This article was written by specialist dietitian – Elle Kelly
It can be confusing to know what and when to eat when it comes to fuelling your workout. This article will break down the purpose of fuelling prior to and during your workout, what to aim for and provide you with some inspiration so that you can get the most out of your sessions.
Pre-workout nutrition refers to the meal or snack that you may have prior to a workout. The purpose of that pre-workout meal is to ensure that your body is prepared for the workout ahead by providing the energy and nutrients required.
The emphasis of pre-workout nutrition will depend on a couple of factors such as:
- your goals from your training session e.g. are you training for performance or is it leisure?
- the type of sport
- the intensity and the duration of the session
- how much you have or have not eaten that day
- your digestion and preferences
In most sports, particularly high intensity ones, carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source (1). We can store carbohydrates in the form of glycogen in our muscles and in our liver. In the absence of food, this glycogen can be converted back to glucose and dripped back into our bloodstream in order to maintain stable blood glucose levels (2).
When glycogen stores are at full capacity, they can normally provide us with energy for up to 24 hours, and we normally top them up throughout the day as we eat. However, the rate at which we use glycogen is higher when exercising, and glycogen stores can become depleted even quicker through high intensity sports.
So, in order to maintain high performance levels during exercise and prevent early-onset fatigue, it is important to ensure that glycogen stores are topped up before going into a training session – which is why carbs are so important!
Protein is the one macronutrient that we cannot store in our body (3), which is why it is important to spread our intake out across the day (4).
Considering that the purpose of pre-workout fuelling is to provide energy, the importance of protein in this meal can depend on a few things.
Protein can take longer to digest and therefore slower to provide energy but you may choose to include some protein within your pre-workout meal to support your daily protein requirements.
Some research has actually shown that the ingestion of protein prior to a workout may improve muscle protein repair (5) too.
Consuming caffeine before exercise has been extensively studied and found to have performance benefits, from improving alertness, blocking adenosine receptors (6,7) (which are associated with the perception of pain), enhancing muscle contractions by promoting the release of calcium (8,9) and improving muscular endurance (10).
To experience the benefits of caffeine it is recommended to take between 3-6mg per kg body weight at least 30 minutes before your session (10). For someone who weighs 60kg, this would look like 180-360mg of caffeine, which you could find in a large coffee or a scoop of a standard pre-workout supplement.
It is worth mentioning that caffeine tolerance varies among individuals, with many not tolerating it at all. Inappropriate consumption can have the opposite effects such as difficulty concentrating, gut issues, experiencing shakes, and increased anxiety. Dosages greater than 10mg per kg body weight are considered dangerous (11) so take care when experimenting with dosages to find what works for you.
It is important to start exercise hydrated to lower the risk of becoming dehydrated through exercise. Dehydration can impact physical and mental performance, such as increasing the perception of how hard exercise feels and concentration. Dehydration can also lead to nausea and other gastro-intestinal problems during and after exercise (12).
Aiming for a clear or pale-yellow coloured urine is a useful way to measure adequate hydration.
When it comes to pre-workout nutrition, the timing of a meal is important to consider.
If you are eating 2-3 hours prior to a session, the meal should…
- be high in carbohydrates, preferably starchy carbohydrates, like potatoes, rice or pasta, to provide longer lasting energy
- contain a source of protein, to support your overall daily requirements
- contain a moderate amount of fat and fibre, as high amounts of fat and fibre can take longer to digest
If you are eating 30 to 60 minutes to training, the meal should…
- be rich in carbohydrates, preferably simple carbohydrates, like fruit, rice cakes or jellies for fast acting energy
- contain minimal amounts of fat as this slows down digestion and the release of energy
- be low in fibre to prevent digestive issues
Pre-workout meal and snack ideas:
|2-3 hours prior||1-2 hours prior||less than 60 minutes prior|
|bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese||Fresh fruit and small pot of Greek yoghurt||Rice cakes with honey or jam|
|Chicken with rice and salad||Flapjack or a cereal bar||A banana|
|Tofu stir fry with noodles||Toast with honey or jam||Fruit juice|
|porridge with milk and nut butter||A handful of dried fruit or jellies|
|Pasta with a tomato-based sauce and mozzarella||Sports drink|
|Wrap with chicken, pesto, and rocket|
The purpose of fuelling during your workout is to provide an additional source of energy so that performance can be sustained. In some cases intra-workout nutrition can be essential, in other
cases, it may be beneficial and in many cases, it’s not necessary at all.
You may need to fuel during a workout when…
- sessions last longer than 90 minutes, or 60 minutes if at a high intensity.
- you haven’t had adequate fuelling before a training session.
- you’re training twice in a day or having sessions close together, as this makes it harder to ensure glycogen stores are primed again for the next session.
- you are participating in multi-day events, where, again, the time for glycogen re-synthesis is limited
The focus for nutrition during a workout should be on the consumption of fast acting carbohydrates in order to provide energy.
This often requires some experimenting, as changes to our digestion are common during exercise due to the diversion of blood flow to working muscles and away from our digestive tract (13,14), meaning that the foods you normally tolerate well, may not be tolerated during exercise.
It is recommended that 30g of carbohydrate is consumed per hour when exercise lasts between 1-2 hours, and 60g-90g of carbohydrate is consumed when exercise exceeds 2 hours (4).
It is also important to remember to remain hydrated throughout the session. Studies have supported that drinking to thirst throughout a session can be adequate to prevent dehydration (15), and drinking too much during exercise can lead to gastrointestinal upset and increased urination (12).
|Food||~30g carbohydrate||~60g carbohydrate|
|Dried fruit||1 large handful||2 large handfuls|
|Chewy sweets i.e. jelly babies||5 sweets||10 sweets|
Remember that our bodies preferred fuel source is carbohydrates, and the importance of this is emphasised in active individuals. Pre-workout nutrition is important, but remember that your overall intake throughout the day will also influence how well fuelled you are, so aim to eat regular, balanced meals with a source of complex carbohydrates, protein, fat and fruit and veg, and to ‘top up’ with a pre-workout snack.
- Noakes, T. D. (2000). Physiological models to understand exercise fatigue and the adaptations that predict or enhance athletic performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports: Review Article, 10(3), 123-145.
- Daghlas, S. A., & Mohiuddin, S. S. (2021). Biochemistry, Glycogen. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.
- Poortmans, J. R., Carpentier, A., Pereira-Lancha, L. O., & Lancha Jr, A. (2012). Protein turnover, amino acid requirements and recommendations for athletes and active populations. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 45, 875-890.
- Kerksick, C. M., Arent, S., Schoenfeld, B. J., Stout, J. R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C. D., … & Antonio, J. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Journal of the international society of sports nutrition, 14(1), 33.
- Dideriksen, K., Reitelseder, S., & Holm, L. (2013). Influence of amino acids, dietary protein, and physical activity on muscle mass development in humans. Nutrients, 5(3), 852-876.
- Goldstein, E. R., Ziegenfuss, T., Kalman, D., Kreider, R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., … & Antonio, J. (2010). International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7(1), 5.
- Kim, J., & Lee, J. (2014). A review of nutritional intervention on delayed onset muscle soreness. Part I. Journal of exercise rehabilitation, 10(6), 349.
- Tarnopolsky, M., & Cupido, C. (2000). Caffeine potentiates low frequency skeletal muscle force in habitual and nonhabitual caffeine consumers. Journal of applied physiology, 89(5), 1719-1724
- Tallis, J., James, R. S., Cox, V. M., & Duncan, M. J. (2013). The effect of a physiological concentration of caffeine on the endurance of maximally and submaximally stimulated mouse soleus muscle. The Journal of Physiological Sciences, 63(2), 125-132.
- Guest, N. S., VanDusseldorp, T. A., Nelson, M. T., Grgic, J., Schoenfeld, B. J., Jenkins, N. D., … & Campbell, B. I. (2021). International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and exercise performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 18(1), 1.
- Turnbull, D., Rodricks, J. V., & Mariano, G. F. (2016). Neurobehavioral hazard identification and characterization for caffeine. Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology, 74, 81-92.
- Sports Dietitians Australia. Fluid in Sport Fact Sheet. https://www.sportsdietitians.com.au/factsheets/fuelling-recovery/fluids-in-sport/
- Secor, S. M., & White, S. E. (2010). Prioritizing blood flow: cardiovascular performance in response to the competing demands of locomotion and digestion for the Burmese python, Python molurus. Journal of Experimental Biology, 213(1), 78-88.
- Joyner, M. J., & Casey, D. P. (2015). Regulation of increased blood flow (hyperemia) to muscles during exercise: a hierarchy of competing physiological needs. Physiological reviews.
- Goulet, E. D., & Hoffman, M. D. (2019). Impact of Ad Libitum Versus Programmed Drinking on Endurance Performance: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine, 1-12.
How to fuel your workout was last modified: October 11th, 2022 by