Food as Fuel

We all know that nutrition can be just as important as the work you do in the gym.  But how do you use food to fuel for your workouts to maximize performance and optimize recovery?  Do you really need a protein shake within 20 seconds of putting down the barbell? We’ll strive to answer these types of questions in this series so that you can get the most out of the hard work you put in at the gym.  Part 1 will focus on fueling before workouts so you get to the gym feeling ready to tackle the workout of the day. 

Why Pre-workout Nutrition Matters 

We have all gone into a workout under-fueled and paid the consequences.  Fatigue sets in earlier than normal. You hit the wall and push past it by hammering harder…only to find yourself dizzy and wild eyed by the end of the metcon.  Going into a workout properly fueled sets you up for success and can be the difference between leaving a workout feeling accomplished and leaving the gym feeling like you just lost a fight.  Giving your body the nutrients it needs to perform will allow you to get a better quality workout and provides your body with the building blocks to recover better so you come to the gym a stronger version than the day before.  That pre-workout meal is arguably the most important meal of your day. 

The Pre-Workout Meal: What, when and how much to eat…

In a nutshell this is going to vary a lot from person to person based on their schedule, dietary goals and their gut.  Some people feel best training fasted, while others need a snack 30-60 minutes before to “top off the tank”.  Here are some guidelines and considerations to follow and try for yourself to see what works best for you and your schedule. 

3 Hours Before a Workout

  If you feel best working out on an empty stomach, this might be the best option.  Three hours before a training session, you want to get in a well rounded meal of protein, carbs and fat to fuel that session.  This could be a chicken breast, a grain like rice or quinoa, a cup of vegetables and ½ an avocado.  Amounts here will vary based on your caloric needs and training goals, but make sure you have a good balance of each.  This is a good time to get in some complex carbs like veggies, oats, potatoes and rice. These foods will take a little longer to digest, making those nutrients available when it comes time to train. 

1-2 Hours Before a Workout

This is probably the safest place to start if you are looking to experiment with the timing of that pre-workout meal.  Here we will make quick digesting carbs and protein a priority and minimize fat intake.  Fat takes longer to digest, which can make you feel sluggish come workout time.  This could be as simple as a smoothie with 1-2 cups of spinach, a frozen banana and a scoop of protein or greek yogurt.  A nutrient dense smoothie can be great here because blending the food makes digestion easier so your body is able to access that energy more readily.  Another option could be a PB&J with a greek yogurt or protein shake.  Stick to 1 Tbsp of nut butter here to avoid loading up the fat, especially if you’re closer to 1hr before a workout.  

~1 Hour Before a Workout

Carbs are key here.  Our body won’t have time to digest much protein or fat, so our focus will shift to topping off carbohydrates to boost our blood sugar a little which we will use to fuel the training session.  Aim for about 0.25g of carbs per pound.  So for a 175 lb athlete you’d be looking for about 40g of carbs.  Maximize this window by taking in a mix of quick digesting carbohydrates like white bread and fruit or honey.  Our body can only utilize so much of a single type of carbohydrate at a time, so by taking in a mix of sources you can maximize this short window before the workout.  Options here would be:  ½ bagel with 1 Tbsp honey, Banana and pretzels, Apple and animal crackers.  Personally, I love honey before a workout.  It’s so easy to access, fast digesting and low volume.  If I realize I need to sneak in a workout while my daughter naps and I haven’t eaten in a couple hours, it’s 1-2 Tbsp of honey and handful of pretzels and I’m ready to go!

Time till WorkoutMacros (g/lb)Hydration(mL/lb)For 175lb (79kg) AthleteExample
~1 HrCarb – 0.25 g/lb<1.4 mL/lb40g Carb1 Banana + Pretzels
1-2 HrCarb- 0.45 g/lbProtein-0.1-0.15g/lb1.5 – 2.25 mL/lb79g Carb20-30g Protein8-14 fl oz / 260-400 mLApple ½ Bagel  1 Tbsp Honey & PB+ Protein Shake
3 HrCarb 0.45-1.3 g /lbProtein – 0.15-0.28 g/lb2.25- 3 mL/lb79-240 g Carb30-50g Protein14-18 oz / 400-525 mL4oz Chicken Breast1 Cup Quinoa1 Cup Veggies  1 Apple
Final Thoughts

All that said, diet is very individual, especially when it comes to pre-workout and intra-workout nutrition.  An extreme example is ultra-runners, where some athletes can eat baked potato wedges and pizza in the middle of a +100 mile race while others need to stick to gels, gummies and carbohydrate drinks.  Use these numbers as a guide to get you started and take note of how you feel going into each workout as you try different foods and timing to find what works best for you.

Proper nutrition before and after a workout can make a big difference in how that session goes and can help you get the most out of the workout.  Stay tuned for Part 2:  Intra-workout Nutrition where we’ll cover how a little nutrition mid workout can help you finish strong and provide the kick you need to get in that extra accessory or skill work you’ve been meaning to work on.  

Challenge/Put it into Practice

 This week take a look at the times you plan on coming to the gym and come up with a nutrition plan to fuel those sessions.  Taking the 5:45 class and you eat lunch at noon?  Bring a banana and handful of pretzels to eat when you get out of work and head to the gym one day, then try a PB&J with a greek yogurt towards the end of your workday (2 hours before you workout) and see which works best for you.