The pre-workout meal is considered one of the most important mealtimes for athletes. Anyone that’s eaten something that didn’t sit well with them before a workout can tell you the downsides of picking the wrong foods, you’ll feel bloated and lethargic. While a well-rounded pre-workout meal can provide you with fuel to push to new intensities and building blocks for new muscle.
We’re going to cover the benefits of a pre-workout meal, provide you with examples of quality pre-workout foods, and give you a guide for a successful pre-workout routine.
Gives You More Energy
The food we eat is made up of macronutrients like protein, carbohydrates, and fats which are broken down and converted into energy. Workouts that are especially intense (think bodybuilding) or long (like triathlon training) can deplete the body’s glycogen stores. Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrates in the body. Because of this many athletes like to consume carbohydrates before a workout, especially if they exercise at high intensities or for a long time. Research shows that eating carbohydrates before exercise generally benefits performance with noticeable effects being more apparent during longer duration exercise. [1,2,3]
Prevent Muscle Breakdown
Exercise, especially resistance training, can cause small tears in muscle tissue. This microtrauma from exercise provokes an adaptive response in the body which causes more muscle tissue to be built. While this process is generally beneficial, too much damage from exercise can result in a lot of muscle soreness. It can be difficult to workout consistently when you’re sore all the time so many athletes look to prevent excess muscle breakdown. A popular strategy to help in preventing too much muscle breakdown is consuming a high protein meal that’s rich in essential amino acids, like the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs).
Having additional amino acids in your system before a workout can favorably impact your net muscle protein balance to prevent the breakdown of muscle.
Increase Muscle Growth
Protein plays an important role in muscle growth. For people looking to build or maintain muscle mass a daily protein intake of 1.4-2.0 g/kg/day is recommended. Eating protein before a meal can help contribute towards meeting your daily total protein needs. Research shows that eating protein alone or in combination with carbohydrates before a workout can have positive effects on increasing muscle protein synthesis, strength, and improvements in body composition. [5,6]
Pre-workout foods tend to be high in protein and/or carbohydrates. The amino acids found in protein function as the building blocks of muscle. This makes protein an ideal food for anyone looking to build muscle or maintain their muscle during high intensity workouts. The sugars that make up carbohydrates can be broken down into glucose and used as an energy source. This makes carbohydrates an ideal food for anyone doing high-intensity workouts that rely on carbohydrates as a fast-acting energy source.
Bananas are a popular energy source among athletes. A medium banana (about 118 g) contains 27 g of carbohydrates, 3 g of fiber and they’re a good source of potassium and vitamin B6. About half of the carbohydrates found in bananas are fast-digesting simple sugars like glucose, fructose, and sucrose. Studies have shown bananas to be as effective as 6-8% carbohydrate enriched beverages (the common ratio scene in many sports drinks). [8,9]
Chicken, Rice & Vegetables
Chicken, rice and vegetables have been a staple meal of bodybuilding diets for decades. This well-rounded meal delivers a complete protein to support muscle building, easy digesting carbohydrates to fuel your workout, and antioxidants to help combat cell damage. In one study, chicken protein was shown to be as beneficial as beef or whey protein when used post-workout as part of a strength-training regimen.
Porridge and Oatmeal
Porridge is a dish made from cereal boiled in water or milk. Some common types of porridge include farina, polenta, cream of rice, and cream of wheat. Oatmeal is probably the most well-known porridge dish. Oatmeal is a good source of complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Complex carbohydrates are longer chains of sugar that take more time for the body to break down, they are popular carbohydrate sources for athletes that need steady sustained energy for long workouts. Research has shown oat consumption to be associated with beneficial effects on weight management and markers of metabolism. [11,12]
Fruit smoothies can be a quick and convenient pre-workout meal loaded with nutrients like carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Adding protein powder, nuts, and seeds to fruit smoothies is a popular strategy to increase their nutritional value by boosting their content of protein and healthy fats.
Protein shakes are a popular pre-workout meal, they’re easy to make and loaded with amino acids, the building blocks of muscle. Research on protein supplementation before and after a workout shows that it has beneficial effects on muscle growth, strength, and workout recovery. [13,14,15,16] Among athletes, whey protein is arguably the most popular protein source for protein shakes. This is due to whey protein being fast digesting, having a high bioavailability, and a high leucine content (leucine is a major anabolic trigger in the body that promotes muscle protein synthesis).
Homemade Protein Bars
Homemade protein bars can be a tasty way to get a nutrient dense meal that contains protein, carbohydrates, and fats before a workout. Because you can prepare protein bars in advance and store them for a few days, they’re also an easy grab and go meal for times when you’re in a rush before a workout. Check out our baked recipes for great pre-workout meal ideas.
Now that you know some of the benefits of eating before a workout and high-quality food sources to pick from, it’s time to put this information into action by building out a routine.
Get Enough Sleep
It may seem counterintuitive to talk about sleep in an article about pre-workout rituals, but poor sleep can be contributing to why you aren’t getting the results you want. Several studies have shown that poor sleep can negatively impact performance, reaction time, mood, and endurance in athletes. Work on optimizing your nighttime routine so that you’re getting enough sleep to train at a high intensity the next day.
Hydration is important to peak performance. A fluid loss of 1-2% of your body weight during exercise is associated with a decrease in performance and focus. Intense exercise, especially in hot environments, can cause you to lose a lot of water and electrolytes, so drinking fluids before a workout is a great preventative strategy. The American Council on Exercise recommends drinking 17-20 fluid ounces of water before exercise.
Eating a pre-workout meal can fuel your body with nutrients that support your energy levels during high intensity exercise and contribute to muscle building. Pre-workout meal recommendations will vary based on the intensity of exercise, the duration, and your individual glycogen stores before the workout begins. Other factors like food choices and timing will come down to personal preference.
These are some general guidelines to help you decide on the type of pre-workout meal that best fits your goal
- Low intensity workouts that are shorter than 90 minutes can be done fasted or with 10-30 g of protein as a pre-workout meal.
- Moderate to high intensity workouts that are shorter than 90 minutes can be done with 0-75 g of carbohydrates and/or 10-30 g of protein as a pre-workout meal.
- Low to moderate intensity workouts that last over 90 minutes can be done with a pre-workout meal that’s under 75 g of carbohydrates and contains 10-30 g of protein.
- High intensity workouts lasting over 90 minutes can be done with a pre-workout meal that contains 75-150 g of carbohydrates and 10-30 g of protein.
People that work out early in the morning or are sensitive to eating before a workout that want to follow these guidelines may benefit from consuming their calories in liquid form like a protein shake.
Plan Your Workout
Having an outline of what you want to accomplish in the gym and goals for each workout can help provide you with a roadmap to the results you want. Some people make mental notes while others track their workouts in a notebook or on an app. Regardless of how you choose to do it, having a defined plan of exercises that you want to do before each workout and a list of goals (total weight lifted, reps, etc.) can help you keep track of progress made in the gym and give insights to areas that need improvement.
Pump Up the Jams
Listening to your favorite songs can help get you in the right mood before and during your workout. Research shows that listening to music while exercising can have a beneficial effect on performance. [20,21] Create a playlist of your favorite songs that hype you up and crush your next workout.
Pre-workouts are a staple in many athletes’ routines because they help give them the edge they need. When it comes to pre-workouts, C4 is in a league of its own, with pre-workouts tailored to your unique goals and experience levels like C4 Original, C4 Ripped, C4 Extreme, and C4 Ultimate. Unlock energy, endurance, and focused for unmatched performance with a C4 pre-workout.