Pre-Workout Nutrition 101: Fuel Your Training Any Time of Day
Would you rather work out first thing in the morning or late in the evening?
The time of day that makes the most sense for you to work out depends on your own preference and schedule. In general, a balanced meal 1-2 hours before a workout is sufficient pre-workout nutrition no matter what time of day you train.
However, our bodies run on 24-hour sleep/wake cycles called circadian rhythms, and food can serve as one cue to our bodies that it is time to train. As research suggests there are circadian rhythms for appetite, glucose and glucose tolerance, insulin, lipid levels, energy expenditure1, your pre-workout meal may have a different impact on your body depending on the time of day.
Although we each have our own nutrient requirements depending on factors such as age, height, weight, gender, and physical activity level, there are general guidelines that we can follow to maximize performance in the gym no matter what time of day we work out.
Pre-Workout Nutrition for Morning Workouts
If you work out first thing in the morning, you will want to pay careful attention to your pre-workout meal. When you first wake up, you will be dehydrated, so drink some water and be sure to get in some electrolytes from food and/or supplements.
Gastric emptying2 and gastrointestinal motility3 rates are highest in the morning, priming the digestive system for a big meal. Glycogen and blood sugar levels will be low, so mornings may be the best time for high-GI foods4. Larger meals in the morning may also help to control glucose, insulin, ghrelin (the hunger hormone), and hunger5.
Before morning workouts, aim for higher GI carbs to get blood sugar levels up, moderate protein to get some essential amino acids in, and lower fat to minimize GI distress. Fats can help to slow digestion, so keep fat intake low before workouts if you’re someone who easily gets an upset stomach. If that is the case, you might find that you need to keep fiber intake low before workouts to prevent GI discomfort as well.
Examples of Morning Pre-Workout Meals
- Dates and beef jerky
- Yogurt with granola and honey
- Toast with jelly and hemp seeds
These examples are “grab-and-go” type meals, but if you have 2-3 hours to let a full meal digest before your morning training session, then you should aim for a larger, balanced meal (e.g. eggs and toast with fruit and/or veggies).
Also, note that if you’re someone who prefers to train fasted—before you eat anything in the morning—then your “pre-workout meal” will be the last meal you had before you went to sleep. In that case, try to eat a balanced, carbohydrate-dense meal before bed to fuel your glycogen stores, and don’t forget to drink water and consider supplementing with electrolytes.
Examples of Bedtime Pre-Workout Meals for Fasted Morning Training
- Oatmeal with yogurt, nut butter, and berries
- Steak or tofu with rice, broccoli, and avocado
Pre-Workout Nutrition for Afternoon Workouts
If your workout is in the afternoon, you likely will have had one or more additional meals by this time, so the nutrient content of your pre-workout meal is less important than it is if you were to train first thing in the morning.
However, you still want to make sure to boost energy and blood sugar levels with some sugar and optimize muscle protein synthesis with a moderate amount (~20g) of protein6.
Fat is of less concern; however, since you will already have eaten some meals, you can likely get away with moderate fat intake without any GI discomfort. However, it’s a good idea to stay away from fried food, spicy foods, and other common culprits of indigestion before workouts. Of course, this is something that will vary from person to person. The same goes for fiber.
To fuel an afternoon workout, aim for a pre-workout meal that will provide a substantial energy boost to combat mid-day fatigue.
Examples of Afternoon Pre-Workout Meals
- Grilled chicken sandwich
- Hard-boiled eggs and a banana
- Edamame with rice
Pre-Workout Nutrition for Evening Workouts
If you work out in the evening, you will need to recharge your energy for your workout but also avoid getting too revved up so that you can get ready to wind down soon after.
While a balanced meal rich in carbohydrates is necessary before any workout, avoiding high-GI carbohydrate sources at night may be beneficial to improve blood sugar levels and reduce risk of type 2 diabetes4. However, high-volume workouts can deplete glycogen stores, so you still want to take in plenty of carbohydrates before a workout, no matter how late you work out6.
Depending on when you last ate and what your daily schedule looks like, you might need a surprisingly high carbohydrate intake before evening workouts to help boost performance.
Carbohydrates should still be a priority, with moderate protein and low-to-moderate fat intake. Creatine from meat sources can help give you a performance boost7, which can be especially helpful if you’re tired from a long day.
If you work out close to bedtime, then foods that contain tryptophan, an amino acid that helps promote serotonin levels, can be helpful, as serotonin is required to make melatonin. Fat won’t do much to help or hurt performance, but since you’ve already eaten a lot by this point, some fat intake probably won’t do much to give you GI discomfort.
Before evening workouts, aim for a pre-workout meal that will boost energy without drastically spiking blood sugar levels.
Examples of Evening Pre-Workout Meals
- Steak or tofu with sweet potato
- Oatmeal with yogurt and fruit (optional: add nuts or seeds)
Further Optimizing Your Pre-Workout Nutrition
Portion sizes for your pre-workout food choices will depend not only on your own physiology but also on how much time you have in between your pre-workout meal and your workout.
If you eat 2-3 hours before your workout, you should opt for a large, balanced meal. If you eat less than one hour before your workout, you may benefit from a drinkable meal, like a protein shake blended with fruit or oats, or just a quick carb source, like a banana or rice cakes.
The duration and type of workout will also impact what you should eat before. For long, strenuous workouts, you may also benefit from intra-workout calories (i.e. some source of sugar) and electrolytes. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends consuming carbohydrates and electrolytes intra-workout for high-intensity workouts longer than 60 minutes in duration.6
No matter what time you work out, it is wise to consume a pre-workout meal so that you have fuel (literally) to complete your workout. Serving sizes will depend on how much time before training you eat your meal.
Depending on the type and duration of your workout, carbohydrates can help boost performance if consumed before and during workouts and can improve the synthesis of muscle glycogen8. The amount of carbohydrates needed depends on your activity, but 30-60g of carbohydrates is a good starting point.
Protein (20-40g) will help with muscle protein synthesis and building muscle tissue6. Fats likely will not provide any performance benefit9 but may be useful if you still have hours to go before your workout and want your meal to digest slower so that you don’t get hungry in the middle of training.
Although circadian rhythms can provide some insight into the type of pre-workout meals we should consume in the morning, afternoon, and evening, the best pre-workout meal for you is whatever makes you feel and perform your best.
Identifying your optimal meal might take some trial and error. In the meantime, be sure you eat enough to be able to get through your workouts without feeling tired or hungry but don’t eat so much that you feel uncomfortable or nauseous.