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What to take before a workout? A science-based approach

What should you take before you workout?

There are lots of different studies around the various forms of pre-workout supplementation and food intake. In my opinion – backed by the wide variability in what I‘ve read – it can’t be the same for everyone, and you need to test what works for you.

That’s because of the difference in each person’s rate of metabolism, the structure of their metabolic pathways, and how their body absorbs nutrients.

But nevertheless, I have found certain nutrients and methods that are consistent across (almost) all studies as beneficial to everyone to take before they workout. So carry on with me as we follow the path of proving and disproving the theories that you hear all too often, and I will list the most important methods below to give you a clearer understanding of what to take, when to take it and why it can help you.


Before exercise, it’s very beneficial to have a good rest and lots of water [1]. The role water plays in your regular exercise regimen is very important and should not be dismissed casually. Therefore it is important to ensure that you are properly hydrated before you start your workout to minimise the risk of dehydration during exercise.

Mild dehydration can easily result in early fatigue as your body is unable to cool itself efficiently, which then puts extra stress on the heart and lungs. The sooner you fatigue, the less you’ll be able to get out of your workout.

Water is essential and yet it is often overlooked. It is a major component of your body and, when not at optimal hydration, your entire body performs less effectively. Water makes up 50-75% of your body weight and to function properly, every organ requires it. Water assists in absorption, excretion, circulation, digestion and is a staple part of all chemical changes in the body. Remember: without water, you die!

Food Standards Guidelines recommend drinking 6-8 glasses or cups each day to achieve good hydration; that’s 1.5-2L of water a day.

Before your workout, ACSM (The American College of Sports Medicine) recommends drinking between 2-4 glasses or 400-600ml of water 2-3 hours before your workout. The best way to do this is by sipping at regular intervals instead of drinking it all in one go, as keeping hydrated throughout the day ensures you’re always performing optimally.


(Take 1-2 hours before workout to allow time to digest)

Despite what you may have heard: Carbohydrates are still king for energy.

But when it comes to exercise that lasts more than 10 seconds, jelly babies and apples won’t quite cut it. You’ll need thicker, starchier carbohydrate foods (oats, wholemeal bread, white rice and whole wheat pasta).

Now that you have a slower digesting carbs source (as outlined above), it is also beneficial to have a small but sufficient source of fast-digesting carbs to kick-start your workout. Fruit is always a good option as it gives you the opportunity to up your micronutrient intake simultaneously. I usually recommend a banana as it has 23g of carbohydrates per 100g and it’s very fast-processed so it will kick in right away.

Train low compete high

Train with low carbohydrate nutrition and compete with high carbohydrate; that’s what the theory is.

Carbohydrates are a substrate for the muscle and central nervous system, and are critical for the performance of intermittent training methods (resistance training, team sports, HIIT, etc). Lots of studies show that an intake of carbohydrates before, during or after exercise helps to gain better results due to of higher performance output.

Initial recommendations for a high carb, low fat diet have been battled with over recent years and finally we have the answer everyone was expecting: no more “one size fits all” recommendation for high-carbohydrates.

In just the same way, it has been suggested that athletes should have a low carbohydrate diet when in training, but refuel before competitions to maximize efficiency and effect of carbohydrates when the high energy intake spikes, but the evidence was never found to prove that these strategies enhance performance. [2]

We now take an individualized approach to fueling needs based on the person’s body and training routine.

Fast acting

Caffeine- Always rumored but no one ever really knew if it was true that a coffee pre-workout will improve performance and output in the long run. Studies now show that a dose of caffeine will improve strength performance. This is because, with caffeine in your system, you can’t feel as much pain in the muscle while exercising and will therefore be able to train further into fatigue. When working in the 6-12 rep range, around 60% 1 rep max, 11-12% greater workload can be achieved with an oral dose of 6mg/kg bodyweight [3].

Caffeine can also increase your heart rate, so you need to be careful with it. People with hypertension (high blood pressure) or low caffeine tolerance need to be careful and see doctors before thinking of taking caffeine before a workout.

It’s also worth noting that caffeine is not a fuel, only a stimulant, and you should always ensure you are fully fueled for the exercise you have planned.

There are also many other supplements that people use before working out; most of them bogus, but some actually hold up to their claim when tested. Below, I’ve listed a few pre-workout supplements that have been shown to be effective and beneficial (each with it’s own study to back it):

-BCAA [4]

-Creatine [5]

-Beta aline [6]

Just note that I looked into about 30 different pre-workout supplements and these were the only ones I found to be effective, so if something you’re taking isn’t on that little list, you might want to research what you’re consuming. (or you can ask me directly and I’ll do the graft work for you)

Testing the Truth

If you keep digging into the research, you’ll see that these methods are effective 95% of the time (for example). This means that every 20th person didn’t find any benefit from the supplement. This is why it’s crucial that you don’t just take what’s on paper as the hard truth. If you decide to make any changes to your diet or supplementation; test it.

It’s the only way you’ll know if something actually worked. Here’s a simple method of testing that you can use:

1. Record every detail of your current position and rate of progress (sleep quality, energy levels, training volume, dietary intake, etc) over the course of at least a week.

2. Add the change into your routine, keeping every other variable exactly the same.

3. Monitor every difference that occurs over the course of two weeks of this testing period.

4. Keep or ditch based on how effective it was.

Use that and you’ll be able to know if the truth on paper is the truth for you.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, I hope you manage to put this to good use.

And remember, if you have any questions about any of this or something similar, email me on or follow our Facebook page for more information and advice!

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