*Disclaimer: Pre-workout meals won't turn you into Rocky if you eat like shit majority of the time.
In this article, we'll go over nutrient-dense pre-workout meals to help fuel you and improve performance - think of it as icing on the cake. The finishing touch.
Don't think of it as last ditch effort.
If the majority of your diet is full of crap, you shouldn't expect a pre-workout meal to carry you through a workout.
Now that that's outta the way...your pre-workout meal should include carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Proper ratios will depend on training styles, experience, etc.
We built out this comprehensive guide to dial in your performance, so grab a notepad, maybe a coffee, and keep reading.
- A proper distribution of carbs, fat, and protein 2-3 hours before a workout can maximize your performance and recovery.
- Carbs are king when it comes to maximizing glycogen stores and fueling high-intensity workouts. Pairing carbs with protein helps prevent muscle breakdown and supports the development of lean muscle mass.
- Pre-workout supplements that include natural caffeine and long-lasting carbohydrates can also improve focus and provide sustained energy to help you power through your workout.
THE BEST FUEL FOR TRAINING
Knowing how to fuel your body before training can optimize performance and reduce muscle damage during exercise.
Before diving into the different types of pre-workout meals, let’s discuss how your body utilizes each macronutrient during training.
Carbohydrates, a type of macronutrient that is primarily stored as glycogen in our muscles and liver, are the body’s most efficient fuel source during most types of exercise, particularly during intense short, intense training sessions.
In fact, carbs are the only macronutrient that can be broken down rapidly to provide energy to working muscles during anaerobic exercise or high-intensity exercise sessions.
During intense workouts, excess carbohydrates stored as glycogen are primarily used to supply energy to your muscles. However, this supply is not unlimited. As we continue to exercise and our glycogen stores become depleted, our output and performance will decline.
Without sufficient carb intake, the body will be forced to rely on protein or stored fat for energy, which are not broken down quickly enough to fuel an intense workout, thus decreasing performance levels.
The extreme fatigue that often sets in after two hours of performing endurance training is often referred to as “hitting the wall” or “bonking.” To avoid this, endurance athletes usually carb load to maximize the amount of glycogen stored in their liver and muscle tissues.
While your muscles burn through glycogen during short, intense workouts, fat is primarily used to fuel your muscles during low-intensity activities.
Unlike glycogen, fat reserves in the body are nearly unlimited, allowing you to continue low-intensity activities for prolonged periods.
Keep in mind that while the percent contribution from fat is higher with low-intensity exercise, your body will still burn a small amount of carbohydrates.
Likewise, you will also burn fat in small amounts during high-intensity exercise. However, just because you're using more fat as fuel during low-intensity workouts doesn’t mean you are burning extra calories.
Ultimately, fat loss (and weight loss) is more about the total amount of calories burned, not just about the type of fuel your body is using for your workout.
While protein is not considered a significant source of fuel for the body, a small amount of protein is used during activity.
Furthermore, consuming protein before a workout is important because it plays so many vital roles in the body.
Protein is required for building and repairing every cell in your body, hormone production, muscle recovery, and more.
When you do not consume adequate amounts of fat or carbs or work out on an empty stomach, your body may burn through protein for fuel. If you use up all of your protein, there won’t be any to repair or grow new muscle tissues, leading to muscle loss over time.
While most of us are familiar with the benefits of protein when consumed after a workout, several studies have shown that adding protein to your pre-workout meal can also be beneficial.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, consuming protein alone or paired with carbohydrates before a workout is an effective strategy to support improvements in strength and body composition.
Another study also found that consuming protein and essential amino acids one hour before and after exercise can increase muscle protein synthesis when combined with resistance exercise.
Good sources of high-quality protein to support muscle growth include:
- Greek yogurt
- Whey protein shakes
- Plant-based protein shakes
- Seafood and fish
- Beans, nuts, and legumes
- Lean meat (chicken, turkey, lean beef)
Caffeine, naturally present in coffee and tea, can help boost energy levels during training and improve performance.
A 2019 review of 21 meta-analyses found that caffeine can increase exercise performance by improving the following:
- Anaerobic power
- Aerobic endurance
- Muscle endurance
- Muscle strength
Studies have also shown that adding caffeine to your pre-workout nutrition regimen may help reduce body fat, body mass index (BMI), and total body weight.
In addition to water, your body needs electrolytes — like sodium, potassium, magnesium, and chloride — to stay hydrated before and after exercise. If you’ve ever felt weak, tired, confused, or experienced muscle cramping during training, this may be caused by an electrolyte imbalance.
Electrolytes are important for fluid control and maintenance, blood pressure regulation, muscle contraction, nerve signaling, and so much more.
If you plan on working out for a prolonged time or to the point where you get really sweaty, you can benefit from drinking an electrolyte-replenishment beverage before training. This will ensure optimal muscle function and hydration during your workout.
TRAINING AND FUEL SOURCES
Your body utilizes different macros during different types of intensity. As such, you’ll want to build your pre-workout meal around the kind of training you will be doing.
While performing low-intensity workouts, your target heart rate should be less than 64% of your maximum heart rate.
At this point, your body primarily relies on fat for fuel. Around 70% of the calories you burn during low-intensity exercise come from fat, while the other 30% come from carbohydrates.
You can subtract your age from 220 to estimate your maximum age-related heart rate. For example, for a 30-year-old, the estimated maximum age-related heart rate would be calculated as 220 – 30 years = 190 beats per minute (bpm).
Examples of low-intensity exercise (at casual paces) include:
- Light Jogging
On rest days or days that you perform low-intensity exercise, decrease the amount of carbs and fat you consume.
Because protein is so important for muscle growth, you’ll want to consume the same amount of protein on rest days as on training days.
When performing moderate-intensity activities, your target heart rate should be between 64% and 76% of your maximum heart rate. In the moderate heart rate zone, your body will burn around 50% calories from carbohydrates and 50% from fat.
Examples of moderate-intensity exercise include:
- Water Aerobics
- Brisk Walking
- Group Sports
- Moderate Weight Lifting
On days that you perform moderate-intensity exercise, you should consume a moderate amount of high-quality carbs before your workout, paired with fat and protein.
For high-intensity training, your target heart rate should be between 77% and 93% of your maximum heart rate. As exercise intensity increases, so does the body’s demand for carbohydrates.
You can expect to burn roughly 70% of calories from carbohydrates and 30% from fat during high-intensity exercise.
Examples of high-intensity exercise include:
- High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
- Jiu Jitsu, MMA, Sparring
- Lifting Heavy Weights
Because your body uses more carbohydrates to fuel high-intensity exercises, you’ll want to increase your carbohydrate intake before working out while keeping your fat and protein intake the same.
You may also want to slightly bump up your calorie intake on days you perform strenuous workouts. Being in too much of a calorie deficit can cause you to lose muscle mass.
TIMING : WHAT TO EAT AND WHEN
Although the best pre-workout meals can vary from person to person, it’s essential to eat a balanced meal that includes fat, protein, and carbs.
Regarding carbs, there are two types to fuel your training: complex carbs and fast-digesting carbs. Knowing what type to include in your pre-workout meal and when is key to optimizing your training.
CARBS: 2 HOURS PRE WORKOUT
Complex carbs, lean protein, and healthy fats are the way to go 2-3 hours before training.
This will provide your body with sustained energy to power through your training.
Examples of long-lasting carbs to support your training include:
- Sweet Potatoes
- Brown Rice
- Whole Grains + Bread
- Beans, Peas, Oats. + Quinoa
Here are some examples of ways to incorporate complex carbohydrates, fat, and protein into your pre-workout meal:
- Chicken thighs, brown rice, and roasted vegetables
- Salmon, sweet potato, and quinoa
- Eggs and avocado on whole-grain bread
- Turkey and avocado on whole-grain toast
- Whole wheat bread with jelly and nut butter
- Salad with leafy greens, grilled chicken, mixed berries. Drizzle olive oil and vinegar over the top.
QUICK FUEL: 30 MINUTES TO 1 HOUR PRE WORKOUT
If you like a small meal before training, get some simple carbohydrates and protein in your system 30-60 minutes prior to your workout.
If you already ate your pre-workout carbs, but want quick fuel immediately prior to your workout without feeling full, stick with fresh fruits or purees that can be easily digested and immediately used.
Simple carbs are digested rapidly and provide immediate energy.
Avoid high-fat and complex carbs as they may cause stomach discomfort.
Quick fuel sources:
- Fresh Fruit: Blueberries, Bananas, Etc.
- White Bread
- Dried Fruit
- Protein Shake
- Greek Yogurt + Honey
- Greek Yogurt + Fresh Fruit
- Granola bar
OVERALL DIET AND LIFESTYLE HABITS
Fueling your body with good nutrition and pre-workout supplements before a challenging workout is essential, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle.
The best pre-workout strategy to maximize your workout potential and help you reach your fitness goals is to live a healthy lifestyle and follow a well-balanced diet.
Incorporating more foods that are good for you, such as fruits and vegetables, lean protein, healthy fats, and whole grains, into your meals and staying physically active can help you achieve a better body composition and improve how you feel.
It’s important to remember that no two people are the same. It may take trial and error to determine what macronutrient distribution works best for you. In some cases, you may even feel better working out on an empty stomach. However, it’s generally not recommended to make a habit out of it because it’s not ideal for your body in the long run and can negatively impact your performance.
No matter what type of physical activity you choose, going into your workout adequately fueled is the best way to get the most out of it.
Customizing a macro-based meal plan to support your workout routine can help you meet your fitness goals and enhance your performance.
Consuming carbohydrates before working out increases your glycogen storage, providing your body with fuel to push through intense workouts.
Pairing carbohydrates with protein before a workout can increase muscle protein synthesis and promote muscle recovery.
Hydrating before prolonged exercise with electrolytes can improve muscle function and overall performance.
Lastly, pre-workout supplements that include clean, simple ingredients, such as natural caffeine and long-lasting carbohydrates, can help improve mental clarity, increase endurance, and provide sustained energy to help you power through your workouts and improve your training.