What you eat before a training session can help you get the most out of your session. Having consistently great training sessions can also potentially carry over to having better long-term outcomes.
Main Meal 2-3 Hours Before Your Session
On average, most people seem to perform best if they have a meal 2-3 hours before training.
This meal typically should be high in carbohydrates and relatively easy to digest. Aiming for lower fibre and lower fat choices can also help a lot of people since doing this will make it digest more quickly.
Additionally, it can also be beneficial to add a decent amount of protein to this meal (~0.4g/kg of body weight, so say 40g for a 100kg individual). This can help minimise muscle protein breakdown during the workout and help to aid muscle protein synthesis post-workout.
Smaller Snack 30-60 minutes before your session
Having a smaller snack as a “top-up” 30-60 minutes before your session can also help too. This could look like having 15-30g of easily digestible carbohydrates. Things like muesli bars or fruit fit great here.
The whole purpose of this is to give your body easy access to carbohydrates as a fuel source, while also trying to feel as good as you can during the session.
For higher intensity exercise, carbohydrates are your best fuel source. Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrate in the body.
As glycogen stores deplete, performance starts to get worse.
Having carbohydrate pre-workout not only helps to add more glycogen and reduce the likelihood of significant depletion, but it also helps to allow the body to utilise more carbohydrates during the session. This is part of why it can help improve performance.
Of course, you can choose to go lower carbohydrate if you like. For maximising your performance within a session though, it makes sense to have a decent portion of your total carbohydrate intake around the time of your workout.
Even being as little as 2% dehydrated (as in your body weight has dropped by 2% due to dehydration) can hurt performance.
It is relatively simple to solve this though. Just make sure you come into each training session well-hydrated.
Drinking based on thirst solves this for most people. But other people need to be more conscious of their hydration levels and drink even when they are not necessarily thirsty.
Your Total Daily Nutrition Comes First
In order of importance, it is worth noting that you should not prioritise pre-workout nutrition above your daily nutrition goals.
For example, if you are trying to reduce calorie intake in a bid to get lean, it may not make sense to have a lot of easily digestible carbohydrates pre-workout, if that takes you over your daily goal.
It makes sense to focus on your total calorie intake, macronutrient intake and micronutrient intake first. Then the next priority would be meal timing, including focusing on things like pre-workout nutrition.
What to Do if You Train Early in the Morning?
Since sleep is so important, it would be silly to sacrifice sleep to try to get in a meal 2-3 hours before your session.
Instead, I would jump straight to having that small snack right before the workout. If it is easily digestible and relatively small, it should not negatively impact performance.
And it is also worth mentioning that fasted training is not the end of the world. You can train fasted. It is not as good for performance in that individual session, but it is still an option. It would be far better to train fasted than it would be to not train at all.
Caffeine can help with a lot of aspects of performance.
Having 1-3mg/kg of caffeine 30-60 minutes before a session can help reduce the rate of perceived effort. For endurance activities, it could directly help improve performance as well.
For strength performance, going even higher up to 5-6mg/kg can directly improve power output as well.
Most people think of caffeine just as an option to “hype” you up, but it literally does improve performance.
As everybody knows though, caffeine late in the day can impact sleep quality and quantity. It makes sense to only utilise caffeine for early sessions under most circumstances to prevent this downside.
Not Every Session Needs Optimised Pre-Workout Nutrition
There are a lot of situations where I might not encourage worrying about pre-workout nutrition.
For people who are not training overly hard, I certainly would not worry about emphasising pre-workout nutrition. I would just make sure you time your food in a way that makes you feel good when you train.
For somebody with type 2 diabetes who required medication, it also probably would not be as advisable to be having a large amount of easily digestible carbohydrates pre-workout either.
Alternatively, there are situations such as the concept of train high, sleep low, where athletes intentionally go into sessions with low levels of glycogen.
This concept is based on the fact that not every session needs to have 100% optimised performance. Training typically is more about outcomes for things like a competition rather than peak performance within a training session.
Arguably, there are some positive adaptations that could come from training in a low-carb state for lower intensity sessions if you are an endurance athlete. But that is a pretty deep topic and not overly relevant for most people.
A lot of the things mentioned in this post need further individualisation. This is just what works best for most people.
One of the biggest factors in pre-workout nutrition is making sure you feel as good as you can during your training session.
For some people, eating 2-3 hours before their session is still too close to their session, and they will feel sick if they go train with food still in their system.
For others, eating 3 hours before might leave them feeling starving and fatigued by the end of their session. Eating 1 hour before might not cause issues.
Trial and error is important. But the advice mentioned above is a great starting point.