It’s time to hit the gym for a workout. Your brain tells you you’re ready to burn through some killer sets. But once you start training, your body isn’t complying: You feel weak and unable to complete all your reps. What gives?
Many people neglect some element of nutrition and find themselves incorrectly fueled for training. This article will cover how to eat for peak performance so that you can get the most out of your efforts.
The Goals of Pre-Workout Nutrition
There are three main priorities when it comes to pre-workout nutrition:
- Supporting energy levels
- Stimulating protein synthesis
- Ensuring hydration
Let’s take a closer look at these three goals.
1. Supporting Energy Levels
Your first priority is to ensure substrates to support the energy systems used in your workout. Your body relies on different forms of energy depending on the type of training your doing.
For short duration, power-based training, such as heavy weight training, short sprints, or box jumping, the body relies mainly on stored ATP and creatine phosphate. For longer, intense exercise (up to 2 minutes), you rely on stored glycogen in the muscle from carbohydrates. For long duration, moderate training, you use a mix of carbs and fat.
You can ensure restoration of energy substrates by focusing on high-quality nutrition in the 24 hours before your workout. Glycogen and creatine have to be digested and loaded into the muscle and this doesn’t happen immediately. It’s important to consume foods or supplements containing these nutrients at least four hours prior to your workout.
Creatine is provided in animal products, including beef and fish, however, many trainees can benefit from supplementing to provide a more concentrated dose. For example, a 3.5-ounce serving of beef provides approximately 1 gram of creatine. The same serving size of chicken provides about half a gram. Studies show you need 3 to 5 grams of creatine daily for optimal performance, so supplementing is recommended. When you take the creatine is less important than that it be consumed consistently with a meal or supplement that contains carbs for improved loading into the muscle.
Glycogen is derived from carbs, so consuming high-quality carbs at meals will replenish energy stores in the muscle. Athletes doing intense, high-volume training may benefit from a carb supplement post-workout to maximize glycogen restoration, but most trainees can get their carbs from whole foods.
Of course, if you are on a lower carb or keto diet, you need to limit the total amount of carbs in your diet. Eating your carb allotment either in a pre-workout meal several hours before training or post-workout will improve glycogen levels while helping you reap the benefits of lower carb eating.
It’s generally recommended that unless you are training a high volume of intense exercise you avoid eating simple carbs immediately pre-workout because this will raise insulin, limiting the body’s ability to tap into fat stores. Although the body only relies on fat at lower training intensities, it is an important source of energy during rest periods between weight training sets or interval repeats. Fat is also a key fuel source for endurance workouts and you want the body to be able to readily tap into these stores once glycogen is depleted.
2. Stimulating Protein Synthesis
Protein synthesis is the mechanism that repairs damaged tissue and builds muscle in the body. There are two known ways of stimulating protein synthesis: performing resistance training and consuming protein. Putting these together by consuming fast-digesting protein before or during your workout makes everything better.
Most people worry about protein intake during the post-workout period but protein is also important pre-workout. You want plenty of amino acids circulating in your blood stream when you start training because this will support muscle repair and amino acids can serve as an energy source if needed.
Protein can come from a pre-workout meal eaten at least two hours before training to allow time for digestion or you can take a protein or amino acid supplement. Whey protein, BCAAs, and free form amino acids are all rapidly digested and they go directly to the blood stream to stimulate protein synthesis. A dose of 20 grams of protein is recommended whether you get it from a supplement or whole protein.
3. Ensuring Hydration
Hydration is essential to support cardiovascular function and hormone balance during intense training. As you lose water through sweat and respiration during exercise, the amount of water in the blood drops (known as plasma volume). As plasma volume declines, blood flow to the skin is reduced and cardiac output is impaired. Stroke volume (the quantity of blood pumped from the heart with each beat) is also reduced. Heart rate increases to compensate but cannot offset the deficit in stroke volume. Exercise performance begins to suffer.
Hydration is an all-the-time thing, not something that you should only focus on during a workout. While it’s true that you can get dehydrated from a long, intense workout, you’re much more likely to enter a workout with poor hydration due to lack of water or low electrolyte intake.
To maintain hydration, the body requires water and sufficient levels of electrolytes: Sodium, potassium, and chloride. Electrolytes help the body regulate how much water a cell can hold. Sodium is an electrolyte that controls how much water is outside the cells, whereas potassium controls how much water is inside cells. Consuming excessive water without electrolytes can dilute the sodium concentration, leading cells to take on too much water and swell. This actually causes dehydration by diluting the body’s levels of electrolytes.
In recreational athletes who eat a standard American diet that is high in sodium, extra electrolytes probably aren’t necessary, but for athletes sweating profusely and consuming large volumes of water, electrolyte supplementation will improve cellular hydration. They also reduce urine output from the kidneys, which helps the body gain water quickly when dehydrated.
Putting It All Together: Having an organized routine for pre-workout nutrition will support training quality and help you get more out of your efforts:
Ensure energy levels to meet your training goals. Take 3 to 5 grams of creatine daily and time your carb intake based on training volume and diet composition.
Stimulate protein synthesis pre-workout with a high-quality protein meal two hours before training and/or take a protein or Free Form Amino Acid supplement right before you hit the gym. For BCAA options you can take a high-ratio BCAA formula in capsules, BCAA Excellence.
Ensure hydration by drinking at regular intervals and ensuring you get adequate electrolytes. We offer the supplement Rise that provides electrolytes and BCAAs for an easy and delicious pre-workout aid. For an electrolyte-only product, we offer Charge.