What you eat before you train directly impacts your performance. The nutrients from food are literally fueling your energy output, powering your muscles and charging up your brain.

Nutrient timing can have a positive or negative effect on your training and recovery. Get it right, and you’ll reap the benefits. Get it wrong, and you’re sluggishly trudging along through training. Most of us have heard of the post-workout protein shake, but eating well before your workouts will really make the most of your nutrition.

The Anatomy of a Pre-workout – Protein, Creatine, and Carbs

In order to maximize your nutrition, a pre-workout should accomplish five goals:

  1. Energy sustenance
  2. Performance enhancement
  3. Hydration
  4. Muscle mass preservation
  5. Strengthen recovery

Energy Sustenance

Pre-workout protein and carb mixes have been shown to increase performance. Additionally, protein consumption pre-workout can reduce the amount of muscle tissue used as fuel.

Why? Well, if you’ve just given your body readily-available amino acids, it’s going to use those rather than dig deep into muscle.

The preferred source of energy for exercise will always be carbohydrate. So, make sure to get a bit of simple carbs in your pre-workout meal as well. Protein will slow down the absorption of those carbs slightly so you can use that fuel as an extended release throughout your session.

However, we all have an anaerobic threshold – the point where lactic acid builds up in the muscle so much that fatigue sets in. As a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism, this acidic effect occurs during high intensity training. A pre-workout with pH buffers, such as beta alanine, sodium bicarbonate, or glutamine helps shuttle the lactic acid away from your muscles. The result? An ability to sustain really high intensity output for longer.

Performance Enhancement

The best pre-workouts take these performance enhancements a few steps further.  By targeting the final energy system – the creatine phosphate cycle – they elevate maximal power and strength output. Think quick, explosive sprints, tackles, jumps, and one-rep max lifts. Even further, pre-workouts with excitatory amino acids signal quicker reaction time and alertness.


Pre-workout creatine supplementation adds extra fuel to the fire. You already have phosphocreatine stores in your muscles, but it runs out quickly in favor of longer-lasting energy sources. Yet the more you can supplement before training, the more use you get out of this system, and the less you take from others.

Studies note that creative supplementation raises anabolic hormone levels and reduces protein breakdown. Add that to the already improved metabolic effect from above, and the results stack up.

Amino Acids

Athlete’s value of focused intensity. It’s the difference between sinking a game-winner or getting hit in the head with the pass. You can’t be too relaxed, but you can’t be too excited and uptight. Threonine, an amino acid found in some pre-workouts, can produce neurotransmitters to both excite and inhibit your nervous system. Basically, it balances you out to keep you in the sweet spot.

In the same vein, tyrosine yields the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. You may have heard of these guys, as they are crucial to alertness and game awareness. The brain is full of phenylalanine, the precursor to tyrosine, to build it up for this exact reason. Yet most pre-workout supplements skip that step and get right to the good stuff.

Finally, lots of good pre-workouts include arginine. If you see this on the label, get ready to stimulate nitric oxide (NO). Arginine’s conversion to citrulline leads to nitric oxide as a byproduct. The simple presence of NO stimulates calcium release, which your nervous system uses for muscle contractions. It’s also a fantastic vasodilator, enhancing blood flow to your muscles so they can get to work.


You’ve heard it all your life, and, yes, water really is that important. Water serves as the catalyst for tons of metabolic reactions, regulates temperature, and plays vital roles in protein and glycogen synthesis.

Athletes are pretty bad at noticing when they’re dehydrated. Often, thirst doesn’t even register until 1-2% of bodyweight in water is lost. A general guideline to make sure you don’t get dehydrated is drinking 30-40 ml/kg of bodyweight throughout the day. But even then, sweat loss during competition leaks electrolytes, causing the water to basically flow right through us.

A good pre-workout supplement focuses on hydration. That’s why all of your sports drinks have electrolytes in them. They really do work.

Muscle Mass Preservation

For one, ingestion of amino acids during exercise can help immune system function. The rest of infection and illness increases after hard workouts. And if you get sick, that can sideline you from training. Check out the long-list of immune benefits that amino acids such as histidine, threonine, and lysine have.

Most importantly, intra-workout protein can shift the body into positive net protein status soon after exercise. The more amino acids you have readily available in the bloodstream, the less you’ll need to borrow from existing tissue. And most of them have accessory function that tips the scale even further in your favor. Leucine, isoleucine, and valine, for example, prevent muscle breakdown and contribute to glucose uptake. Add the prevention in breakdown to the anabolic stimulus of resistance training, and you’ve got a recipe for results.

Strengthening Recovery

Elite athletes are pressured to perform. As such, many train multiple times a day. But you know you’re not hitting the gym as hard when you feel sore and tired. If each session adds a few notches on your total performance capacity, wouldn’t you rather add ten every day than just one or two? At the end of the day, whoever recovers the hardest to put in the best, consistent work will be crowned champion.

BCAA’s regulate the turnover of protein in muscle cells by inhibiting protein breakdown and enhancing protein synthesis. They’re involved in blood sugar regulation, growth hormone production, bone tissue growth and wound healing. In one study looking at plasma insulin, a 221% greater insulin response occurred with a high glycemic carb and a protein hydrolysate containing leucine. A high insulin response around your workouts kick starts muscle growth and prevents breakdown before it begins.


Final Thoughts

If you’re still on the fence about whether a pre-workout can improve sports performance, you clearly didn’t read the article. It absolutely can.

But does that mean it will? You can’t sprinkle a pre-workout on top of a bad diet, poor sleep, and lackadaisical training method and hope for a miracle. Pre-workouts can increase your time until fatigue and your physical output potential. But it takes time, dedication to training, and a winning mentality to step into the arena and execute.

Take your training seriously and don’t expect a pre-workout to be the easy way out. If you do this, taking a pre-workout will pay you in return. You’ll feel like a boss when you’re attacking sessions, and you’ll be primed to dominate.