Food as Fuel: Pre-Exercise Nutrition

Everyone knows that you must fuel a vehicle to keep your engine running efficiently. Your body is your vehicle meaning fueling your body by eating the appropriate food and staying hydrated is essential to optimizing performance. Good nutrition can help your body perform better and recover faster after each workout.

Pre-Exercise Fueling, as the word suggests, is eating essential foods before starting a workout. Determining what to eat before exercise will provide you with the energy and strength you need to optimize performance. Though each macronutrient plays a specific role in providing energy, the ratio of carbs, fats, and proteins varies depending on the type of exercise and training goal. Pre-Exercise Fueling is beneficial to make up for the energy losses during a workout, boost muscle endurance, and improve body stamina. In most cases, people who exercise with an empty stomach get tired sooner than those who consume a pre-exercise meal.

Some of the most important points of Pre-Exercise Fueling are:

  • Reserve glycogen and energy levels for muscles during strenuous exercise.

  • Avoid dangerous oxidative reactions that take place in your muscles during exercise.

  • Prevent your body from dehydration and unnecessary cramps or muscle pulls.

  • Enhances performance and boost stamina.


The nutrient requirements and timing of food before a workout depend upon the type of workout mainly, such as strength and power sports, endurance training, cardio, etc.

Your muscles use glucose from carbohydrates for fuel which is why "carbs" are the main fuel source for providing energy. Glycogen is the way the body stores glucose which is conserved in the liver and muscles. The degree to which carbs are used depends on the intensity and type of training, as well as your overall diet. Carbs are mainly used for short, high-intensity exercise or strength and power sports. However, these glycogen stores become depleted and your intensity begins to diminish. Nonetheless, carb loading, consuming a high carb diet for 1-7 days, is a method to maximize glycogen stores before training or before a big game day at the end of the week. Carb loading also is used to prevent cramps and help with unnecessary muscle cramps and aches. Additionally, adding carbs can prevent hypoglycemic conditions which cause the blood glucose level to drop to dangerous levels leading to malfunctions of the body.

Before a workout it is better to focus on more protein and carbohydrates, however, it is important to incorporate healthy fats in a balanced diet. Fats digest more slowly than carbohydrates, and the body may not be able to break down and absorb fats before a workout session. Therefore, fats are the fuel source for long, moderate to low intensity exercise. Present studies demonstrate that higher levels of fat in the diet up to 40% have shown to increase endurance training. Though carbs are good for athletes, fats are the preferred energy source to maximize endurance and boost fat burning during low-intensity exercise.

Protein is essential to recovery after exercise, nevertheless, studies have noted protein consumption can improve athletic performance as well. This is solely depending on the type of protein, timing of protein intake, and other nutrients consumed with the protein. Amino acids are described as the building block of protein which plays a crucial role in muscle synthesis, enzymes, and regulating the numerous metabolic pathways. Free amino acids plus carbohydrates before exercise result in an improved anabolic response to exercise. Though multiple sources of protein play a role in promoting protein synthesis after exercise, only those with essential amino acids can elevate syntheses to not only help recovery but for adaptation to exercise training such as muscle hypertrophy and mitochondrial biogenesis. Supplements such as BCAAs and Beta-alanines are among the most common when referring to the essential amino acids. However, creatine and caffeine are other multi-ingredients pre-workout supplements aid to optimize performance.

Meal timing:

Optimal timing of pre-consumption eating varies from athlete to athlete depending on the sport. The most common recommendation is to eat 3-4 hours before the event to avoid becoming nauseated or uncomfortable. To maximize the results of training, eating a complete meal containing carbs, proteins, and fats could aid in optimizing performance. In some cases when athletes cannot consume a full meal 3-4 hours before a workout, they can still eat a smaller simpler meal. Choosing to eat an hour before, the food should be simple to digest and mainly contain carbs and proteins.


  • 2 - 3 hours:

  • Whole grain bread sandwich with lean protein, lean protein and brown rice with veggies, egg omelet with a fruit cup

  • With 2 hours:

  • Protein smoothie with mixed berries, whole-grain cereal and milk, a cup of oatmeal with bananas

  • Less than an hour:

  • Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, nutrition bar with protein


Burdon CA, Spronk I, Cheng HL, O'Connor HT.(2017). Effect of the glycemic index of a pre-exercise meal on endurance exercise performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine.;47(6):1087-101.

Bussau, V. A., Fairchild, T. J., Rao, A., Steele, P., & Fournier, P. A. (2002). Carbohydrate loading in human muscle: an improved 1 day protocol. European journal of applied physiology, 87(3), 290–295.

Hawley, J.A., & Burke, L.M. (1997). Effect of meal frequency and timing on physical performance. The British journal of nutrition, 77 Suppl 1, S91 - S103.

Kerksick, C. M., Arent, S., Schoenfeld, B. J., Stout, J. R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C. D., Taylor, L., Kalman, D., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D., Arciero, P. J., VanDusseldorp, T. A., Ormsbee, M. J., Wildman, R., Greenwood, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Aragon, A. A., & Antonio, J. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 33.

Tipton K. D. (2007). Role of protein and hydrolysates before exercise. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 17 Suppl, S77–S86.

Venkatraman, J. T., Feng, X., & Pendergast, D. (2001). Effects of dietary fat and endurance exercise on plasma cortisol, prostaglandin E2, interferon-g, amma, and lipid peroxides in runners. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 20(5), 529–536.

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