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Pre-Workout Nutrition for Muscle Gain and Fat Loss

Pre-Workout Nutrition for Muscle Gain and Fat Loss

Your nutrition choices can make the difference between achieving maximum results from your workouts and struggling to see changes in your body. In this article, we’ll discuss the key components of pre-workout nutrition to fuel your training, build muscle, and lose excess fat. 


By Andres Ayesta, MS, RD


Key Points

  • Pre-workout nutrition significantly impacts workout performance and energy levels.
  • The type and duration of your workout can influence your pre-workout nutrition choices.
  • How much time you have prior to your workout is important when determining how to build your pre-workout snack.
  • If you’re starting your workout in 30 minutes-1 hour, focus on easy-to-digest carbs.
  • If you’re starting your workout in 1-2 hours, choose a larger snack, with a combination of protein and carbs. 
  • If you’re starting your workout in 2-3 hours or more, have a balanced and filling meal with protein, carbs, and fats.
  • Whether to eat before a morning workout depends on personal preferences, hunger, and energy levels. 

Why Pre-Workout Nutrition Matters

sports nutrition for workouts

Have you ever felt sluggish or unproductive in the gym because your stomach was growling or because you ate too close to the start of your workout? What you eat before your workouts can make the difference between hitting the gym with energy or feeling fatigued throughout your workout.  


But it's not just about energy; it's also about mental focus and clarity. When your mind is dialed in, you're more likely to maintain proper form, execute exercises correctly, and push through mental barriers. By providing your body with the right nutrients before exercise, you’re priming it for peak performance and optimal results. 


Who Are These Nutrition Strategies For?

The pre-workout nutrition tactics we’ll cover today are designed for an average person who is hitting the gym 3-5 times a week. You might be aiming to improve your body composition and performance through your training, but this nutrition advice is not targeted at those preparing for a competition, race, or game. While all the information covered is based on the most recent sports science research, athletes have more specific nutrition considerations that we will not discuss. Additionally, this article will mainly focus on pre-workout nutrition considerations from whole food sources, rather than supplements. 


The Basics of Pre-Workout Nutrition

Understanding the role of each macronutrient — carbohydrates, protein, and fats — is helpful when building your pre-workout snack or meal.


Carbohydrates

healthy sources of carbs

Our body primarily relies on carbohydrates for fuel. When you eat carbs, they are stored in the liver and muscles in the form of a molecule called glycogen. To ensure that you have a steady source of energy during your workouts, it’s important to consume carbohydrates to fill up your glycogen stores, just like you would fill up your gas tank before a car trip. Aim to get most of your carbs from unrefined sources, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes (1). 


It takes about four hours for carbohydrates to be digested and stored in your muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. This means that for an afternoon training session, including carbs in your breakfast is very important (1). When training in the morning, adding carbs to your dinner will help fuel your workout. Additionally, a light carbohydrate snack (~50g carbohydrates) 30 minutes to an hour before your workout (regardless of what time of day you are training) can help to keep your energy levels high (1).

 

Protein

healthy sources of protein

When it comes to protein, the most important factor for seeing results from your workouts is getting enough total protein each day (2). A good starting point for most people is to aim for 1g of protein for every pound of body weight — for example, a 150 lb. person would have a goal of 150g of protein daily. Try to evenly space your protein intake throughout the day, with a meal or snack with 20-40g of protein every 3-4 hours (2).


It is recommended that anyone who is looking to lose fat and gain muscle consume a high protein diet, along with eating in a calorie deficit (2). This, along with a well-programmed training plan, will help you reach your goals. To learn more about nutrition for weight loss, refer to this article


Timing of protein intake is primarily based on individual preferences (2). Research has found that there are no significant differences in muscle strength and size when consuming protein after a workout compared to before a workout (3), as long as enough total protein is consumed. Excellent sources of protein to help you reach your goals include chicken, turkey, shrimp, fish, lean beef, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs and egg whites, tofu, and tempeh (2). In addition to the whole food protein sources, you may choose to supplement with a protein powder


Fats

healthy sources of fat

Like carbs, fats are also used by the body for energy.  However, it is not recommended to consume fat immediately before your exercise session. Fat digestion is slower than the other macronutrients and may lead to discomfort during your workout. However, incorporating healthy fats into your overall diet can provide sustained energy throughout the day (1). Sources like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil are good choices.


Type of Workout

What you choose to eat before a workout may be influenced by the type of workout you’ll be performing. 


Types of workouts include:

  • Endurance Training - running, swimming, rowing, biking, and other activities that increase your breathing and heart rate.
  • Resistance Training - workouts that have the goal of increasing the strength and endurance of your muscles, using bodyweight or added weights. 
  • Hybrid Training - hybrid workouts incorporate both strength and endurance (often including high-intensity cardio). For example, CrossFit and studio classes like Orangetheory Fitness and F45. 

Individuals following a general fitness program (non-athletes) can typically meet their carbohydrate requirements for both resistance and/or endurance training by consuming a normal diet, in which 45-55% of their calories come from carbohydrates each day (1). When it comes to protein, consuming adequate amounts is essential to build and repair muscle following resistance training. However, protein is also important for repair, maintenance, and reduced muscle soreness following endurance training (2).


As a non-athlete, meaning your training sessions are limited to one per day that is up to an hour in length, the general principles described below can be followed, regardless of the type of workout you’re performing (1,4).


Duration of Workout

How long you workout for will impact how much energy you need for your workout and therefore what you eat before. Similar to the recommendations for the type of workout, non-athletes typically do not need to modify their fueling based on workout length. The recommendations in this article are designed for workouts that are up to 60 minutes long (1,4).


For workouts that are longer than 60 minutes, you may need to incorporate fueling during the workout, but that is beyond the scope of this article (1,4).


What to Eat Before a Workout

couple working out

Now that you have an understanding of the major components of pre-workout nutrition and other general considerations, we will discuss some pre-workout snack ideas to help you fuel your workouts and reach your goals. 


The most important consideration when deciding what to eat before a workout is how much time you have before you’re planning to start training. It is not necessary to eat at all the times below. Instead, choose a time to eat based on your schedule and hunger levels, and then pick a snack or meal based on that timing.


For all snack options, portion sizes should be adjusted to your hunger levels and calorie needs. If weight loss is your goal, it is essential to be aware of your daily calorie intake to maintain a calorie deficit.  


Starting Your Workout in 30 mins to 1 hour

If your workout is starting in the next hour, focus on easy-to-digest carbs to give you a boost of energy right before your session. You may also choose to include a small amount of protein. If you’re tracking your macros, a suitable breakdown is approximately 50 g of carbohydrate and 5 to 10 g of protein (1). 


Examples of snacks include:

  • Fruit and Greek yogurt
  • Fresh or dried fruit
  • Piece of toast with honey or jam
  • Crackers
  • Energy bar
  • Rice cakes with hummus
  • Fruit smoothie (protein powder optional)

These carbs will be digested quickly and used for energy right away. You typically want to avoid foods with large amounts of fiber, fat, and protein immediately before your workout, because these take more time to digest.


Starting Your Workout in 1-2 Hours

If your workout is going to start in 1-2 hours, have a larger snack with protein and carbohydrates. 


Here are 5 snack options:

  • Greek yogurt with granola and berries
  • Cereal using a ready-to-drink protein shake (e.g., Core Power) instead of milk
  • Oatmeal mixed with protein powder and frozen fruit
  • Protein smoothie with a banana and protein powder
  • Cottage cheese with fruit (e.g., pineapple, peaches, grapes)
  • Protein bar 
  • Protein pancakes

Starting Your Workout in 2-3 Hours

If you have 2-3 hours or more before your workout, you can eat a full, balanced meal with protein, carbs, and fat (4).


Potential meal ideas include:

  • Chicken Caesar wrap
  • Scrambled eggs, 1-2 slices of toast, and a piece of fruit
  • Quinoa salad with chicken or tofu, vegetables, and avocado
  • Baked salmon with rice and broccoli
  • Tofu and veggie stir fry with rice or quinoa
  • Burrito using a whole grain tortilla, with lean ground beef, black beans, brown rice, and your choice of vegetables.

Should You Train Fasted?

A final question about pre-workout nutrition you may have is whether to eat before a morning workout. Some people choose to work out fasted because they believe it is better for fat loss. While more research is needed in this area, studies suggest that fasted training does not result in more efficient fat loss (5).


Therefore, whether to eat before you go to the gym in the morning depends on personal preferences and how you feel during your workouts. If you don’t feel like eating in the morning and feel energized during your workout, there is no need to force yourself to have a snack. However, if you find yourself struggling to get through your workout, try having a small snack with carbs, such as a piece of fruit, before you start your workout.


Final Thoughts on Pre-Workout Nutrition

Pre-workout nutrition is a fundamental component of your fitness routine. What you eat and when you eat it can significantly impact your workout performance and progress towards your fitness and fat loss goals. Balancing macronutrients, understanding timing, and considering individual preferences are all essential aspects of effective pre-workout nutrition — the goal is to find a pre-workout meal strategy that helps you to feel energized and ready to tackle your workout. There is no perfect formula for a pre-workout snack but take the time to experiment with the guidelines above to find a snack choice and timing that works for you. 


About the Author

Andres Ayesta is a sports dietitian and the founder of Planos Nutrition, with over 12 years of experience helping people transform their nutrition and lifestyle. He works with busy professionals and parents to help them lose weight, improve their confidence, and show up as the best version of themselves, using a personalized, evidence-based nutrition blueprint.


With a bachelor's degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Southern Indiana and a master's degree in Exercise Science and Sports Nutrition from the University of Central Florida, Andres has earned numerous certifications, including Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach (CSCS) and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). He is a licensed Registered Dietitian in the state of Florida and provides coaching programs worldwide. To connect with Andres, you can find him on TikTok @andresthedietitian or Instagram @andresayesta



References:


  1. Kerksick CM, Wilborn CD, Roberts MD, Smith-Ryan A, Kleiner SM, Jäger R, Collins R, Cooke M, Davis JN, Galvan E, Greenwood M. ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018 Aug 1;15(1):38. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/?term=ISSN+exercise+%26+sports+nutrition+review+update%3A+research+%26+recommendations

  2. Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, Cribb PJ, Wells SD, Skwiat TM, Purpura M, Ziegenfuss TN, Ferrando AA, Arent SM, Smith-Ryan AE. International society of sports nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Jun 20;14(1):20. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28642676/

  3. Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Wilborn C, Urbina SL, Hayward SE, Krieger J. Pre-versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations. PeerJ. 2017 Jan 3;5:e2825. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28070459/

  4. Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, Stout JR, Campbell B, Wilborn CD, Taylor L, Kalman D, Smith-Ryan AE, Kreider RB, Willoughby D. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Aug 29;14(1):33. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28919842/

  5. Hackett D, Hagstrom AD. Effect of overnight fasted exercise on weight loss and body composition: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Funct Morphol. 2017 Dec;2(4):43. https://www.mdpi.com/2411-5142/2/4/43
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