Pre-Workout Nutrition: What, When, and How Much?

By Erin Kratzer

I will always remember my first CrossFit competition. My nerves were getting the best of me, so I decided to only eat a few bites of my breakfast. I survived the first WOD (rope climbs and power cleans), but the second workout was much longer. My partner and I had to alternate rounds of a 400 m hill run carrying a wall ball followed by more wall balls. The hill “run” quickly became a walk and the 14# wall ball felt like 30#. If I had fueled myself properly and finished my breakfast before the event, I would have had a much better experience during my competition!

What you eat before a workout greatly affects your performance. While not eating enough before a workout can be detrimental before a longer workout, so can a meal or pre-workout snack that is too processed or high in fat. Foods high in fat take longer to digest and can result in an upset stomach while working out. Your body needs energy to fuel your WOD, and this comes in the form of glycogen (carbs!). Glycogen is the storage form of glucose (sugar) in the body. When you stress your body with physical activity it taps into these glycogen stores for energy. If these stores are not full, or consistently not replenished, your body cannot provide you with adequate energy.

Before discussing the what, when, and how much of pre-workout nutrition, your nutrition throughout the rest of the day, week, and month cannot be overlooked. Eating the right foods pre-workout will make little difference, if you are still indulging in daily sweets, soda and processed foods. Your body is like a high performance car and in order to run smoothly, it needs the proper fuel for performance. This way you can perform to the best of your abilities both inside and outside of the gym.

If you feel like you are working hard, but not making the gains you want, or find that you feel sluggish during your workout, and the quality of your workouts decrease during the week, you may be under fueling your workouts and/or not putting the right foods in the tank.

By following these easy pre-workout tips, you may find yourself pushing the intensity and setting new personal bests.

mead doughnut crossfit

Tip #1: What & How Much?

Your pre-WOD meals/snacks should be:

Carbohydrate-rich (1-2 g/kg body weight)
Moderate in protein (0.2-0.25 g/kg body weight) and fiber
Low in fat
Consumed 2-4 hours before training
This could look like: grilled chicken over brown rice with a mixed salad, noodle bowl with vegetables and chicken, a turkey sandwich with an apple, or a 2-egg scramble with veggies, sweet potato and a side of Greek yogurt.

Tip #2: Base your pre-workout fuel around the Workout of the Day. Check the programming to see what kind of workout you’ll be doing.

Is it more skill based?

You will not be expending as many calories and thus will not be depleting your glycogen stores as much. Decrease carbohydrates (but do not exclude) before exercise on these days. Opt for a higher content of vegetables to replace some of the whole grains.

Is it strength-based with a short to medium-length MetCon (5-15 minutes) at the end?

Similar to the initial recommendations above. Be sure the meal is moderate in carbohydrates (from whole grains and vegetables), protein, and low in fat. You will be tapping into your glycogen stores for both your strength piece and the MetCon.

Is it a long, grueling WOD (e.g. Murph, Filthy Fifty, Fight Gone Bad, Hero WODs, etc)?

Prior to workouts lasting 30 to 60 minutes, you will want to increase the carbohydrates in your meal (2-3 g/kg body weight), and still consume moderate protein (0.2-0.25 g/kg). Your glycogen stores could be depleted after a workout like this, so it is crucial to make sure the tank is full going in.

What if your training will be longer than hour, or you are feeling under fueled before the gym?

Plan a small carbohydrate-rich snack (fruit, slice of toast with jam/nut butter, etc.) or beverage 30 to 60 minutes before the workout (30-40 g carbohydrate, low in fiber and fat).

This looks like:
2 ounces of raisins (~ 2 handfuls) – 30 grams
1 medium-sized banana, or apple – 30 grams
1 granola bar (brand depending) – 30 grams
½ medium-baked sweet potato – 15 grams

Carbohydrates are not the enemy, but the type of carbohydrate is very important. Choose high-quality, nutrient-dense carbohydrate foods such as whole grain breads and cereals, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, starchy vegetables, whole or dried fruit, and milk/yogurt.

Tip #3: Think about WHEN you are working out.

As outlined above, aim to eat a meal 2-4 hours before training with a composition that matches your workout. If it is a longer WOD, or if you need more fuel before the gym, have a small snack 30 to 60 minutes before training.

5:30 AM workout?

Plan to eat a small snack before hitting the gym. This could be a banana, yogurt with berries, or a granola bar. Coming off of an overnight fast (during sleep), your glycogen stores will not be full. Having a small carbohydrate-rich snack ensures some glucose will be circulating in your blood. Your body will use this first when you start exercising.

After your workout plan to refuel with a normal breakfast that is rich in carbohydrates and protein to recover, refuel, and build muscle (More on post-nutrition to come!). This could be a 2-egg omelet with veggies, turkey breast, and a cup of oatmeal with blueberries and walnuts.

Mid-morning/Noon workout?

Get a carbohydrate boost before training by eating a balanced breakfast that combines whole grains, protein for sustainable energy, and a small amount of fat. Some breakfast ideas include: scrambled eggs, whole grain toast with nut butter, and fruit. If the workout is right around lunch, eat a small snack 30 to 60 minutes beforehand.

Afternoon/early evening workout, or two-a-day?

Lunch will be the meal to focus on to fuel your workout. Hit the nutrient targets outlined above and aim to eat it 2-4 hours before your training. If you are partaking in a two-a-day, make lunch count by choosing lean protein to help you recover from a morning session and complex carbohydrates to replenish your body for an afternoon workout.

Some final tips…

  • Every person is different. What works for your training partner might not work for you.
  • Trial and error is the best method to finding out what works. If you find you get an upset stomach when you eat a meal 2 hours before, reevaluate the meal contents, make sure it meets the above recommendations, and then try eating it a little earlier.
  • As stated before, making a few changes in nutrient/meal timing will not be beneficial if you are eating poorly the rest of the day.
  • Aim to eat a source of lean protein with every meal, consume healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, etc.), and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. To put in the best workouts, your body needs the right fuel all day long!
  • Try out these pre-workout nutrition timing tools. You may find that being properly fueled for your workouts allows you to give that extra 10% at the end of WODs.

 

Erin Kratzer is a CFNYC member, competitive CrossFit athlete, and pursuing an M.S. in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the Teachers College at Columbia University. Erin started CrossFit in 2013 and has been involved in competitive CrossFit since the fall of 2013. Erin’s goals include training for CrossFit and Olympic Weightlifting competitions, but her biggest passion is working with other athletes and nutrition. She is working towards her Registered Dietician credentials this year, and hopes to ultimately become a board certified Sports Dietician.

Resources:
Maughan R, Burke L. Nutrition for athletes: a practical guide to eating for health and performance. Nutrition Working Group of the International Olympic Committee.
Meyer NL, Manore MM, Berning J. Fueling for fitness: food and fluid recommendations for before, during, and after exercise. ACSM Health Fitness J. 2012;16(3):7-12.
Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, Rosenbloom C, Coleman E. Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals, 5th edition. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: 2012.
Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: nutrition and athletic performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(3):501-28.

Responses

  • Addie

    This is great, Erin. Thanks for sharing.

  • Anna

    Great info, thank you!

  • Lauren S

    Love this!! Great article Erin. If it means I will lift as much as you I will definitely follow this plan 🙂

  • This is super super great, but I don’t see anything about pre-workout beers. Are those frowned upon? Should I be replacing my pre-workout beers with something lighter, like pre-workout whiskey?

    • You know, I’ve been thinking about this more since last night. I am curious about the post-workout window of #gainz I’ve heard so much about. When is the appropriate time after a workout to eat an entire cheesecake? Within 30 minutes? Or do I have up to an hour?

      • ErinKratzer

        LOL. Yes, the “magic window” everyone talks about. Most studies show that muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is elevated for up to 24 hours after exercise with a peak around 1 – 2 hours after exercise. Feeding your body with a protein-rich meal that is also sufficient in carbs within this time frame is ideal. The protein helps muscles recover, repair, and build new tissue, while the carbs help replenish your energy stores.
        Most people are eating protein throughout the day, so there is a constant supply of amino acids (building blocks of proteins) in your blood. Also, most people are eating a meal within 2 hours of working out, so making sure it fits the bill for recovery is usually sufficient. If not, then having a snack after working out (like greek yogurt and granola, chocolate milk, or a dairy-based smoothie) will help you take advantage of the elevation in MPS. Now whether or not a whole cheesecake fits that bill…I’ll leave that up to you 😉

        • @ErinKratzer:disqus I officially owe you a whole cheesecake for answering my silly, jokey question (that was really just an excuse to talk about cheesecake) with a real, helpful answer.

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  • Lân

    Informative, thoughtful and practical. Thank you, Erin.

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  • Randal Colleman

    This is some great info, thanks for the article! I also found one that is very informative http://www.supplementscience.net/top-5-pre-workout-women/ if you ladies wish to drink supplements before your workout, here is a suggestion 🙂