Nutrition and exercise go hand in hand. If the body is not supplied with the right fuel at the right time, short term performance may suffer, leading to fewer gains in the long term if poor pre-workout nutrition is made a habit. Incorrect nutrition can decrease the efficiency of the body's adaptation to training, and worst of all, it can lead to the breakdown of muscle to meet the energy needs (1). On top of this, inadequate nutrition can cause a decline in mood and cognitive function which can sap motivation and rob you of that post-workout high.
Pre Workout Breakfast
They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day for good reason, because it literally breaks a fast of up to twelve hours without food. While some people prefer training on an empty stomach, or prefer training after a fast to burn more fat, low blood sugar can cause dizziness, weakness and low motivation, and most importantly, people who do not supply their body with adequate fuel run the risk of losing muscle. Many amino acids are termed "gluconeogenic" and may be broken down to make glucose when the body does not have sufficient energy, and a positive nitrogen balance is needed to build muscle (2).
The best solution to this is to eat a breakfast that contains carbs and protein, and there are a lot of options.
Many people prefer a lighter meal that they can digest quickly and easily and eat closer to a workout. A meal like this should consist of a fast acting protein and a mix of slow and fast acting carbs. Some good choices are fruit with cottage cheese, banana and ricotta on wholegrain toast, or even a smoothie, containing low fat dairy and seasonal fruits. A protein shake is a great option for a light breakfast, and protein powder can be added to a smoothie.
Someone looking for something a bit more substantial could try eggs on wholegrain toast, oat porridge with low fat dairy and fruit. An egg white omelette is a good option for those who are cutting, and don't be afraid to team this with low GI carbs. It's better to eat a more substantial meal 3-4 hours before a workout to allow time for the food to digest, and prevent stomach upset.
Pre Workout Lunch
There are many options for people who want lunch before workout. Food is not useful to the body until it has been digested, so it is important to time your meal. This will depend on personal circumstances and the type of training, but in general, a larger, nutrient rich meal 3-4 hours before training, followed by a snack 1-2 hours beforehand, will maximise both performance and the benefit of the food eaten (3). Pre-workout meals should concentrate on protein and carbs, not only because they are the most important nutrients for exercise, but because fat and fibre can slow the digestion of a meal. While these are important nutrients for general health, food that is harder to digest is best saved for post-workout, where the chances of stomach upset are minimised. Some good options for a nutrient dense pre-workout meal include tuna and crackers with a side salad, baked potato with cottage cheese filling and vegetables, sandwich with lean meat or cheese filling and salad or a quinoa salad with lean chicken and vegetables.
Pre Workout Dinner
Dinner is traditionally when we eat our largest and heartiest meal of the day. As with lunch, it is best to leave a 3-4 hour window between eating and training, topping up your energy levels with a snack in between. Thankfully, the increasing popularity of late night gyms means that it is possible to sit down to a proper dinner in the evening and still fit in a workout. Protein and carbs are still the two major nutrients to aim for in a pre-workout meal because of their importance in providing energy and building muscle. Some good dinner choices include chicken or turkey breast with sweet potato and broccoli, pasta with a lean meat and vegetable sauce or a vegetable stir fry with lean meat or tofu. The type of training should be taken into account. People who are doing an endurance or cardio workout should eat more carbs, while those doing strength training should up the protein.
Pre Workout Snacks
Snacks are important to keep the metabolism ticking over between meals, maintaining a positive nitrogen balance, and loading up on energy before a workout. An ideal pre-workout snack will be easy to digest, rich in nutrients, and be easy to eat on the go.
Choice of snack will depend on the type of workout. Carbohydrate dense snacks are great or people doing endurance or cardio workouts. Bananas, dried fruit, creamed rice or flavoured yoghurt are great choices. Protein dense snacks are better for people involved in weight or resistance training, and snacks like cottage cheese, boiled eggs, deli meat and nuts are popular options. Combining protein and carbs is a great idea for both energy and muscle building, and cereal with milk, fruit and yoghurt, or muesli and nut bars are simple and healthy. Protein shakes are a great option that combine easy to digest proteins with other useful pre-workout ingredients like simple or complex carbs, amino acids and vitamins and minerals.
Nutrition is key to a great workout. Eating the right food before training can make you strong, powerful, alert, and lay the foundation for better performance and bigger gains than ever before.
(1) Maughan RJ. Fasting and sport: an introduction. Br J Sports Med. 2010 Jun;44(7):473-5
(2) Shephard RJ. Physical performance and training response during Ramadan observance, with particular reference to protein metabolism. Br J Sports Med. 2012 Jun;46(7):477-84.
(3) Nutrition Fact Sheet "Eating Before Exercise" Australian Institute of Sport http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/factsheets/competition_and_training/eating_before_exercise Accessed 3rd February 2014