Fueling Your Workout 101

Athletes and fitness enthusiasts are always on a continual search for ways to improve their performance. And while changing their routine and finding new ways to increase strength and agility are a part of this equation, good nutrition stands at the top when it comes to increasing performance and recovery time.

Optimal nutrient intake prior to exercise will not only help you maximize your performance and shorten recovery time, but will also minimize muscle fatigue and damage. Therefore, fueling your body with the right nutrients prior to exercise will give you the energy and strength you need to power through your workouts and perform better. (1)

Each macronutrient (Protein, Carbohydrates and Fat) has a specific role before a workout. However, the ratio in which you need to consume them varies by individual and exercise type. (2)

Here is a brief look at the role of each macronutrient


Protein is found in every cell in our body. Except for water, protein is the most abundant substance in the body. But because our body is in a constant state of flux, continually breaking down and rebuilding its own tissues, we need to consume enough protein to aid in these processes.

In fact, many studies have documented the potential of pre-workout protein consumption in helping enhance these processes while also aiding in improved athletic performance.

Consuming protein alone or with carbs prior to exercise has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis. (3, 4, 5)

In one particular study done on Stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis by whey protein ingestion before and after exercise showed a positive anabolic response after the ingestion of just 20 grams of whey protein before exercise. (6)

Other benefits of eating protein before exercise include:

  • Increase strength and lean body mass (7)
  • Increase muscle performance (8)
  • Improved anabolic response, or muscle growth (9)
  • Improve muscle recovery (10)


Your muscles use the glucose (sugars) from carbohydrates for fuel. For short, high-intensity exercise, your muscle and liver stores of glycogen are your muscles main source of energy. But, due to our glycogen reserves being limited your training output and intensity can suffer. (11, 12)

How quickly these stores become depleted depends on several factors:

  • The type of training induced
  • The intensity of training
  • The length of training
  • The pervious types of food consumed

However, studies have shown the ability for the body to increase glycogen stores and use while boosting carbohydrate oxidation during exercise. For this reason Carbohydrate loading, which involves consuming a higher carb diet for a period of between 1 and 6 days (see more here: Carbohydrate loading ), may be useful for individuals looking to maximize their glycogen stores. (13, 14, 15)


While glycogen is used for short, high-intensity bouts of exercise, fat becomes the source of fuel for longer, moderate to low-intensity exercise. (16)

Many studies have investigated the effects of fat intake on athletic performance. In fact, one example of this is a study done on runners and the effect of dietary fat and endurance exercise. What this study confirmed was a diet consisting of 40 percent fat increased endurance running times in healthy, trained runners. (17, 18)

Recap: While carbs help maximize glycogen stores for high-intensity exercise, fat helps fuel your body for longer, less intense workouts. Protein, on the other hand, improves muscle protein synthesis and speeds up recovery.


Hydration is crucial to performance and your body needs water to function optimally. Many studies show that optimal hydration has been shown to sustain and even enhance performance, while dehydration has been linked to significant decreases in performance. (19, 20, 21, 22)

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends drinking 16–20 fluid ounces (0.5–0.6 liters) of water at least four hours before exercise and 8–12 fluid ounces (0.23–0.35 liters) of water 10–15 minutes before exercise. In fact, the ACSM endorses consuming both water and sodium before exercise and recommends consuming a beverage that contains sodium to help retain fluids which helps improve total fluid balance. (23)

Recap: Water is important for performance. It’s recommended to ingest water and sodium-containing beverages before exercise to promote fluid balance and prevent excessive fluid loss.

Pre-Workout Meal Timing Plays a Key Role

Pre-workout meal timing is not necessarily meant for those individuals who are more casual gym goers. However, meal timing can have a fairly significant impact for more serious training enthusiasts or extreme athletes looking to maximize their training results. For these individuals, try to eat a complete meal containing carbs, protein and fat 2–3 hours prior to exercise.

However, in certain cases, if you are unable to get in a full meal 2-3 hours before working out still try to eat a decent pre-workout meal. Just keep in mind that the less time you have to eat before your workout, the smaller and less complex the meal should be.

For instance, if you eat 45–60 minutes prior to your workout, choose foods that are more easily digested and contain a higher carb to protein ratio. This will help prevent any stomach discomfort during exercise.

Recap: It’s recommended to consume a full meal 2-3 hours before your workout. For meals eaten sooner before your workout, choose simpler carbs and some protein.

Pre-Workout Meal Examples

The type of foods and how much to eat depend on two important factors, duration and intensity of the workout. With this in mind, a good rule of thumb is to eat a mixture of both carbs and protein prior to exercise.

However, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition if you are going to consume fat with your pre-workout meal, then it should be consumed at least a few hours before your training. (24)

Here are some examples of balanced pre-workout meals:
2–3 Hours Prior to Workout
  • Sandwich on whole grain bread, lean protein and side salad.
  • Egg omelet and whole wheat toast topped with avocado spread and a cup of berries mixed with 2oz almonds.
  • Lean protein, long grain or wild rice and roasted vegetables.
2 Hours Prior to Workout
  • Protein shake mixed with water or milk, natural peanut butter, banana and berries.
  • A cup of oatmeal topped with banana and sliced almonds.
  • Natural almond butter and fruit preserve sandwich on whole-grain bread.
1 Hour or Less Prior to Workout
  • Greek yogurt and fruit.
  • Protein shake mixed with water or milk, banana and berries.
  • A fruit such as a banana, grapes, berries, melon or apple.

For best results, experiment with different timing durations and food compositions to see what works best with your own personal body.

Recap: A combination of carbs and protein is recommended for pre-workout meals. Fat can also be beneficial, but it should be consumed at least two hours before exercise.

Supplements Can Also Be Useful Before Exercise

The use of supplements is widely practiced in sports. These products enhance performance, improve strength, increase lean body mass and reduce fatigue.

Below are some of the most popular pre-workout supplements.


Creatine is perhaps one of the most commonly used sports supplement. Numerous studies have shown its benefit to increase lean muscle mass, muscle fiber size, muscle strength and power, all while delaying fatigue and speeding up recovery.

However, even though it’s beneficial to take creatine before a workout, according to studies, it seems to be even more effective when taken after a workout. (25)

Taking a dose of between 2-5 grams of creatine monohydrate per day seems to be quite effective.


Among many other benefits, caffeine has been shown to improve performance, increase strength and power, help reduce feelings of fatigue and stimulate fat burning and can be consumed in coffee, tea, energy drinks or pre-workout supplements and pills. (26, 27)

But, it doesn’t really matter which way it’s consumed, as the effect it has on performance is reviewed across the board as relatively equal. And, although caffeine generally peaks around 90 minutes prior to consumption, it has been shown to be quite effective even when ingested 15–60 minutes prior to exercise. (28)

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

Out of the 21 amino acids that our body needs 12 are synthesized within the body and are referred to as nonessential. The other 9 need to be consumed through an outside source therefore referred to as essential.

Of these 9 essential amino acids 3 are considered BCAAs:

  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Valine

Studies have shown that taking a minimum of 5 grams of BCAAs at least one hour prior to exercise, decreases muscle damage and increases muscle protein synthesis. (29, 30)

Multi-Ingredient Pre-Workout Supplements

Some people prefer products that contain a blend of the supplements mentioned above along with some added others may assist in having synergistic effects and therefore significantly improve performance. (31)

The combinations of caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, branched-chain amino acids and arginine and B vitamins are among the most commonly used ingredients in most of these products. These pre-workout supplements have been shown to increase work output, strength, endurance, anaerobic power, reaction time, focus and alertness. (32, 33)

Recap: Creatine, caffeine, BCAAs and beta-alanine are often recommended before a workout. Multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements combine many different ingredients.

Take Home:

To maximize your performance and recovery, it’s important to fuel your body with the right nutrients before a workout.

Carbohydrates help maximize your body’s ability to use glycogen to fuel short- and high-intensity exercises.

Fat helps fuel your body for longer exercise sessions.

Protein helps improve muscle protein synthesis, prevent muscle damage and promote recovery.

Water or Good hydration is also imperative to enhanced performance.

Pre-workout meals can be consumed 2–3 hours and up to 30 minutes before workouts. However, choose foods that are easy to digest, especially if your workout starts in one hour or less. This will help you avoid any stomach discomfort.

Additionally, many different supplements can aid performance and promote recovery.

At the end of the day, simple pre-workout nutrition practices can go a long way in helping you perform better and recover faster.