I just finished up an expert Q&A for Men’s Fitness on the topic of pre and post-workout nutrition for optimal results. I spent several hours conducting in depth research to prepare for the Q&A, so I wanted to share with you what I learned about pre-workout meal nutrition. Here’s the follow up article on post-workout meal nutrition.
Pre-Workout Meal Benefits
A pre-workout meal is a whole foods meal that falls within 3 hours of your workout. When you eat the right foods in the right amounts as you will learn shortly, these nutrients can offer a number of benefits, including:
1) More Energy During Workouts – Filling up your glycogen stores (body’s energy tank) before a workout can help improve your energy levels significantly during a workout. If you have a very low carb diet, an intense workout can turn out to be very difficult to handle because glycogen stores are low. Energy levels are also affected by sleep patterns, when you have the most energy during the day, and hydration to name a few.
2) Protect Your Hard Earned Muscle – When you workout hard, especially with heavy weights, the body is in a catabolic environment, which can break down muscle tissue to use it as energy. A solid pre-workout meal can prevent muscle breakdown and improve energy repair and recovery.
3) Increased Muscle Growth – Eating protein during your workout meal can help slowly release amino acids into your blood stream, which can promote protein synthesis. If you are breaking down muscle and eating enough calories, muscle growth can be improved.
While there are benefits of a pre-workout meal, if you are on a fat loss program, you must budget in the calories of your pre-workout meal.
Some guys will have big pre and post-workout meals without any appreciation for how those extra calories effect their total calorie intake. These guys then wonder why they are not losing any fat!
Whether you are trying to lose fat, or build muscle, having an appreciation for the calorie implications of your pre and post-workout meals can be very helpful for you.
Pre-Workout Meal: What & When To Eat?
To construct the best pre-workout meal possible, we need to understand the rate of digestion of different foods to determine meal timing.
In general, dietary fat takes around 6-8 hours to digest, protein 3-4 hours, and carbs 2-3 hours (depending on the source). In this context, digestion is the amount of time it takes for food to move from the stomach to the small intestine.1 Of course, the food is still not totally digested, because from the small intestine food makes its way toward the large intestine for further digestion and absorption of water. Total elimination of food residue can take anywhere from 24 hours to several days.
Before getting into specifics, the good news is that your meal does not have to be “fully” digested to have a great, energy filled workout.
Here’s a breakdown of what your pre-workout meal should look like:
Dietary Fat – Because fat takes the longest to digest, the pre-workout meal should be relatively low in fat, so stay away from fatty meats and oils.
Protein – A moderate amount of a meat (4-8 ounces) or dairy sources that are low in fat can work. A major benefit of meat, or dairy is they contain Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA), which can help increase the rate of protein synthesis and decrease protein breakdown during and after your workout.
Carbohydrates – Low Glycemic (slowly releases into blood stream) carbohydrates should help fill up glycogen stores to help you power through a tough workout and also create a more anabolic effect.
The challenge is knowing how much food you can eat pre-workout, which is based on your own response. Some people can eat a full meal as little as an hour before a workout, while some others who have sensitive stomachs can wait 3-4 hours. In general, a meal around 500-600 calories for a 180lb man 2-3 hours pre-workout should suffice as a solid pre-workout meal during a fat loss program. You should experiment with the timing to suit your individual needs.
If you are fueling for overall performance for an intense athletic event, more carbs should be added. For muscle building, a larger pre-workout meal combined with a pre-workout protein shake can be very helpful.
Pre-Workout Meal Ideas
Let’s put together everything you’ve learned so far into simple meal ideas:
…and don’t forget to drink plenty of water! A good 16+ ounces can help you optimize your performance.
If for some reason it’s been longer than 3 hours since your last meal, you can consider adding a pre-workout snack, such as fruit (apple, strawberries, blueberries etc.), some yogurt, or a pre-workout protein shake can also work. In addition, for those who get up very early in the morning and don’t have time for a pre-workout meal, or snack, a simple sports drink (like G2) with 5 grams of BCAA’s can help improve energy levels and protect against catabolism (muscle breakdown).2
I hope this was helpful for you and let me know if you have any questions!
- Michael F. Picco, M.D.. Digestion: How long does it take?. Mayo Clinic. Oct. 30, 2012. Available at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/digestive-system/an00896. Accessed January 24, 2012 ↩
- Sharp CP, Pearson DR. Amino acid supplements and recovery from high-intensity resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(4):1125-30. ↩