One of the areas of nutrition that receives the most attention is the pre-workout timeframe—so much so that there’s an entire branch of supplements dedicated to the notion. However, just because it’s common knowledge to address pre-workout nutrition in some capacity doesn’t mean it’s done right. In fact, a lot of the traditional, commonplace advice either leaves large gaps or completely misses the mark. This may seem inconsequential, but the reality is that bad pre-workout or pregame nutritional strategies can rob you of your performance potential—and in some cases even be unsafe.Bad pre-workout or pregame nutritional strategies can rob you of your performance potential—and in some cases even be unsafe, says @rewirehp. Click To Tweet
Before continuing, I’d like to throw out the necessary caveat that when it comes to nutrition: it’s quality – quantity – timing. Although I’m discussing the timing component of the equation, I’m in no way trying to make it sound like this is more important than what you take in over the totality of an entire day.
Caveats aside, to better grasp pregame nutrition, it’s first better to understand where athletes usually go wrong.
Standard Advice and Where It Goes Wrong
Okay, time to help show you how not to screw in the lightbulb. The four most significant things people tend to get wrong are:
- Excessive digestive obligation.
- Harmful supplements.
- Missing nutrients.
There are others, but generally speaking, these are the largest, most frequent blind spots I encounter. Let’s break down each one.
We’ve all heard people who say they perform better on a light stomach, right? There’s nothing wrong with that, but the reality is you’re still expected to perform at a high clip or match a certain level of intensity in training to get quality work in. A lot of people understandably eat lightly before games but inadvertently undernourish themselves.
This is similar to when people go on a diet. They aim to cut calories but inadvertently cut nutrition as well—often opting for foods based purely on macro and/or caloric metrics without paying attention to foods that net them the highest nutrient load at the same time. The pre-training or pre-competition window is essentially an extension of this. The way around this is to consume foods with a high nutritional yield and minimal digestive obligation.Carbohydrate-wise, fruit juice is an ideal source as it contains vital nutrients (including electrolytes), takes minimal energy and time to be assimilated, and is put to use for glycogen loading. Click To Tweet
What does this look like in practice? Protein-wise, it is something akin to collagen or gelatin powder. If you need something more solid, try eggs, a tin of wild-caught oysters, or shredded or ground meat. Carbohydrate-wise, fruit juice is an ideal source as it contains vital nutrients (including electrolytes), takes minimal energy and time to be assimilated, and is put to use for glycogen loading. Orange juice, watermelon water, and grape juice are all excellent options.
2. Excessive Digestive Obligations
The flip side to the previous point is that it is also true most athletes won’t do well on a “heavier stomach,” performance-wise. Why is this? Well, think about the slang terms for your autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic branch is known for its role in the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. And the opposite? The parasympathetic branch, which is better known for its “rest and digest” roles. This isn’t merely a rhyme—it’s quite literally a state in which we rest and DIGEST.
Where we run into problems is that training and competition necessitate a certain level of sympathetic arousal. If we eat a meal with a heavy digestive obligation too close to this window, we’re probably making it more difficult for our digestive system to do its job from a neurological perspective. Keep in mind that our guts—and our digestive systems—are intimately intertwined with our nervous systems. This is why certain conditions, disease states, and symptoms are referred to as neuroimmune disorders.
This should make sense at some level, as stress is frequently observed to cause digestive problems and vice versa—it’s a two-way street. So, by the same token, gut dysfunction can hypothetically limit neurological efficiency downstream. This means it can potentially limit performance.
Thankfully, the recommendation here would be to piggyback on the last point and opt for foods with a high nutritional yield relative to the work required to digest them.
Those who’ve followed my work know that I generally recommend choosing foods based on the digestion > absorption > utilization model. In other words, if a food can be easily digested, it can be better absorbed by the digestive system. Once assimilated, it can be better utilized in the system for whatever biochemical chain reactions are necessary after that. This pre-workout digestion consideration is definitely an extension of these ideas (originally coined by nutritionist Ronnie Smith of Energy Concepts).
3. Harmful Supplements
This one is pretty straightforward but may be the most frequently made mistake of the four. Most supplements have some combination of poor ingredient sourcing, limited bioavailability, and/or potentially harmful ingredients.
Often, athletes opt for pre-workout supplements that contain non-efficacious doses of the ingredients that actually could do something and rely on strange stimulants that trick you into thinking they’re doing something. Historically, some of these have even been amphetamine derivatives.Almost every marketed “pre-workout” formula is probably underdosed in the good ingredients and overdosed in the stimulant department. An effective pre-workout is best done as a DIY cocktail. Click To Tweet
Other harmful ingredients can include sweeteners, food dyes, excipients, citric acid, and the like. I do realize there is some debate about these ingredients and to what extent they’re problematic. That said, additives and their potential downstream consequences could be an entire article unto itself. My general rule of thumb is to evaluate each one on its own merits and make an individual judgment call.
Personally, I don’t recommend being a total hypochondriac if something sneaks in once in a blue moon. That said, I do advocate controlling what variables you can, and if you’re going to take (or eat) something on a near-daily or weekly basis, it probably should be pretty damn clean. I don’t recommend purchasing supplements with artificial sweeteners, most natural sweeteners, food dyes, citric acid, gums, stabilizers, fibers, excipients, and beyond.
Now, I’m not saying don’t take anything pre-workout. I’m merely saying that almost every “pre-workout” formula on the market is probably underdosed in the good ingredients and overdosed in the stimulant department. That doesn’t mean there aren’t helpful things to take. It’s just that an effective pre-workout is best done as a DIY cocktail. The good news is that this probably makes it more cost-effective in the long run than many of these “hypebeast” products—more on specific options later.
4. Missing Nutrients
This one is also pretty simple. Most athletes have biological blind spots when it comes to pre-workout nutrition because they’re unaware of certain nutrients or supplemental ergogenics that can be of huge value to them.
For example, most have no idea a common household item they likely already have—baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)—has been shown to noticeably improve performance in explosive activities, like sprinting. Rinse and repeat for nutrient or supplement X, Y, or Z.
This can also be thought of in a more basic sense. Many people believe they lack cardiovascular conditioning or endurance capacity, but in reality, they’re just incredibly underdosed on carbohydrates.Most athletes have biological blind spots when it comes to pre-workout nutrition because they’re unaware of certain nutrients or supplemental ergogenics that can be of huge value to them. Click To Tweet
When striving for high performance, we often overfocus on the training end of the equation while neglecting the adaptive side of the equation (diet, sleep, light). However, optimizing our performance physiology that underpins these athletic outputs can be worth its weight in gold in the long run.
What to Do: Pre-Workout Considerations
Although I go into more detail in my book, Adaptive Nutrition, consider the following an incredibly basic, pared-down starting point.
Pregame Protein: As mentioned before, protein consumed relatively close to game time or pre-workout (immediately to an hour out) may look something like collagen or gelatin protein (bone broth works, too), a tin of wild-caught oysters or shellfish, eggs, or a not ultra-filling amount of ground or shredded meat (e.g., ground beef or shredded chicken).
My recommendation for most people is to opt for the collagen, gelatin, or bone broth. I go into how to identify quality sources in the book’s guide, but essentially, you’ll want to look for a supplement without artificial sweeteners and most natural sweeteners. You won’t want other ingredients in it for the most part (these are usually just marketing hype), and you’ll want to look for some type of stamp of regulation on the package (NSF Certified for Sport®, for example). That doesn’t mean all NSF or accreditation X supplements are well-engineered, but it’s a helpful starting point for the sake of this article.
Fueling-Friendly Carbs: Ideal carbohydrates may look something like a spoon or two of raw honey, fruit juice (e.g., orange, watermelon, grape, mango), or fruit (e.g., banana, blueberries, strawberries, dried fruit). Vegetables should mostly be avoided during this window because they come with a greater digestive obligation and minimal performance benefit as they usually contain less glucose.
Fat in Focus: Whatever fat comes along for the ride on your protein source is fine, but we’re not intentionally trying to add fat during this window. This is because it’s not a readily available energy source, and high amounts of it may prolong the collective digestion of the food we eat. That doesn’t mean you should fear it during the rest of your day, though.
Focused Nutrition and Ergogenic Aids: I go into more baseline pre-workout supplements as well as more advanced considerations in my book and recommendations on my site, but the following represents a solid start.
- Creatine: In addition to collagen or gelatin, creatine is a tried-and-true pre-workout ergogenic. While most pre-workout supplements have a non-efficacious (underdosed) amount, taking a full serving (usually 5g) of creatine with sugar can help support strength outputs, endurance, explosiveness, and recovery.
- Sodium Bicarbonate: CO2 is actually highly protective, promotes cell stability, and shouldn’t be feared. Pregame baking soda is a remarkably cheap way to improve performance and recovery and prevent pH perturbations in tissues.
- Electrolytes: Although you should primarily be getting your electrolytes from food, electrolyte supplementation may be useful in some cases to match depletions caused by the stress of training. Electrolyte supplements vary wildly in their formulations, so consult a professional to ensure you’re not throwing off your mineral patterns. I have a few recommendations on my site that match ideal mineral ratios.
- Coffee/Caffeine: Although I may have shot down most pre-workout supplements earlier, that was not meant to be a shot at stimulants. (There are just more ideal sources.) Pregame coffee with the aforementioned glucose from carbs and a splash of cream or milk can be an excellent natural ergogenic aid. Caffeine essentially acts as a surrogate for thyroid hormone, providing us with a ton of clean energy.
Caffeine is also a great CNS energetic and has been shown to improve cognitive fitness during tasks as well as physical outputs. Moreover, it may help us more effectively utilize carbohydrates as fuel. Coffee is also a phenomenal source of nutrients, including magnesium. Just don’t be the person who gets their caffeine from energy drinks, as these usually contain poorly sourced ingredients and/or potentially harmful additives.
There are certainly other options, but these represent an excellent starting point.
Please keep in mind that these considerations don’t include supplements that may be more foundational (like vitamin D) but are just not commonly used around training windows. They are also nonspecific, meaning they aren’t meant to be prescriptive and may vary depending on the individual.
Timing: Let me start by saying that doing what makes you feel best is the right call. If you’re someone who feels best eating a regular-sized meal further away from your game (say 1–2 hours) and being a minimalist around your training/game—that’s totally cool. I would just qualify that by encouraging you to experiment during non-critical times (training, practice, preseason games, scrimmages) to also see if some of these recommendations move the needle in a positive direction for you.
The research hasn’t quite settled on an exact time here—likely due to different sporting demands, gut-brain (neuroimmune) differences between athletes, and more—but these light pre-training meals can be consumed anywhere between 15 minutes and one hour out from competition. Additional carbohydrate load in the form of fruit juice (possibly mixed with electrolytes) may improve performance in-game and/or at halftime.
Quantity: This may be the trickiest of all recommendations due to variables in muscle mass, body weight, sporting demands, training/competition duration, current metabolic status (e.g., “fast” or “slow”), and more. In the context of the above examples, approximately 25g–40g of protein from one of the above lighter sources is likely sufficient. Fat is whatever comes along for the ride on your protein source, but to be clear, there aren’t any fat goals you need to hit. (I just wouldn’t be adding additional fat sources like nuts, seeds, oils, or avocado during this time.)
Carbs can have the largest functional range. You’ll likely want at least 30g–50g, possibly upwards of 100g, starting pregame all the way through intra-workout. As I mentioned, this is context-dependent, and the more muscle mass you have, the longer training/playing is, the more explosive the task demands—the more you’ll be on the higher side of that range.
A good rule of thumb is paying attention to how you feel pre-, during, and post-workout to gauge whether you should increase or decrease your carbohydrate load. Consistent patterns of fatigue, inability to turn on and change gears, weakness, and cognitive sluggishness would indicate potentially higher needs (or perhaps a nutrient deficiency elsewhere). Feeling bloated when performing could indicate a need to lower your intake and/or choose a more agreeable food source, potentially with a lighter food volume.
Keep in mind that pregame coffee also helps you better metabolize your carb sources. Even just that combo of coffee and sugar from fruit juice can be a huge win for many athletes.
Hopefully, this mini guide has helped demonstrate the main ways athletes tend to go wrong when deciding what to supplement with before training or competition while also helping to progress the way we think about pre-workout nutrition.
The reality is we can learn a lot from the fundamentals—what not to do as well as what low-hanging fruit (no pun intended) we can easily course-correct for a high return on investment.
I also acknowledge that because of cost and logistical reasons (e.g., collegiate meal plans), athletes may be limited in what they can pull off in the nutrition department. In such a case, remember that doing something is always better than doing nothing. Do what you can with what you have.Remember that doing something is always better than doing nothing. Do what you can with what you have, says @rewirehp. Click To Tweet
Thankfully, pregame nutrition can be fairly simple and straightforward with easily implemented habits you can get started with right away.
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Abbreviated References/Further Reading
Coffee Supporting Exercise or Sports Performance
- Grgic J, Trexler ET, Lazinica B, and Pedisic Z. “Effects of caffeine intake on muscle strength and power: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2018;15(1):11.
- Pickering C and Grgic J. “Caffeine and Exercise: What Next?” Sports Medicine. 2019;49(7):1007–1030.
- Hodgson AB, Randell RK, and Jeukendrup AE. “The metabolic and performance effects of caffeine compared to coffee during endurance exercise.” PLoS ONE. 2013;8(4):e59561.
Creatine Improving Performance
- Hultman E, Söderlund K, Timmons JA, Cederblad G, and Greenhaff PL. “Muscle creatine loading in men.” Journal of Applied Physiology. 1996;81(1):232–237.
- Rawson ES and Volek JS. “Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2003;17(4):822–831.
- Kreider RB. “Effects of creatine supplementation on performance and training adaptations.” Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. 2003;244(1–2):89–94.
Baking Soda Improving Exercise Performance
- McNaughton L and Cedaro R. “Sodium bicarbonate ingestion and its effects on anaerobic exercise of various durations.” The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 1992;32(3):240–245.
- Carr AJ, Slater GJ, and Gore CJ. “Effect of sodium bicarbonate on [HCO3−], pH, and gastrointestinal symptoms.” International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2011;21(3):189–194.
- Siegler JC, Marshall PW, and Bray J. “Tolerance to sodium bicarbonate ingestion: a review.” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 2015;10(1):28–34.
Electrolytes Improving Performance
- Shirreffs SM, Taylor AJ, Leiper JB, and Maughan RJ. “Post-exercise rehydration in man: effects of electrolyte addition to ingested fluids.” European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. 1996;73(3–4):317–325.
- Maughan RJ, Leiper JB, and Shirreffs SM. “Restoration of fluid balance after exercise-induced dehydration: effects of alcohol consumption.” Journal of Applied Physiology. 1997;83(4):1152–1158.
- Casa DJ, Clarkson PM, and Roberts WO. “American College of Sports Medicine roundtable on hydration and physical activity: consensus statements.” Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2005;4(3):115–127.
Collagen Protein Improving Tendon Health
- Shaw G and Lee-Barthel A. “Ross M. Purves lecture: therapeutic targeting of the athlete’s tendon.” Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology. 2016;94(10):1085–1091.
- Dressler P, Gehring D, Zdzieblik D, Oesser S, and Gollhofer A. “Acute effects of collagen peptides on blood pressure and arterial function in young healthy subjects.” Amino Acids. 2018;50(8):1015–1025.
- Zdzieblik D, Oesser S, Baumstark MW, Gollhofer A, and König D. “Collagen peptide supplementation in combination with resistance training improves body composition and increases muscle strength in elderly sarcopenic men: a randomised controlled trial.” British Journal of Nutrition. 2015;114(8):1237–1245.
Pre-workout Carbohydrate Intake and Sports Performance
- Hawley JA and Burke LM. “Carbohydrate availability and training adaptation: effects on cell metabolism.” Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. 1995; 25(1):1–29.
- Nicholas CW, Green PA, Hawkins RD, and Williams C. “Carbohydrate intake and recovery of intermittent running capacity.” International Journal of Sport Nutrition. 1997;7(4):251–260.
- Krustrup P and Ortenblad N. “Metabolic support of exercise training in humans: potential impact on performance in competitive sports.” The Journal of Physiology. 2015;593(20):4643–4659.
Pre-workout Nutrition Improves Sports Performance or Exercise Output
- Cermak NM, van Loon LJ, and Gibala MJ. “Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise.” American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2012;302(12):E1527–E1535.
- Stellingwerff T and Cox GR. “Systematic review: Carbohydrate supplementation on exercise performance or capacity of varying durations.” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2014;39(9):998–1011.
- Burke LM and Deakin V. Clinical Sports Nutrition (4th ed.). 2010: McGraw-Hill.
Fruit Juice or Fruit and Its Impact on Exercise Performance
- Karp JR, Johnston JD, Tecklenburg S, Mickleborough TD, Fly AD, and Stager JM. “Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid.” International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2006;16(1):78–91.
- McAnulty SR et al. “Consumption of blueberry polyphenols reduces exercise-induced oxidative stress compared to vitamin C.” Nutrition Research. 2011;31(11):161–168.
- Davison G and Gleeson M. “The Effect of 14 Days of Fasting and Different Recoveries on Body Composition, Performance, and Hormonal Responses in CrossFit-Trained Men.” International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2019;29(1):1–10.
- Jones AM and Burnley M. “Oxygen uptake kinetics: an underappreciated determinant of exercise performance.” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 2009;4(4):524–532.
- Noakes TD. “Physiological models to understand exercise fatigue and the adaptations that predict or enhance athletic performance.” Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2009;10(3):123–145.
- Brooks GA. “Mammalian fuel utilization during sustained exercise.” Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part B: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. 1998;120(1):89–107.
- Robergs RA, Ghiasvand F, and Parker D. “Biochemistry of exercise-induced metabolic acidosis.” American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. 2004;287(3):R502–R516.
- Gastin PB and Lawson DL. “Influence of training status on maximal oxygen uptake response to ramp and square wave work load changes in trained cyclists.” European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. 1994;68(1):33–41.