Whether you are prepping for an intense workout session or going for a run, your pre-workout meal can make all the difference between a good and a great workout. A pre-workout meal will provide your body with the nutrients that it needs to get through an ass-to-the-grass workout.
Let's discuss what type of food you should eat before a workout session based on your goals, and why choosing healthy foods is so important. We'll even throw in some sample pre-workout meal plans.
What Your Body Needs for a Workout
You need to fuel your body with the right nutrients before a workout, but what does eating healthy entail? In general, the three main things that your body needs before a workout are carbohydrates, protein, and fluids.
Carbohydrates give you energy to power through your workout. Not only do they help you physically, providing plenty of glucose but they also help you mentally. Your brain loves glucose, and we all know what it feels like to try to work – in the office or the gym – and hit that wall because our brains are starved for fuel.
What’s more, carbohydrate consumption can provide boost of serotonin, which is the "happy hormone.”
Protein contains amino acids, which are the building blocks for muscle tissue. Protein protects your current levels of lean muscle tissue, while promoting protein synthesis, an important process for muscle growth.
The best type of protein to eat pre-workout is a fast-digesting source, such as eggs or whey protein powder.
It’s not enough to drink regular water. Your body is going to burn through a ton of electrolytes such as magnesium, sodium, and calcium during your workout. Believe it or not, most people hit “the wall” because they are low on electrolytes.
Water with electrolytes provides the hydration that you need for your workout and helps prevent cramping in muscles during exercise.
Doesn’t Sugar Fuel Workouts?
Often, people think that just because they are about to go exercise, they can eat whatever they want. Big mistake!
Healthy pre-workout meals help keep blood sugar levels steady while also providing pre-workout energy. This is important because eating too many pre-workout sugary treats can give you a quick boost of energy, but it will leave you feeling drained mid workout or even lead to muscle fatigue later on in the session.
Now, with that said, for experienced lifters who want to focus on building muscle mass, a simple carbohydrate is recommended immediately AFTER a workout but not during the rest of the day.
What to Eat Before a Workout to Build Muscle?
Muscle is built in the gym, but it grows in the kitchen. To build muscle, you should focus on a pre-workout meal of highly bioavailable protein and fast-digesting carbohydrates. What’s more, this needs to be broken down into two different meals: what you’ll eat three hours before a workout and what you’ll eat right before a workout.
Two-to-Three Hours Before a Muscle-Building Workout
Between two and three hours before a muscle-building workout, you can focus on whole-food protein sources such chicken, beef, pork, fish, eggs, and dairy products. As for carbohydrates, stick with complex carbs such as whole wheat pasta, brown rice, oatmeal, etc.
Thirty-to-Sixty Minutes Before a Muscle-Building Workout
Thirty minutes before a workout, we would recommend whey protein isolate. This is an ultra-filtered version of whey protein that digests within 30 minutes of being consumed. Depending on how many carbohydrates you eat in your larger meal, you might not need to consume any more. However, if you do, stick with something light like a small bowl of cereal or even a dextrose supplement.
Here is an example meal plan for the day for building muscle:
- Breakfast: Two scrambled eggs with a piece of toast
- Lunch: A turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with a side of fruit
- Dinner: Grilled salmon with brown rice and steamed broccoli
What to Eat Before a Workout to Lose Weight?
Just because you want to lose weight doesn't mean you should work out in a fasted state. Intermittent fasting and fasted training is effective but only when you have experience and know exactly what your goal is. Just like with building muscle, you’ll want to think about what to eat two-to-three hours before a workout as well as 30-to-60 minutes before a workout.
Two-to-Three Hours Before a Fat-Burning Workout
A few hours before your weight loss workout, you should focus on a protein and fat-heavy meal. Just like with muscle building, you want to focus on whole-food protein sources such chicken, beef, pork, fish, eggs, and dairy products. For your fat choices, stick with healthy options like nuts, seeds, nut butters, MCT oil, etc. You can also opt to eat things like salmon or tuna that are high in both fat and protein.
Thirty-to-Sixty Minutes Before a Fat-Burning Workout
Again, you should ingest a highly bioavailable whey protein shake here – We recommend whey protein isolate. Additional fats would not be necessary because they take a long time to breakdown in your system.
Here is an example meal plan for the day for weight loss:
- Breakfast: Veggie omelet and a coffee with MCT oil and grass-fed butter
- Lunch: A salad with grilled chicken breast and avocado oil
- Dinner: Grilled shrimp skewers with brown rice pilaf
Should You Include Supplements Before a Workout?
Pre-workout supplements can be a great addition to your diet, but they are not necessary. If you decide to take pre-workout supplements, make sure to do your research and talk to a healthcare professional about what is best for you.
Some popular pre-workout supplements include the following:
Caffeine: This is the reason you drink that morning coffee! Caffeine is by far the most popular ingredient in pre-blended pre-workout supplements as it provides a direct mental and physical boost in energy. 
Creatine: Creatine is broken down into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the preferred fuel source of your muscle tissue during resistance training. Creatine has been shown to boost performance and support goals of muscle growth and weight loss. 
Beta Alanine: This amino acid has been shown to support strength levels and performance during a workout. Just a heads up, beta alanine may cause tingling of the skin (paresthesia), especially in the neck and ears. 
BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids): While there are 20 amino acids, three are of special interest in fitness. Leucine, isoleucine and valine are called BCAAs, and they are three essential amino acids that the body cannot synthesize on its own. They can help reduce workout fatigue while stimulating pre-workout muscle protein synthesis. 
Remember that the most important thing when it comes to pre-workout nutrition is to focus on healthy foods. Supplements are just that - supplemental. They should not replace whole food sources of nutrients. When it comes down to it, the best way to get the nutrients your body needs before a workout is by eating real food!
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