Pre-Workout Nutrition: Just the Basics

I often tell my clients that when they walk through the gym doors for their workout, they become something far greater than themselves. They become a solider engaged in a battle against the enemy; waging a war against the inevitable impact of inactivity, degeneration and premature aging. Now, a soldier would never go into battle without a plan, and certainly not unarmed – not unless they want to be eradicated swiftly.

But this is exactly what most gym-goers do everyday by not properly fueling their body before working out.  Nothing will set you up for defeat and possibly get you hurt faster than failing to supply your body’s demand for nutrients with a proper pre-workout meal. 

So what should you eat before you workout?

There are many factors to consider in deciding what to eat before working out. Likewise deciding when you should eat before you exercise poses some questions as well. An individuals pre-workout needs are based the training goals, the time of day, the type of food, training age (experience) and the type of training being done, just to name a few.  Regardless of these individual needs, there are some basic guidelines that everyone should follow to get the most benefit from exercise.

At the simplest level, you need to ensure adequate hydration and maintain fluid balance.  This may be the simplest level, but it’s also the most overlooked and under-appreciated component to pre-workout nutrition. It’s generally recommended that you drink 5-7 ml of fluid per kilogram of  body weight at least 4 hours before exercise.  If your urine stream is dark yellow and strong-smelling, drink another 3-5 ml of fluid per kilogram of  body weight 2 hours before exercise.

Those who work out in the morning (just to get it over with right?) will do well to delay the workout 30-60 minutes in order to hydrate. Rushing off to the gym with one eye open and your shirt on inside out will only make you look like a clown. Go to bed a little earlier and wake up earlier in order to consume some fluids.  You can choose from milk, fresh live juices, filtered water, sport drinks and even coffee as means to get hydrated.

If you usually run to the bathroom a couple hours before your alarm goes off, stop by the kitchen and have a cold one (water, I mean).  I  wouldn’t do this if it adversely affects your sleep.

[highlight color=”cool-blue” style=”style-2″]Now that you’re hydrated, it’s time to look at energy and nutrients.[/highlight]

The most important nutrient for activity is carbohydrate. It is vital for optimal exercise and sports performance.  With the type of exercise most people are doing in the gym (moderate intensity aerobic/anaerobic work), carbohydrates provide roughly 50% of the energy requirement. As your exercise intensity increases, so does the demand for carbohydrates , to the point where your body uses it for up to 100% of its energy needs.

So if you’ve been “low-carbing it” for sometime, rest assured your workout performance will suffer for it.  For some (i.e.: bodybuilder and physique athletes), this is a necessary part of their journey.  They are willing to temporarily accept a loss of performance to achieve an almost transparent body for display in competition.  But, for the rest of us, and especially performance based athletes, carbohydrates should be an integral part of the pre-workout nutrition plan.

[highlight color=”cool-blue” style=”style-2″]Won’t eating food before a workout make my stomach upset?[/highlight]

upset stomach cartoonPossibly. But likely only if you eat the wrong food and your timing is off.  Timing is just as important to consider as the meal itself.  Failure to address both factors will likely limit your performance on some level.

You Are What You Eat!

Foods very high in fiber can slow down digestion and increase bulk in your colon (by drawing in water). Foods high in fat can also slow gastric transit time and create heartburn or acid reflux.  Not pleasant, especially if you ate oily fish in your last meal.  After a couple workouts with the “fish burps”, you’ll learn to leave the fish for post-workout consumption.

So, that just leaves carbohydrates. However, consuming too many simple or high glycemic carbohydrates ( i.e.: sports drinks or fruit juice) before exercise can cause you to experience a sudden onset of “hypoglycemia”.  This is when blood sugar levels drop rapidly causing dizziness, weakness and nausea 10-15 minutes into your workout. It’s generally wise to stick with foods with a low to moderate glycemic load to avoid this. There are exceptions so please read on.

The foods you choose will ultimately be dictated by the amount of time you have.

You Are When You Eat!

Timing is Everything.  Your stomach can grow 10-20 times larger as it goes from empty to full, which can cause problems when you exercise.  Eating too soon before a workout or exercising on a full stomach can lead to gastrointestinal issues like cramping, nausea, diarrhea and those crippling “side stitches”.

Problems can also occur when you train on an empty stomach or if your last meal was consumed several hours before the workout.  This usually results in a perceived shortness of energy, dizziness and nausea.

Having a large meal before an early morning workout simply isn’t an option.  If you have the luxury of exercising later in the day, you can eat a meal, rich in carbohydrates, fat and protein, but allow 3-4 hours before you exercise.  This will almost ensure that the stomach has emptied most of its content and the food energy is ready for use in your workout.  This is especially important for running and most athletics as jostling stomach contents will most certainly bring on the cramps.

If you’re straight out of bed and off to the gym, then you’ll need a different approach. If you’ve got an hour before exercise, consume a liquid meal such as a meal replacement or a fruit smoothie beforehand. These meals won’t put  a burden on your stomach and should pass through your system in time to fuel your workout. But remember to to avoid very simple (rapidly digested) carbohydrates, as this can potentially bring on the hypoglycemia.

If your schedule only gives you 15 minutes from waking to exercise, I feel sorry for you, but you still need to take care of business.  High glycemic foods are the order here and if you consume them immediately before and even during exercise, you can avoid a rapid drop in blood sugar levels.

women offering an apple

To sum it all up, the following is a simple pre-workout nutrition guideline. If you only  have:

    • 10 minutes before exercise – sip a sports drink or high glycemic fruit juice before and during exercise. Don’t consume any fat or fibrous foods. If liquid isn’t your thing, whole fruits like bananas, grapes and oranges are great options and provide instant energy.
    • 60 minutes before exercise – consume a meal replacement or fruit smoothie that is very low in fat. Protein supplements can be beneficial and added to your smoothie as well.
    • 120 minutes before exercise – consume a small meal with low fiber whole grains and starches (quick oats, cereals, potatoes), fruits or veggies, protein and small amounts of fat.
    • 240 minutes before exercise – consume a normal sized meal with higher fiber whole grains and starches (oats, quinoa), veggies, protein and moderate amounts of fat.

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Pre-workout nutrition can be quite complicated, especially when supplement protocols are brought in.  There are also specific guidelines for the type of training you are doing.  But I think it’s important to cover the basics because this is what most people struggle with.  Discovering what to eat before working out requires trial and error and a genuine desire to improve the outcome and experience of your workout.  Learning which foods to avoid and which ones bring you the most comfort is a personal journey that no trainee should take lightly.  So don’t tell me you don’t have time, you now have your pre-workout nutrition guidelines. So start planning and watch your results take off. You might even start to actually enjoy exercise!


Craig Simms

Craig Simms

Craig Simms is a personal trainer and weight loss coach in Vancouver, B.C. Craig has been a fitness leader for over 21 years and has amassed over 25,000 hours of personal training experience in that span. He specializes in personalized weight management programs.
Craig Simms
Craig Simms

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