Pre-Training Nutrition for Sport and Fitness

Pre-Training Nutrition for Sport and Fitness

Pre-Training Nutrition for Sport and Fitness

By: James Richardson, Sports dietitian, RD(c), BScFN, JM Nutrition Team of registered dietitians and nutritionists


Many of our clients seek the assistance of our sports nutritionists for pre-training nutrition. Reason being, many look to improve their pre-workout diet. Pre-workout nutrition optimization is no doubt key to improved athletic performance. As such, we feel it’s important to address the topic in some depth.


So how do you determine if your pre-workout nutrition is an area that requires some attention?

The below questions can perhaps guide to a clear-cut conclusion:

Are you an athlete or someone who exercises regularly and often feel like you have low energy going into workouts?

Or do you cramp often during games, practices or other forms of exercise?

You could even find that you feel excessively sore and drained the following day after a hard workout, even though you follow a seemingly adequate diet.

If any of these pertain to you, your current pre-training nutrition could contribute to these negative effects.

Pre-training nutrition is an important part of sports nutrition that is overlooked by many active individuals. The key to understand here is that your needs are unique to you. And, by aligning your nutrition with them, you can better take control of your performance.

In this post, we will take a look at what is pre-training nutrition timing. We will then outline the benefits of practicing it. Last, we will provide a framework that shows how to actually do it.

We will also highlight some other effective tips for pre-workout nutrition.


Pre-Training Nutrition: What is it and Why Does it Matter?

You may now be asking yourself what exactly is pre-training nutrition.

Pre-training nutrition is, quite literally, as it sounds, nutrition before training or exercise.

This practice gained a great deal of traction in the early 2000s, when the idea of “nutrition timing” was thought to maximize an athlete’s performance. Since then, this concept has been critically researched and tested to become cemented as a core nutrition principle for anyone looking to optimize their performance for fitness and sport.

The International Society of Sport describes nutrition timing as the methodical planning and eating of whole foods, fortified foods, and dietary supplements at planned times throughout the day to impact the body’s response to acute and chronic exercise (Kerksick et al., 2017).

Consequently, we will focus on the pre-training nutrition part of nutrition timing. We will then explain how to tailor your pre-workout nutrition to take advantage of its many benefits, such as:

  • Decreased fatigue 
  • Increased strength and power 
  • Increased endurance
  • Improved recovery
  • Increased muscle gain
  • Increased reaction time
  • Improved cognitive function

(Dietitians of Canada, 2016) (Kerksick et al., 2017) (Wildman et al., 2010)

Considering how impactful pre-training nutrition can be on an individual’s performance, it is no wonder why it is held in such high regard when it comes to maximized performance and effective workouts.


Carbohydrates–Fuel for the Work Required:

No pre-workout nutrition tips list would be complete without a close look at the role of carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates reign as the king of pre-training fuel. Countless studies have consistently shown carbs to be our body’s preferred and most efficient energy source. This is especially true for endurance and ultra-endurance sports.

How many carbs should I consume?

Generally, an intake of 1-4g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight taken in 1-4 hours before exercise is a range that can be applied to most forms of strenuous exercise that plan to last longer than an hour (Dietitians of Canada, 2016).

The downfall of this range, however, is that it has a very wide margin. You will need to identify two other factors to better predict how many carbohydrates to have.

These are:

1. Know the type of training/sport that you will be doing (e.g., endurance sports such as cross country or cycling, ultra-endurance sports such as marathons or triathlons, “stop-and-go sports” such as hockey or soccer, strength training, or light cardio).

2. How long before you start will you be able to ingest the pre-training snack/meal.

Once you have identified the answers to these questions, you can better plan how many carbohydrates you should have within the 4 hours before.

So let’s review the different scenarios to these questions and their impact on the carbohydrate ranges.

Type of sport:

This point is critical.

Ultra-Endurance sports such as marathons or triathlons require the most carbohydrates with the upper end of the range of 3-4g/kg.

Endurance and “stop and start” sports such as swimming or hockey don’t need quite as much, so aiming around 2-3g/kg would be better suited.

Strength/resistance training requires the least, ranging from 0.5-2 g of carbohydrates, depending on how long and hard you will be training.

Aim to have a daily intake of 6-10g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight over the course of the day, spaced out between meals and snacks. This is considered optimal for most athletes (Dietitians of Canada, 2016).

Related: Swimmers’ Nutrition Myths

Time before training:

Considering how long before you start training is extremely important. Reason being, it’s important to ensure your body has the optimal amount of time to digest the food you eat. This is not only to maximize energy levels, but also to reduce the risk of GI issues such as nausea, cramping, or vomiting (Wildman et al., 2010).

Below is a general guideline to refer to:

  • > 3-4 hours before training: This is when you have enough time to digest a big and complete meal full of protein, carbohydrates, fats and fibre. If you compete in an intense sport or doing hard training later in the day, aim to have 60-65% of your meal consist of complex carbohydrates. This can include rice, potatoes or bread.


  • 1-2 hours before training: It’s recommended to stick to a small meal. This can mainly consist of carbohydrates with minimal fat and fibre. Aim for around 1-1.5g/kg or 60-90g of carbohydrates. This could look like two pieces of white bread with a tbsp of honey. A fruit or a bowl of oatmeal sweetened with maple syrup and berries can also be added. 


  • <1 hour before training: With minimal time, it is best to avoid meals. Stick to around 30-50g of simple carbohydrates (sugar) with very little or no fat and fibre to minimize the risk of GI upsets. This could be a low-fibre fruit such as a banana, a sports drink or crispy rice bars.


  • Generally, if the exercise lasts less than 45 minutes and isn’t overly strenuous (e.g., light cardio, light-moderate weight lifting), you don’t need to consume many carbohydrates beforehand. It is recommended, however, to have a small amount of 20-30g to help ensure the best performance possible.


Protein–Not Only for After Workouts:

This is an important, yet sometimes overlooked pre-training nutrition tip.

Protein is most typically correlated with post-training nutrition and recovery.

Many studies, however, have shown a positive effect on performance and recovery following training when a small amount of protein, 0.2-0.5 g/kg, is consumed with pre-training carbohydrates (Kerksick et al., 2017).

Doing so can increase the absorption of carbohydrates to be used by the body for energy. It can also reduce the catabolic effect (breakdown) on muscles during prolonged training. What’s more, it assists with recovery following exercise (Kerksick et al., 2017).

Ideally, you would still want the protein source to be either fat-free or low in fat. This is because fat and fibre slow digestion and can lead to GI upsets or feelings of sluggishness.

Some great sources of protein to work into a pre-training snack are:

  • ½ cup 0% fat Greek yogurt
  • 1 cup skim milk
  • Half a chicken breast
  • 100g of tofu
  • ½ scoop of protein powder mixed with water

*Note that you should always experiment with new pre-training workout foods on practice days instead of competition days to gauge GI tolerance.


Hydration–Don’t Play Catch Up:

Hydration is another significant pre-training nutrition area that requires delving into.

It is no secret that proper hydration is important for anyone who exercises. Reason being, being even slight dehydration can significantly decrease athletic performance, cognitive function and the risk of cramps and injuries (Dietitians of Canada, 2016).

Related: Why You Should Drink Water

Given how crucial hydration is, it would be far from ideal for anyone to go into training or a sporting event already dehydrated, and then play catch up during training. The reason for this is that if you drink fluids too quickly, you may experience adverse effects.

Aim to drink 5-10ml/kg of your body weight 2-4 hours before training to achieve a pale yellow colour to your urine. Urine colour is a reflection of hydration status. As such, it’s a great gauge to ensure you are properly hydrated before an event or training (Dietitians of Canada, 2016).

If you eat foods with a moderate amount of sodium during your pre-training snack, you can also help increase the amount of water your body will store.

However, a consistent intake of fluid throughout the day will always be the most effective way to ensure you are properly hydrated. Active men should aim to take in 3 litres of fluid per day. Active women, on the other hand, should aim for 2.2 litres per day.

Keep in mind that fluid goals include other forms of liquids such as coffee or juices. That said, water should be your fluid of choice most often.


Pre-Training or Pre-Workout Nutrition Tips:

Below are some other helpful tips to achieve optimal pre-training nutrition to help improve your workouts and performance:

1. Keep high-carbohydrate snacks (such as granola bars and fruit) in your gym bag or work bags. This will help ensure you always have some way of getting in a quick pre-training snack.

2. Because everyone is different, it’s important to experiment with what works best for you and your body. In fact, this is key to be able to achieve your pre-training nutrition goals. As always, personalization is of utmost importance.

3. Caffeine can be a useful tool to reduce perceived fatigue and increase alertness before training. However, don’t overuse it or take very large doses. If you use it too often, you will likely reduce its effectiveness. In addition, if you take in too much, you can experience adverse effects such as an GI issues and nervousness.

4. Don’t rely on pre-workout supplements for your pre-training nutrition. They usually lack carbohydrates and protein. They are also loaded with unnecessary ingredients, not backed by scientific literature. It is better to stick with what we know works and is safe for your health.

5. Stay away from an excess of simple carbohydrates more than 2 hours before training. Doing so can cause your blood sugars to spike too quickly and crash before you get the chance to use all that energy.

More than 2 hours away from training, it is better to have more complex carbohydrates. Reason being, they are digested over a longer period of time. Less than 2 hours from training time is a great time to focus more on simple carbohydrates because your body can use these more quickly.

6. The foods you eat throughout the day will always have a greater overall impact on your performance than the food you eat right before. Make sure you eat a high carbohydrate diet full of a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein sources is optimal for any active individual.

Pre-Training Nutrition Final Thoughts

To understand the right amount of pre-training carbohydrates, protein, and fluids tailored to your specific needs can be a complicated task.

For this reason it’s important to spend the extra time to make a concise plan. Doing so can improve your performance, recovery and fitness goals progression.

What you eat most of the time, however, is always more impactful than what you eat some of the time.

For adequate overall nutrition, active adults should eat 6-10g/kg carbohydrates, 1.2-2g/kg of protein, and around 15-30% of their intake coming from healthy fats. These should be spaced out between at least three meals and at least 2-3 snacks throughout the day (Dietitians of Canada, 2016).

Working with a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition is a great way to ensure you adequately fuel yourself throughout the day and before training, based on your unique life and needs.

Below are generalized amounts for carbohydrates and protein that you can use if you are unable to calculate your specific needs at this time:

  • 3-4 hours before: 100-150g of carbohydrates with 30-40 g of protein
  • 1-2 hours before: 60-90g of carbohydrates with low fat and fibre and 20-30g of protein
  • <1 hour before: 20-50g of simple carbohydrates with no or minimal fat and fibre with 10-15g of protein



We hope that this information pertaining to pre-workout nutrition has been of some help.

If you’re interested in a nutritional counselling for strength training, pre-training nutrition support (or post), or any other fitness and performance goal, book a free consultation and we will gladly lend a hand. 


Other Related & Popular Posts:

How to Build Muscle and Lose Fat

Strength Training Diet Myths and Misconceptions

Endurance Athletes Nutrition Misconceptions

Diving Deep: 10 Nutrition Myths for Swimmers Busted

Soccer Nutrition


References and Resources

1. 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(1).

2. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. (2016). Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research, 77(1), 54–54.

3. Wildman, R., Kerksick, C., & Campbell, B. (2010). Carbohydrates, physical training, and sport performance. Strength &amp; Conditioning Journal, 32(1), 21–29.


James Richardson is a Prince Edward Island native and a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist who provides individualized support for a wide variety of individual and team sport athletes, including endurance, strength trainers and those involved in combat sports, as well as those looking for weight loss help. James also provides services to the residents of Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

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JM Nutrition is a nutritional counselling service by registered dietitians and nutritionists. Main office: JM Nutrition Toronto.

Author: Julie Mancuso

Julie Mancuso

Julie Mancuso is a graduate of the University of Toronto, founder and owner of JM Nutrition, a nutritional counselling service by registered dietitians and nutritionists. For 15+ years, JM Nutrition has helped thousands reach their health, wellness and nutrition goals. Julie and her team regularly lend their expertise to a variety of health publications such as Reader's Digest, Livestrong, Business Insider, Food Network, Today's Parent, MyFitnessPal, Toronto Star, Elle Magazine, Best Life, Weight Watchers and many more.