Fueling Your Workout: Basics of Pre-workout Nutrition

Ever been in the middle of an intense training session and all of a sudden hit a wall like BAM! Or maybe you have this sudden onset of not so pleasant digestive symptoms? To be honest, we’ve all been there at least once in our training lives. This can be a reflection of what you put into your body prior to training. Yes, that cheese and egg sandwich you scarfed down on route to the gym, or that heavy dinner you had “to give you energy” before an evening session are doing more harm than good. You probably are sitting there reading this and asking why…? Well let’s talk about pre-workout and break it down to understand the what, when, whys and how’s to creating a simpler formula to feel your best during your workouts.


What and when you eat before exercise can make a big difference to your performance and recovery. Having foods that are easy to digest before a workout can help you push harder, lift heavier, ward off energy crashes mid workout from low blood sugars, avoid hunger pangs mid workout, and prevent nasty GI symptoms like nausea/ abdominal cramps. It’s more than just physical energy too. Having a good pre-workout can help with mental focus during your session and ability to stay focused to push throughout. Many people who exercise on an empty stomach find they mentally start to drift off on top of feeling low on energy. From this standpoint, having good fuel can help prevent injury by keeping you mentally alert, focusing on muscle activation, and maintaining proper form/ cues important to keep movement safe.


Let’s keep this simple for everyone. There are 2 main components to a good pre-workout meal or snack. Yes just two things! Drum roll please – protein AND carbs. Protein prior to training will elevate blood levels of amino acid levels and is proven to help increase protein synthesis. It also will help prevent blood sugar fluctuations and keep you full throughout the session, then if you are to have carbs on their own. Generally 15-35g is enough to do the trick. Some lean protein options include protein shake/ powder, egg whites, turkey jerky or other lean jerky, leftover chicken breast, tuna, nitrite/ sulphite free deli meats, powdered peanut butter, low fat dairy, smoked tofu.

Pre-workout nutrition is pretty simple when it comes to carbs. Eat them! Carbs are your friend when it comes to training. If you are training at a pretty high intensity, ie/ interval training, metabolic conditioning, heavy weight training, then you need carbs to fuel those sessions. Restricting carbs pre-workout will have a detrimental impact on performance. Overwhelmingly, the research points to the fact you should have carbs before you train. And if you are already in a calorie deficit and targeting fat loss then it becomes even more important. Because your workouts are already in danger of being a bit off due to being on restricted calories. So you don’t want to make your workouts any worse by limiting carbs. In fact, if you manage things right you should still have great workouts. There is no need to suffer with crap workouts for months on end. Quick release carbs are the most effective. And that is especially true if you’ve got a short window before you train. You want something that your body can absorb quickly and feel the effect of. Example quick digesting carb sources can include rice cakes, saltine/ rice/ simple crackers, white rice, tortilla, banana, grapes, watermelon, rice crispy squares, cereal (Shreddies, Life, Chex, Rice Krispies), dried mango/ dates…


Circling back to example of the cheese and egg sandwich prior to training, one nutrient there that can deter from training is high fat content. Fats slow digestion, sitting heavier in your digestive system and slowing absorption of carbs into muscle to give you energy. Similarly, if you eat a giant salad with tons of vegetables or a big bowl of bran/high fibre cereal you might not feel the best. Fibre like fat slows digestion, which is great away from training but not right before. We want those carbs and protein to be absorbed pretty quick. Fats and fibre are essential for everyone, but just not essential for pre-workout nutrition.


Studies show that your body takes time to digest and absorb the nutrients from the food you eat. And if you had a heavy meal, that process can take several hours (anything from 2-4+ hours). That basically means, if you pigged out on a load of protein a few hours before your workout, you are unlikely to need anymore. Therefore, pre-workout nutrition becomes less of a necessity. However, if it has been a few hours since your last meal and last intake of protein, then getting some pre-workout protein is going to be beneficial. Why? Because keeping protein levels elevated pre-workout helps increase protein synthesis and ensure you are in an anabolic state. All of which are important for keeping metabolism revving and repairing/ building lean muscle.

In general, if you are having a full meal before a workout, aim for about 1.5-2hrs before your workout. However, if you train before your meals (ie/ early morning sessions or right after work), have a light snack with protein and carbs 30-60min before you train. My go to for an early morning session is a simple protein shake and some watermelon, and after work having a few rice cakes and a glass of soy milk or low fat cow’s milk (protein shake would work too).


There are literally hundreds of pre-workout supplements on the market today. But the sad truth is that most of them aren’t worth spending a single penny on. Unfortunately, the supplement industry is pretty unregulated, so what companies claim goes into their products may not always be the case. And on top of that, they’ll list an impressive array of ingredients on the label. But what they won’t tell you is that they are often under-dosed compared to what the research says is optimal. More often than not, you are paying for cheap ‘filler’ ingredients that are low cost and high margin for the manufacturer. And that leaves you with a huge whole in your wallet and nothing to show for it.

Now at this point I’ll say that pre-workout supplements are 100% not essential for a good workout. Getting the right amount of sleep, hydration, protein, and carbs is far more important. However, some caffeine and creatine can help if everything else is in check. That could be as simple as pairing your food with a double espresso and you’re good to go. However, a good pre-workout supplement can be beneficial if you’re at the stage where your nutrition and recovery is on point and you want that extra little edge.


Keep it simple. If you haven’t put to much thought into how you’re feeling up until now, just shifting your focus to carbs and protein before training can make a difference. There will be a certain degree of trial and error as everyone’s body is different. Try a simple shake with protein powder and banana or a bowl of low fat Greek yogurt topped with your favourite cereal. If it doesn’t feel great, adjust the timing or swap the food sources. Don’t get hung up on the numbers unless you are someone more advanced or looking to really dial it in. In that case, it would be valuable to sit down with a dietitian to get tailored amounts.

About the author: Alysha Coughler, RD

“Alysha received her Bachelors of Applied Science in Human Nutrition at the University of Guelph accredited by the Dietitians of Canada. She graduated at the top of her class, being awarded with academic scholarships to pursue post graduate studies. At Ryerson University, she completed a Masters of Health Science in Nutrition Communication with an integrated dietetic internship to become a registered dietitian. Over the years, she has gained experience working with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Celiac Disease, IBS, IBD, weight loss, muscle gain, sports performance, family meal planning, menu planning, mental health and more. Alysha has helped many individuals reach their nutrition and fitness goals through integrating her expertise as both a dietitian and personal trainer. She has also obtained culinary training at Liaison College in Oshawa.”

Website: https://www.alyshacoughler.com/

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