Pre-workout nutrition is an interesting topic, because even if you had never heard the words before in your life it is still something you have considered.

You know that if you are about to run a marathon eating a Big Mac 10 minutes before is inadvisable. You might not know the scientific reasoning behind it, but you are aware of the fact that it will probably make you feel sick!


For those of you who have heard about pre workout nutrition you’ve probably heard a lot of conflicting advice on what to take.

A small meal, or a type of supplement, or maybe you’ve heard not to bother at all. Fasted cardio was a big deal for a number of years, even if it has since been discredited. [1]

Whenever I think about pre-workout I remember talking to a friend in the gym who quipped “Pre-workout? I’m always pre-workout”, which is actually a really good point.

I personally believe that what you eat before you workout is important but that overall nutrition is what counts.

There is no point finding the perfect pre-workout strategy if the rest of your day is spent eating pizza. Everything you eat is pre your next workout, so choose wisely.

What is a pre-workout strategy?

Well there are 3 approaches:

1. There are pre workout meals which could be anything from a sandwich to a steak dinner depending on who you talk to.

2. There is the bloke down the gym to which pre-workout means supplements “Dude you gotta try this pre-workout shake, I took some 2 hours ago and I am genuinely concerned for my heart! It’s amazing!”

3. The third approach is a combination of the two. Having a meal about an hour before a workout and then some form of supplement immediately before.

pre workout meals_4Two hour rule

Personally, I just schedule a workout around my meals. So I will have breakfast and then 1 or 2 hours later I’ll workout. Or do a similar thing with lunch.

I have the luxury of being able to train in the middle of the day.

For me, a pre-workout meal is nothing special it’s just what I ate for breakfast or lunch.

If I had to train immediately after work though and wasn’t having dinner until 9pm I would make do with what I had available. Be it food or supplement (I work in a gym so the supplements are easier to get a hold of than a good meal).

Pre-workout nutrition

As you should know, all meals can be split into the macronutrients protein, fat, and carbohydrates (there is also fibre and alcohol, but I am going to ignore these for now).

Deciding which macros to include in your meal is very important as they can make the difference between a killer workout, and a low-energy, bloated mess of a workout!

Your pre-workout meal should reflect what your goals are

If you are planning on running a marathon then you will require a different meal than if you are planning on becoming a bodybuilder.

Although interestingly enough, both long distance runners and bodybuilders would benefit from a high protein and high carb meal.

If you’re looking to lose body fat then I would recommend scheduling your workout for an hour or two after breakfast lunch or dinner. That way you can keep your daily calories low.

pre workout meals_2Protein

Whatever your goals you should make sure that you have had some form of protein around an hour before you workout.

Countless studies have found that consuming protein before a workout stimulates muscle protein synthesis [2][3][4] (where your muscles are repaired which leads to hypertrophy and increased strength).


Whilst protein is clearly the most important macronutrient to consume prior to exercise, many studies have found that combining protein with a carb source increases protein synthesis [5][6][7].

So having your protein with carbs will have a greater benefit than having your protein alone.

In terms of the amount of carbohydrate required, this differs from person to person and might take some trial and error (although as mentioned above, if your goal is fat-loss make sure not to go over your targets).


You will want to keep fat levels quite low for a number of reasons, the first would be that consuming fat pre-workout has little to no effect on exercise (particularly muscle protein synthesis).

Consuming fat will slow digestion [8] and will slow the delivery of nutrients to the muscles during a workout.

pre workout meals_3Caffeine

Finally I would like to mention the many benefits that caffeine has on performance. It stimulates the central nervous system [9], increases 24 hour energy expenditure [10][11] and increases fat oxidation [10][12].

Caffeine is one of the main ingredients in most of the pre-workout supplements on the market, and in my opinion is probably the best ingredient there.

That is why I recommend consuming some form of caffeine (black coffee or a caffeine pill work best) rather than an expensive pre-workout.

From a review of the current literature it would seem that consuming caffeine 1 hour prior to performance is ideal [13].

My perfect pre workout meal

So my choice (in this scenario I am training at 4pm) would have medium to high levels of carbohydrates, similar levels of protein, low fat, and a source of caffeine.

I would go for: 0% Fat Greek Yoghurt, with 100g blueberries, 50g oats, 25g scoop of whey protein and a cup of coffee. Coming in at 421 calories with 40g Protein, 53g Carbohydrates, and only 6g of fat.

Remember, if you are targeting fat loss you should make sure that there is room in your diet for 421 calories.

If not, schedule your workout for after a meal and keep it low fat. If you’re training for size you can increase the carbs and protein in this meal quite easily.

Connect with Expert Matthew Smith


[1] Schoenfeld, B. (2011) Does Cardio After an Overnight Fast Maximise Fat Loss? Strength & Conditioning Journal 33(1): 23-25

[2] Greenhaff, P., Karagounis, N., Pierce, N., Simpson, E., Hazell, M., Layfield, H., Wackerhage, K., Smith, P., Atherton, A., Selby, M., Rennie, M. (2008) Disassociation between the effects of amino acids and insulin on signalling, ubiquitin ligases, and protein turnover in human muscle. American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism 295(3): 595-604

[3] Boirie, Y., Dangin, M., Gachon, P., Vasson, M., Maubois, J., Beaufrere, B. (1997) Slow and fast dietary proteins differently moderate postprandial protein accretion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 94(26): 14930-14935

[4] Tang, J., Moore, D., Kujbida, G., Tarnopolsky, M., Phillips, S. (2009) Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. Journal of Applied Physiology 107(3): 987-992

[5] Tipton, K., Rasmussen, B., Miller, S., Wolf, S., Owens-Stovall, S., Petrini, B., Wolfe, R. (2001) Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism 281(2): 197-206

[6] Borsheim, E., Cree, M., Tipton, K., Elliott, T., Aarsland, A., Wolfe, R. (2004) Effect of carbohydrate intake on net muscle protein synthesis during recovery from resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology 96(2): 674-678

[7] Figueiredo, V., Cameron-Smith, D. (2013) Is carbohydrate needed to further stimulate muscle protein synthesis/hypertrophy following resistance exercise? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 10(42)

[8] Little, T., Horowitz, M., Feinle-Bisset, C. (2007) Modulation by high fat diets of gastrointestinal function and hormones associated with the regulation of energy intake: implications for the pathophysiology of obesity. American Society for Clinical Nutrition 86(3): 531-541

[9] Groff, J. and Gropper, S. (2000) Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. 3rd ed., Wadsworth/ Thomson Learning.

[10] Dulloo, A., Duret, C., Rohrer, D., Girardier, L., Mensi, N., Fathi, M., Chantre, P., Vandermander, J. (1999) Efficacy of a green tea extract rich in catechin polyphenols and caffeine in increasing 24-h energy expenditure and fat oxidation in humans. American Society for Clinical Nutrition 70(6): 1040-1045

[11] Dulloo, A., Geissler, C., Horton, T., Collins, A., Miller, D. (1989) Normal caffeine consumption: influence on thermogenesis and daily energy expenditure in lean and post-obese human volunteers. The American Society for Clinical Nutrition 49(1): 44-50

[12] Rumpler, W., Seale, J., Clevidence, B., Judd, J., Wiley, E., Yamamoto, S., Komatsu, T., Sawaki, T., Ishikura, Y., Hosoda, K. (2001) Oolong Tea increases Metabolic Rate and Fat Oxidation in Men. The Journal of Nutrition 131(11): 2848-2852

[13] Cox, G., Desbrow, B., Montgomery, P., Anderson, M., Bruce, C., Macrides, T., Martin, D., Moquin, A., Roberts, A., Hawley, J., and Burke, L. (2002) Effect of different protocols of caffeine intake on metabolism and endurance performance. J Appl Physiol. 93: 990-999

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