Ask this question 100 times, and you’ll probably get 100 different answers. Like anything else, preworkout nutrition varies greatly from person to person. Different goals, different schedules, and different strategies will determine what you eat before a workout, when you eat it, and how much you eat. Since there is no one real answer to this question, an understanding of the basics of preworkout nutrition is a good place to start. Taking a note from 6th grade journalism class, I bring you the (very basic) “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How (Much)” of preworkout nutrition.
A Lesson in Pre-Workout Nutrition
1. “Who should eat before a workout?”
Even if you CAN work out on an empty stomach, it doesn’t mean that you SHOULD. The human body is an amazing machine and can often perform under the worst of circumstances, but why would you want give your body a less than optimal chance to make it through a great workout, to fully recover from that workout, and to be ready for the next one?
2. “Why should I eat before a workout?”
Every time you work out, your body is using valuable resources – and if you don’t give it something to use, it has to find those resources somewhere. During any type of workout, energy is consumed through a variety of pathways. Glycogen stores are depleted, fat is burned for energy, and muscle is broken down. Simply put, if you don’t feed your body before (and after) a workout, it will eat itself. Unless your goal is to lose fat, muscle, and possibly internal organs, pre- and post-workout nutrition is key.
3. “What should I eat before a workout?”
Pretty much all macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are important for preworkout nutrition, but protein and carbohydrates are key. Protein provides the amino acids necessary for building and repairing muscle. Whether you’re getting it from whole food (meat, nuts, eggs, etc.) or from a shake, protein will help your body spare muscle during workouts, and recover faster afterwards. We all know that getting protein shortly after a workout is important, why not have those amino acids already in your system, rather than starving for them afterwards? Carbohydrates provide energy for workouts. Simple carbs (like sugars) will provide almost immediate energy, while complex carbs (like starches) will provide more extended energy. Fats provide extended energy for longer workouts, and are more calorie-dense than protein or carbohydrates. Remember also that the body can burn just about anything for energy, but it can’t use carbs or fats in place of protein, or carbs or protein in place of fats.
The proportions of those nutrients and what foods exactly you get them from depend on individual goals and workouts. A common breakdown for the ratio of percent calories from carbohydrates/protein/fat is 40:30:30. For those trying to add mass, a heavy dose of all three is optimal. For those trying to lose weight, protein is more important, and carbs and/or fat are often minimized. For those working on recomposition or strength, enough protein and carbs to fuel the workout are usually all that is necessary. For endurance athletes, carbs of various types are more important, with smaller amounts of protein and fat. As with anything, experiment and find out what works for you, and remember that it will probably change as you progress toward your goals.
4. “When should I eat before a workout?”
Generally, it’s good to eat around half an hour before a workout. This gives food time to digest, but not so long before that you’re going to be hungry again before your workout is over. However, more often than not, there are reasons that this might not be optimal. Some people can work out on a full stomach, some run the risk of visiting a gym trash can if they try, and sometimes it depends more on the type of workout. Additionally, different nutrients are absorbed at different rates, so timing of preworkouts meals can vary.
If you can eat shortly before you head to the gym, do. If not, just eat as close to going to the gym as possible. For some, that might be a small meal an hour before a workout, for some, a meal a couple of hours before, and a shake on the way to the gym. This often takes some experimenting, but there are a few nutrient timing basics to remember:
- Simple carbs are available for your body to use almost immediately (~15 minutes).
- Complex carbs will take (and last longer) than simple carbs.
- Fats and proteins will take longer (and last longer) than carbs (up to a couple of hours)
- Whole food will take longer to absorb than liquids.
You can achieve the same thing in different ways by timing your meals, snacks, and supplements differently. For a weight training workout, you might be able to have a full meal shortly beforehand, or protein and carbs in the form of a shake on the way to the gym. The food will take a while longer to absorb, and will stay with you longer, while the shake will be absorbed and processed much faster. For an endurance workout, it might be better to have a protein and carb-rich meal a couple of hours beforehand, or light protein and simple carbs immediately before the workout.
Some people are confused by the instructions on preworkout (and other) supplements when trying to time pre-workout meals. Many supplements say that they are to be taken on an empty stomach – however, that doesn’t mean that it’s absolutely necessary. Taking supplements on an empty stomach will usually result in a faster, more complete absorption, and sometimes a more intense perceived effect. However, remember that a preworkout supplement will often cause you to burn more calories during your workout, and that unless your goals are to lose weight, you will need extra calories to balance out that effect. Some lifters choose to eat half an hour or so before a workout, and have their preworkout drink immediately before the workout, while some do almost the opposite. Just remember that preworkout supplements don’t NEED to be taken on an empty stomach, they might just work a little bit better if you do.
5. “Where should I eat before a workout?”
With all the options at home, in fast food, and in shakes and bars and other supplements, there’s really nowhere you can’t get a preworkout meal or snack. Sometimes this requires planning ahead, whether it’s taking a cooler to school/work or keeping a few spare bars in your workout bag.
6. “How much should I eat before a workout?”
Different people will have vastly different caloric and nutrient needs, so this will vary greatly. Generally, try to get at least 15% of a day’s calories and macronutrients within a couple of hours before a workout. For someone who is trying to lose weight and on a restricted calorie diet, this may take the form of a 300 calorie meal of an apple and some cottage cheese. For a hardgainer on a bulk, this might take the form of a 1000 calorie meal of a burger and a weight gainer. Having a general idea of how many calories will be burned during any given workout can also be a good indicator of how much you should have in a preworkout meal.
Preworkout nutrition, like nutrition and workouts in general, is very individual. It requires understanding your body’s needs and how to meet those needs, and experimenting to find out which way works best for you. As your goals progress and change, those needs will always be changing, so be sure to keep track of what works and what doesn’t, and modify when you need to.