
For those looking to lose weight, the idea of should you eat before a workout depends on what your body goals are. For weight loss, a fasted exercise may be encouraged because of its benefits, but to maintain body composition, you don’t need to stain the body to use fats. Hence you may need to feed before exercise.
Hence, the answer still lies within.
How Long Before A Workout Should You Eat?
There’s no set time as to how long before a workout you should eat, but the rule of thumb is two to three hours before your training. That should be enough time for the foods to metabolize as they await usage, plus it will help avoid stomach discomfort. By then, fats, while already in the form of triglycerides and glucose from carbs, will be consumed, converted to glycogen, and stored in the liver.
Even with the 2-3 hour gap between eating and working out, you could eat earlier, say one hour or less before your workout. The only thing that would change is the food you take and probably the portions. More on that in the last section on pre-workout meal ideas.
What Should You Eat Before A Workout?
For the right strength and performance, you need to eat the right foods with the right nutrients. There are three macronutrients you should focus on, plus a few supplements you could include in your diet.
The intake of carbs can’t be emphasized enough by experts as we all know carbs provide the main fuel source for the body. Carbs support short, long, high, and low-intensity exercises through their glycogen stores in the muscles and liver hence why carbs should always be present in your pre-workout meal.
Because we’re looking into performance associated with carbs, we also have to look into the type of carbs. There are two types of carbohydrates:
These two types of carbohydrates work differently in that simple carbs from refined sugars are easily and quickly digested in the body, offering energy within a short time. However, complex carbs are absorbed slowly but can offer energy over a long period. Complex carbs are healthier and high in fiber, which is great for your health and maintains body composition.
For pre-workout meals, complex carbs would be best because they offer consistent energy over an extended time compared to simple carbs that could flatline your energy levels any time. These carbs are rich in nutrients and have low glycemic indexes, which means you don’t have to worry about your insulin levels during training.
For the best results, aim to take these complex carbs for at least two to three hours of training and should be about ⅓ to half of the portion on your plate.
Lastly, examples of complex carbohydrates include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole-grain foods
The next thing you should eat before a workout is proteins. There’s a lot of research to support that proteins improve performance and can help with muscle hypertrophy and muscle synthesis that begins after your workout is complete. Other benefits include:
- Improved muscle growth
- Increased body strength
- Better body mass
- Better anabolic response during training
Protein and carbs work alongside to give you enough energy for training, including more intense exercises such as HIIT, resistance, or endurance training. Besides, proteins work well with amino acids, which have significant benefits.
Protein intake should take a few hours before training if it’s lean protein such as chicken, fish, meat, or soy. If your time is less, you can settle on low protein foods or protein powders absorbed in the body faster.
Consuming 20 – 30 grams of protein before a workout can result in an increased muscle protein synthesis rate that lasts for several hours.
Examples of high-protein foods to include in your diet include:
- Fish, especially oily fish such as salmon and tuna
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The last beneficial macronutrient is fats. There are different types of fats from trans fats, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated fats, and saturated fats. The ones you should mostly stay clear from are saturated fats. Otherwise, the rest can be healthy fats.
Fats are an alternative fuel source in the body, as you read above under fasted exercise. That doesn’t mean they aren’t as important when you take carbs. They, too, have a role to play in supporting your body through longer and moderate-to-low-intensity exercises.
They work well over longer periods as they burn much slower than energy from glycogen stores, hence offering longer energy. However, many still claim fats shouldn’t be taken in high portions and should be as healthy as possible.
Healthful fats you can include in your diet include avocado, olive oil, seeds, and nuts. They’re unsaturated and have great benefits for the body.
Supplements aren’t as important as the three macronutrients above, but they can help either way. Examples of supplements include:
- Creatine. It’s common among athletes as studies show it aids to increase muscle mass, strength, and muscle fiber size. You can take it before or after your workout (5).
- Caffeine. As a stimulant, caffeine has been shown to improve performance and increase strength while also helping with fat loss. You can take it as an energy drink or a booster alongside your pre-workout breakfast.
- Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs). These are only three; valine, leucine, and isoleucine. They help with muscle performance and even fat loss while decreasing muscle damage and encouraging muscle protein synthesis.
- Beta-Alanine. It’s also an amino acid that increases muscle stress. It’s great for low and high intensity and can reduce fatigue.
The last thing to consider is water. Your body needs water to function and work through the training. Sodium and electrolytes are essential. Therefore you can drink other varieties of drinks from sports drinks, coconut water, among others.
Six Pre-Workout Meal Ideas
From the detailed information above, the meal plan’s idea is to combine all the macronutrients, carbs, proteins, and fats and come up with a sustainable meal that’ll support you through training.
Now, before we look into the ideas, there’s something to make clear. You can’t take the same meal you would take three hours before exercise, only 30 minutes to a workout session. For example, you can’t take a plateful of brown rice, lean meat, and green leafy vegetables less than an hour before training because the food wouldn’t have digested.
No digestion means no energy produced and no support throughout the workout. That’s why the ideas below have also been divided into time differences, including a few pre-workout breakfast snacks you could take just before exercise.
- For a workout within two to three hours or more, you have more time for food to metabolize. You can go for more whole foods such as rice, roasted vegetables, and lean protein.
- For a workout within two hours, drinks such as protein shakes or breakfast cereals and oats would be the better choice as they take less time to metabolize.
- For a workout within an hour or less, you have the shortest time and therefore should opt for snacks such as protein bars, fruits, or Greek yogurt.
Pre-Workout Meal Ideas
Below are five ideas that will guide you on how to pair the food groups we discussed above.
Chicken Thighs, Brown Rice, And Steamed Vegetables
The meal has low-fat protein from the chicken thighs, carbs from the rice, and essential fats from the vegetables. You could swap thighs for breasts and opt for darker meat. As classic as the meal is, it has plenty of fibers and amino acids great for pre-workout.
Whole-Grain Toast, Peanut Or Almond Butter And Banana Slices
A good choice if you have less time for your workout. Bananas are high in carbs and potassium. Whole grain toast is also a great complex carb choice that’ll keep you stronger for longer. The fruit’s electrolytes will help you prevent muscle cramps, and peanut or almond butter has healthy fat altogether.
Oatmeal, Protein Powder, And Blueberries
Oatmeal is full of fiber, vitamin B, and a great choice for complex carbohydrates. They offer more sustained energy and performance eaten alongside the blueberries, which are fruits with high antioxidant properties and protein powder for balance.
Turkey Breasts, Sweet Potato, And Green Beans
If you have more time in your hands, you can get a heavier meal plan like this one with lean chicken, potatoes with high amylase, and green vegetables from the beans.
Strawberry Banana Protein Smoothie
The last idea would be to make a smoothie packed with fruits for simple carbs and protein powder. You can switch out the fruits according to your tastes or other nutritional benefits. For example, Greek yogurt has many benefits, and it’s high in carbs; therefore, you could add it.
Peanut Butter And Jelly Sandwich With Low Fat Milk
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a classic breakfast idea that’s packed with essential carbs, protein, and fats. Adding low-fat milk adds more protein to the dish, plus you can add fruits for refined, easy-to-digest starch.
Pre-workout nutrition isn’t as simple as taking in food before a workout. You have to know why you’re taking the food and whether it will benefit you and your goals, not to mention, should you eat before a workout and what will benefit you more.
Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages because eating before assures you of energy while fasted exercise helps with muscle building. All you need is to determine your personal preference and go along with that.
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This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility.
- Effects of aerobic exercise performed in the fasted v. fed state on fat and carbohydrate metabolism in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis (2016, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Effects of fasted vs fed-state exercise on performance and post-exercise metabolism (2018, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Effect of fed- versus fasted state resistance training during Ramadan on body composition and selected metabolic parameters in bodybuilders (2013, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Lose fat faster before breakfast (2013, sciencedaily.com)
- The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength (2013, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)