What is the most important meal of the day? For many, the first response that may come to mind is breakfast as this has been the mantra of many parents growing up. For many individuals, they are not wrong. A good breakfast is necessary to start the day right after your body has been fasting overnight. For athletic populations, or those striving to improve their performance, I would have to argue that there is another time of greater nutritional importance … pre-workout.
The pre-workout meal is the foundation for your training session. This meal should supply you with all of the necessary nutrients to maintain optimal performance for a longer duration. The better our performance in training and the longer we can sustain that performance, the greater the stimulus for change from that training will be. This is even more important for athletes as near-maximal intensities are often needed to illicit changes in speed or power output which can be difficult to accomplish in a under-fueled state. The goal of this article is to provide some guidelines for what to eat prior to training to fuel your performance and more readily reach your goals.
Carbohydrates Prior to Exercise
One of my mentors used to summarize carbohydrates for athletes as GO Foods, and in this context, it helps easily translate the purpose of this macronutrient. Carbohydrates are your bodies main fuel source for energy during high-intensity exercise. Resistance training has been shown to reduce our bodies internal carbohydrate stores, known as glycogen, by as much as 24-40% in a single workout[1-4]. While there is some controversy in the research as to whether there is a direct performance benefit to carbohydrate intake prior to exercise, a reduction in muscle glycogen levels has been shown to negatively effect exercise performance [5, 6].
By having a high-carbohydrate meal in the hours prior to exercise, we supply fuel our body can use for high-intensity activity, therefore sparing the use of our own muscle glycogen stores. There seems to be a greater effect of carbohydrate intake prior to exercise on performance with higher volumes and prolonged training sessions (>60mins) . It is generally recommended to consume 1-2g of carbohydrate per kg of bodyweight 3-4 hours prior to exercise for optimal effects on muscle glycogen levels . The best sources of carbohydrates for this meal would be complex carbohydrates such as rice, beans, starches such as sweet potatoes, whole grains or high-fiber fruits. If your training doesn’t involve high volumes of exercise or sessions lasting longer than 60 minutes, fewer carbohydrates may be needed to promote optimal performance in training. For example, a 180lb individual would require about 82-164g of carbs.
Protein Prior to Exercise
The benefits of protein following exercise have become well publicized these days, however, there are also many benefits for consuming protein prior to exercise. Taking protein before a workout has been shown to increase the protein synthetic response to exercise, decrease signs of muscle damage, provide greater increases in anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone, increase strength, power and muscle size and alter body composition [7, 9-14]. In some cases, these results are more pronounced when consumed with carbohydrates, possibly due to the increase in insulin with carbohydrate consumption. It is recommended to consume about .15-.25g of protein per kilogram of body weight 3-4 hours prior to exercise . Using our previous example, a 180lbs individual would require about 13-21g of protein.
Creatine Intake Prior to Exercise
While there are several supplements that may enhance performance prior to exercise, I want to focus on one as it plays a vital role in one of our three main energy pathways during exercise; creatine. Long term creatine supplementation has been shown to increase strength, power, lean muscle mass, joint health, injury recovery and body composition when accompanying a resistance training program [15-18].
Creatine benefits our body in two primary ways:
- The first way is as a source of fuel for high-intensity activities. Creatine is our bodies primary energy source during high intensity activities lasting 10s or less such as sprinting, jumping and lifting weights. By supplementing with creatine prior to training, we can sustain high-intensity efforts for a longer duration which provides a greater stimulus for our bodies to adapt to.
- The second way in which creatine can benefit us is through increasing cellular hydration in the muscle. This increase in cellular hydration improves the anabolic environment in the muscle which allows for greater muscle growth .
3-5g of creatine has been shown to be an optimal dosage prior to exercise [16, 18].
Practical Aspects of Pre-Workout Nutrition
While these guidelines are found to be ideal, don’t get too hung up on the numbers. Just shoot to have a well-balanced meal consisting of a lean protein source and complex carbohydrates. We also know that know that life happens and we may not always find ourselves in a position where we have time to prepare a well-balanced meal 3-4 hours prior to exercise. If you find yourself with only an hour or two left before your workout, a good strategy to incorporate would be to have a protein shake with a couple pieces of fruit. Liquids are easier to digest and will get into your system quickly, fruits such as bananas will provide a quick source of carbohydrates and a shake allows for easy addition of creatine and improves hydration. In less ideal scenarios, a tall glass of chocolate milk or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at least an hour before exercise may do the trick. If you find yourself with 30 minutes or less before your workout, however, it may be better to skip a pre-workout meal as it could cause gastrointestinal distress during your training and thereby hamper your performance.
General Nutrition Guidelines Prior to Exercise
- Shoot for roughly 1-2g/kg bodyweight of complex carbohydrates and .15g-.25g/kg bodyweight of lean protein 3-4 hours prior to exercise.
- Don’t get too caught up in the numbers. Instead, focus on getting a well-balanced meal incorporating lean protein and complex carbohydrates 3-4 hours before exercise.
- Less carbohydrates may be necessary if engaging in lower volumes of training or exercise sessions lasting an hour or less.
- Supplementation of 3-5g of creatine prior to exercise may provide additional benefits in exercise performance, strength, power, hypertrophy and fat lass.
- If you find yourself with only an hour or two before training, a quick protein shake with 5g of creatine and a couple pieces of fruit will do the trick. While less ideal, in a pinch a tall glass of chocolate milk or a PB&J sandwich may be better than nothing.
- Eating within 15-30 minutes of a training session may actually decrease performance due to gastrointestinal upset.
Pre-workout nutrition is a vital part of eating to fuel performance. These guidelines are pretty straight-forward, but don’t feel too constrained by them either. Just focus on getting in wholesome carbs and proteins and giving yourself some time before your workout for these to digest. If you have any questions or want to learn more about a topic, please feel free to reach out. Have a happy and healthy day!
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