The food choices you make before exercise can dramatically influence the overall effect of the session, so it pays to have a good nutrition strategy to complement your workout efforts. Considering the wide range of individual nutrition needs and variety of exercise durations and intensities, I’ll lay out several approaches to help you hone in on a better pre-workout nutrition strategy for your program.
Of course, my best recommendations will need to be tested in the context of your personal situation, so keep an open mind, be patient and consider hiring an expert coach to help you make adjustments to the ideas in today’s post.
The most important considerations for pre-exercise nutrition are fuel availability to sustain performance goals and protein intake to prevent excessive loss or damage to muscle tissue during the workout. Whether your goals are to lose body fat, gain muscle mass, improve speed or increase strength, you must make efforts to fuel your workouts and nourish your hard-earned lean muscle, so you can reap the full benefits of the exercise stimulus.
We are Hybrid Machines.
Our bodies are remarkable in their ability to oxidize (burn) energy fairly easily from two primary sources, much like a hybrid engine can use gasoline or electricity. Our two primary fuel options, however, are carbohydrates or fat (lipids), and we often burn a blend of the two. A third fuel option for our bodies to burn is protein, but this source is usually only oxidized in extreme situations, such as exercising intensely while in a prolonged calorie deficit (such is the case with many chronic dieters).
Carbohydrates are internally available to fuel activity as glycogen (stored in muscle and liver) or blood glucose, but additional carbohydrates can be consumed before or during exercise to increase the amount of fuel available. Internal carb storage capacity depends on how much muscle tissue a person has, and it usually ranges between 1000-2000 calories worth of fuel.
The other major fuel for physical activity is found in internal fat stores and as free-floating fatty acids in the blood stream. The amount of available fat calories varies widely with body composition, but it can easily reach a few hundred thousand calories, so we always have exponentially more fat fuel available than carbohydrates.
Carbs are the fuel-of-choice for our cells when both carbs and fat are plentiful, so we’ll burn mostly carbs before switching over to the “fat fuel tank,” depending on one’s fitness level and workout intensity. Your individual fuel use can (and should) be measured, so you know how to best spend your exercise for max benefit.
There are additional ingredients that can support exercise performance and effectiveness known as “ergogenic aides” — compounds that are known to improve blood flow, help maintain lean tissue, support energy production, increase mental focus and decrease pain sensation, increase strength or power and protect cells from excessive free-radical damage during the workout. While these formulas don’t provide appreciable calories, they can be potent additions to your workout routine.
Life Time’s version of a performance supplement system is called StrengthStack. With 3-4 weeks of consistent use of a resistance-training program, it can boost performance during your workouts and enhance recovery between workouts.
Fat Loss vs. Muscle Gain
If your goal is primarily fat loss, then your pre-exercise choices should focus on adequate protein and the “lowest effective dose” of carbs. Adequate protein is considered at least 20-30 grams of high-quality protein within two hours of the training session.
Include only low-glycemic carbohydrates (like oatmeal, vegetables or Generation UCAN) in amounts equal or less than your dose of protein — just enough to prevent exercise-induced low blood sugar, but not enough to force your body to burn mostly carbs through the entire workout. If your session is longer than 90 minutes, you may want to increase the carbs to reflect a 2:1 carb-to-protein ratio, but that’s where the aforementioned personal experimenting comes into play.
For those looking to gain lean mass (and presumably aren’t too worried about rapid fat loss), then you want to provide enough fuel (carbs) to power through your high-volume workouts along with ample protein to minimize the catabolic effects of the session. Generally, gaining strength, size or power by training hard needs to be supported by a Carb:Protein ratio in the realm of 3g:1g or 4g:1g with protein intake being 30-45g (making carbs closer to 100g pre-workout).
In short, it’s ok to surf the lower side of the carb spectrum for fat loss, provided you supply adequate protein. For muscle gain, it’s risky to go too low with your carb intake prior to exercise.
Intensity & Duration
For low-to-moderate intensity workouts (having personal data from an Active Metabolic Assessment will tell you exactly what “moderate” is for you), it may not be necessary to fill up on carbs beforehand because low-to-moderate intensity sessions rely primarily on stored fat for energy.
Similarly, if your workouts are fairly short (<60 minutes) — even if higher intensity — you may not need to emphasize pre-workout carbs either. Our glycogen stores can usually support one to two hours of relatively high-intensity exercise (although it may not be the most pleasant experience, you’ll get through it).
Eating carbs before these relatively easy or short workouts could blunt your fat burning capability unless the carb of choice is Generation UCAN (which appears to increase ability to use fat for energy across a wide range of intensities). Just be sure to consume adequate protein or amino acids within the two hours prior to exercising to prevent excessive muscle breakdown.
When it comes to longer-duration (>60 minutes) or higher-intensity (at or above anaerobic threshold for significant amounts of time), then you will definitely want to include some long-lasting (slow-digesting) carbohydrates with your pre-exercise protein dose. How much? That depends on what your outcome goals are (as discussed above).
Food vs. Supplements
As we’ve discussed before on this blog, we’re big advocates of getting as much nourishment as possible from wholesome, unprocessed foods, but we’re also big proponents of using supplements to support good nutrition habits. The case for supplements is especially strong when pre-workout nutrition is the topic of discussion.
Getting fueled up for your workouts with whole food can be done, but that means you probably need to consume those solid foods at least 90 minutes prior to your workout session. For many morning exercisers, this would mean you’d have to wake up even earlier to prepare or eat your pre-workout meal and let it digest before you begin to reap the fueling benefits.
More convenient (and consistent) options like protein powder, branched-chain amino acids and carbohydrate supplements are tough to beat. These products are generally well-tolerated and readily absorbed into circulation even if consumed 30 minutes or so prior to hitting the gym. Based on these factors, many strength coaches and athletes view these items as staple components of the training program. They are effective, serve a purpose and make fueling properly easier and more consistent.
Personally, most of my exercise sessions happen early in the morning, and I’m not a huge fan of waking up at 4 a.m. to eat a meal for a 5:30 a.m. workout, so my go-to pre-workout routine is a liquid-only approach. On my way to the club, I’ll drink my StrengthStack PreWorkout Complex with BCAA Recovery. It’s easily absorbed within 30 minutes, and it helps me power through my workouts without missing a step. For longer sessions, I’ll add UCAN superstarch as my carbohydrate of choice.
When I get a chance to sneak in a lunchtime workout or evening session, I’ll adjust my meals according to the plan using the above logic and eat real food to support protein and carb needs.
This may seem complicated, but trust me — it’s not. Think about your pre-workout nutrition choices as if your results depend on them. (They do. A lot.) Choose to be prepared each and every time, and watch your fitness and body composition improve consistently.
What to eat during and after your workouts? That’s material for another post. Stay tuned!
In health, Paul Kriegler, Registered Dietitian and Life Time – Nutrition Program Development Manager.
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.