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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
July 27, 2022
Just like you wouldn’t expect your car to run on empty, your body has a hard time operating at peak gym performance when there’s no gas in your tank. In fact, optimal gym performance requires adequate pre-workout fueling. Want to see your best gym results? It means knowing what to eat, when to eat it, and how much of it to eat.
Circling back to our car analogy: Your car also doesn’t run better if you fill the gas tank until it overflows, right? Similarly, your body won’t benefit from overeating either. It requires the perfect balance of nutrients timed appropriately leading up to your workout. It may seem like a lot to keep straight, but we promise it’s not. We’ll walk you through everything you need to know.
In this article, we’ll cover:
If you are going to fuel your body with the best foods, then you need to know what that entails. The right foods include at least one of three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fats. They are the essential nutrients your body needs in large amounts.
Protein is vital to your body and, most importantly, your muscles. Protein checks in at four calories per gram (which will be handy when figuring out your daily calories). When determining how much protein per day to build muscle, research has shown that aiming for 1.6 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is sufficient for building muscle1.
We’ll cover more on how much to eat in a bit. As for why you should make it a priority, the list goes on and on for protein's health benefits, particularly when you choose high protein low fat foods. For starters, it helps build muscle and repair tissue and is vital for cartilage, skin, bones, and hair. It also oxygenates your blood and makes enzymes that aid in digesting food and making new cells. For an idea of ideal protein sources, check out our list of best muscle mass-building foods.
Carbs are the primary fuel source for your body and essential for healthy living. There are two forms of carbs: simple (sugar) and complex (starches and fibers). Both weigh in at four calories per gram. Most active people should get 40 to 50% of their daily calories from carbohydrates, although this may vary some depending on your body type. Studies in the sports medicine field show 30 to 60 grams is an appropriate target for sports or exercise sessions of longer duration2.
So what do carbs do? They fuel your brain, kidneys, heart muscles, and central nervous system as they are broken down into glucose before entering the bloodstream. In addition, carbs can be used for immediate energy or stored in the liver as glycogen for later use (this can only be used for muscle cells). And, for our weight lifters reading this, carbs help preserve and build muscle mass. In fact, they are so important that some diets, like the Vertical Diet, emphasize eating lots of fast-digesting, gut-friendly carbs (in addition to protein) for optimal performance results.
Fats are often seen as the villain but are essential for maintaining good overall health. Low fat and no fat may be popular terms, but more fat is surprisingly what you may need. You should aim for 20 to 30% of your daily calories from fats. Fat intake should be sufficient to provide the essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins and to contribute energy for weight maintenance3.
Why does your body need fats? For starters, they contain essential fatty acids your body can’t make on its own. They’re essential for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins K, E, D, and A. And, they provide a source of energy, especially for more prolonged bouts of exercise or sport.
No matter your goal, whether you are following a powerlifting program to gain strength, trying to build muscle through resistance training, lose fat, or improve athletic performance, you will want to have a plan for when and what you are eating. What you need to eat to function best will depend on your workout timing, similarly to how you time a protein shake around your workout, and will mainly depend on how long before your workout you eat.
Here are some suggested time frames for eating pre-workout, along with accompanying meal ideas.
This is the best-case scenario to check all your pre workout nutrition boxes. Meals should include a mixed balance of lean protein, starchy carbs (complex), and moderate amounts of fat. This will help promote longer digestion and sustained energy without crashes.
Within the one hour to two hour time frame, there is still plenty of time to have a bigger meal before your workout, but you will want little fat if you fall into this window. Decreasing fat will help your body avoid painful stomach cramps while struggling to digest fats during your workout, and it'll still give you the energy required for your killer assault bike workout.
Whether you just woke up or haven’t eaten all day, if you fall into this time window, you’ll want quick carbs as a fast fuel source and protein to preserve muscle. Instead of a full meal, think of this more like a pre workout snack. Avoid fats entirely here as there won’t be enough time to digest them properly.
And don’t forget about hydration! Your body needs water to function. Dehydration has been linked to a significant decrease in performance4.
Try for 16 to 20 ounces at least four hours before exercise. If you just woke up or it’s close to working out time, get 8 to 12 ounces. During your workout, try for 4 to 8 ounces per every 20 minutes of exercise.
Now that you have a better handle on when and what to eat before a workout, it’s important to remember what the benefits are.
No matter what your body type, if you want to build muscle and aid in muscle recovery, you need to take in more calories than you burn and focus on adequate protein intake. An easy way to remember it is that you should be distributing protein evenly between each meal and have an idea of how much how much protein you need per serving.
If you are working out 3 to 4 times a week, your body will constantly be working hard to build new muscle every hour of the day and break down muscle at a higher rate.
A study found that regardless of exercise, participants who had a minimum of 20 grams of protein six times per day increased their lean muscle mass while decreasing body fat1.
So what should you eat? Aim for a 2 to 1 carbs to protein ratio, which breaks down to 50 grams of carbs and 25 grams of protein. A protein shake using one of the best protein powders, and a banana or apple are excellent options for fueling up close to your workout.
If you're trying to preserve muscle mass while losing weight, you may even want to consider adding additional protein to your diet, up to 2 grams per pound of bodyweight. Also, don't forget that determining what to eat after a workout is just as important to the muscle-building process.
This may not be exact, but the concept remains the same. If you want to lose weight or burn fat, you need to burn more calories than you are taking in. This means you need to look at your total daily calories and distribute it evenly between how many meals you eat.
Each person will be different with their preferences for how many meals they eat a day and how big each meal is. You should try to stick to the guidelines listed above for when and what to eat before a workout, particularly if you’re trying to improve your performance in the gym. Remember, you will likely never see a high-level athlete training without fueling their body first, so take notes if you want to increase performance or achieve muscle hypertrophy.
Having said that, research states that when you eat before exercise, your blood sugar levels are higher before and during your workout session5. Simply put, exercising in a fasted state means your body can more easily break down fats for energy.
While there has been some research done to indicate the potential benefits of exercising in a fasted state, there are currently no compelling studies showing that working out while fasting leads to significantly more weight loss or fat reduction6. This means it will take some trial and error to see what you prefer, how you perform, and how your body responds.
We know how hard it can be to wake up early before your workout. Sometimes you have to drag yourself out of bed for a brutal 5 a.m. gym session. Yes, if you want to get that bigger balanced meal we discussed earlier, you will have to wake up early enough to eat, so it has time to digest.
If you are going that route, try preparing your meal the night before. They say failing to plan is planning to fail, and that couldn’t be more true in this case. Even throwing a light snack, like a banana and protein shake, in your gym bag the night before to have on the way to the gym will do the trick. Your plan to progressive overload and make serious gains won't work if you've got no energy to work with.
If it’s too tough to wake up that early, that’s ok too. Just remember the timing guidelines we already went over. Try to wake up 30 minutes before your workout. This will give your body some fast-acting fuel and help prevent muscle breakdown.
Quick options include a protein smoothie with low-fat milk and mixed berries, which is easy to blend the night before or the morning of. If you give yourself enough time, you can make a protein coffee and pair it with a piece of fruit, simultaneously providing you with caffeine and pre-workout fuel. Another great option is to make a batch of protein muffins, so you have a grab-and-go option for the week ahead.
Gatorade or some juice can be a great last-minute fix to help give your body a quick energy boost and fight that lightheaded, faint feeling that may come from low blood glucose levels. Be careful with nutrition bars as they usually have a higher fiber and fat content than you realize. This will help avoid that painful bloated, cramping stomach feeling that would undoubtedly derail an intense workout.
Your body has been resting all night, and you haven’t taken in any water. Remember that dehydration causes a reduction in blood volume and decreased skin blood flow, sweat rate, and heat dissipation, increased core temperature, and increased glycogen use.
To sum up, it’s like driving your car without oil. It may run, but nowhere near as efficient as it would with the necessary fluids.
Try for 8 to 12 ounces right away upon waking to stay hydrated.
As discussed, it will come down to your preference. If you are able to eat a full, balanced meal 2 to 3 hours before your workout, then that will likely give you your best performance and results.
If it’s closer to your workout, then you simply adjust to the meals we discussed that include fewer fats and a more 2 to 1 carb to protein ratio. For this time frame, think small snack instead of regular meals.
You can still have a fantastic workout if you are unable to eat before. So whether it’s fasted cardio in the morning or you simply were unable to eat during the day and need to get your session in, it can be done. A few things to keep in mind, though. If you're taking dietary supplements, like pre-workout, and are typically susceptible to an upset stomach, it may be best for you to take with some food. Also, fatigue from not eating may harm your performance.
Try to think of it this way. If you were to give your nutrition and exercise a grading scale, then fueling and hydrating correctly would give you an A+ and would significantly improve your results, ensuring you have enough muscle strength and enough energy. But we know some students learn and perform differently than others. Therefore, some people working out without eating beforehand would grade a B+ on their fitness report card. For some people, that may drop them to a D.
To sum up, it is ok to not eat before a workout, but taking inventory of how you felt and performed during that workout is important. Always consider how you’re feeling during a gym session. If you felt sluggish, lightheaded, weak, experienced muscle cramps, or your performance drastically decreased, you may be a person who shouldn’t go without eating beforehand.
If you feel focused, vital, and energized, you may be someone who can get away with not eating before your workout. If your goals are to increase strength or performance, you should strive to fuel before each workout and let the fasted workouts be few and far between. Sometimes they may be necessary if you have to get your workout in, but they shouldn’t become a regular habit.
Keep in mind what you have already learned. The timing before a workout will affect what macronutrients and foods are prioritized.
If it’s farther away from your workout, eat a bigger, more balanced meal that includes foods dominant in protein and carbs. Also, include some fats as you are eating early enough to give your body time to digest them.
Closer to your workout, try to focus on proteins and carbs with minimal fats. This is not the time to indulge in a bulking breakfast. Don’t forget that these meals are simply a fraction of your total calories for the day, so keep track of them.
A helpful way to think about it and prepare is to have a list of options for each macronutrient.
Then you can plug in different options for what you like, which will help you avoid becoming bored with eating the same thing.
Here are some of the best foods to include for each:
These include options such as chicken breast, tuna, salmon, lean deli meats, greek yogurt, protein powders, milk, and lean ground beef, which will increase muscle protein synthesis, support lean body mass, help muscle fibers repair, and provide you with essential amino acids.
Complex carbs include brown or white rice, pasta, sweet potatoes, beans, lentils, and oats.
Fruit, cereal, juice, sports drinks, white bread, potatoes, and muffins are all great easy-to-digest carbs.
For fats, think nuts, legumes, nut butters, olive oil, eggs, cheese, and fattier cuts of steak or ground beef. As a bonus, some nuts are also high in protein.
You should now understand how to set yourself up for pre-workout fueling success. Remember, it will take some trial and error work to see what works best for you. These guidelines will help point you in the right direction, so you can figure out what and when you need to eat to ensure you bring your gym A game to take on that ultimate bro split workout plan you're gearing up to start.
Despite everyone’s differences, these pre-workout fueling takeaways remain a constant:
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September 21, 2023
September 21, 2023
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