In order to make sure to get the most from each workout there are some things you should be doing before you even arrive at the gym. Being properly rested is of course one of them. There is also great value in being mentally focused and prepared to give your all. But one of the most basic, yet often overlooked or misapplied is our approach to pre-workout nutrition. What should you be eating before you go to the gym?
Let’s start by saying that proper nutrition for fitness needs to happen everyday. If you’re not being consistent in feeding yourself ideally in accordance with your goals, no magic pre-workout meal or potion will make a difference. The cumulative effect of poor nutrition cannot be made up for by a short-term approach. That being said, there is a way to eat and properly fuel your body to have the best possible workout.
No matter what your training goals or how you plan to workout, the body will always have a basic need for nutrients. Quite simply, you need food and water. Always make sure you are properly hydrated before you begin to train. You should be drinking regularly throughout the day up until and even throughout your workout period. Sipping water and maintaining your fluid levels is key to maximizing performance. The amount may need to be adjusted dependent upon the type and duration of activity you’re doing, temperature and humidity of your training area, and the amount of fluids you lose due to perspiration and respiration.
Training requires energy and that requires food. Too often people think that food is the enemy, especially when trying to lose weight. But the energy supplied from properly nourishing your body is what will allow you to train with enough intensity to change the way you look. Also, those nutrients will help maintain your metabolism so that your body doesn’t feel the need to store energy and will actually metabolize body fat stores properly.
Your pre-workout meal should consist of a quality protein food, some complex carbohydrates and depending on your type of training, some healthy fats. Protein (amino acids) will assist in both the protection from and repair of muscle tissue breakdown. The body needs protein throughout the day and amino acids (broken down protein) circulate readily in the bloodstream for quick uptake as needed. Carbohydrates store in the muscle and liver as glycogen which are primary energy sources for anaerobic training like lifting weights, sprinting or any high intensity interval work. Slower digesting carb sources that minimally effect the blood sugar will give a more gradual and sustained energy release as opposed to simple, sugary carbs that can give quick energy that doesn’t last and will often lead to an energy crash. Fats can be used if you are in a low carb period or when you need extra calories for a high-volume prolonged training session like distance running or triathlon training for example.
While there are no miracle foods, you want to stay with high quality nutritious foods that your body is familiar with and won’t cause you any digestive disorder. For protein sources; chicken breast, turkey breast, lean steak, lean ground turkey or beef, eggs and egg whites, various types of fish, cottage cheese, Greek yogurts and quality whey based protein powders will serve you well. For complex carbs; oatmeal, whole grain breads, red potatoes, sweet potatoes, brown rice, multiple bean types, whole grain pastas and fibrous, slower digesting dense fruits like apples, pears, peaches, oranges and grapefruit all work well. Good pre-workout heathy fat sources include; various nuts like almonds, walnuts, cashews, peanuts and nut butters, avocado, coconut oil, flax oil, olive oil, mct oil, etc. Always choose one protein source and either a complex carb food, healthy fat source, or both to accompany it.
The amount of food or meal size should be determined by what your normal per meal intake is as well as the time frame involved before you workout. The longer the time period you have before you hit the gym, the greater the amount of food you will be able to consume and still have time for proper digestion and assimilation of nutrients. If you only have a short time before training then a large meal could leave you feeling uncomfortable at best and nauseous at worse during your workout. The closer you eat to your training time the smaller the amount of food you should intake. An example of how this could be set up is as follows:
Meal Option 1 (you have two or more hours before you workout) Roasted Chicken breast or lean steak, brown rice or sweet potato, green salad with olive oil or sliced avocado.
Meal Option 2 (you have 60-90 minutes before you workout) Grilled fish or 1-1.5 cups of low fat cottage cheese or Greek yogurt, 1 piece of fresh fruit or small red potato, and/or 1 oz. almonds or walnuts.
Meal Option 3 (you only have 30 minutes or less before your workout).
Whey based protein shake and 1/2 apple or 1-2 tablespoons of peanut or almond butter.
Start with what would be your normal portion size and adjust accordingly based on how you feel while training. If you are feeling overly full during your workout then next time reduce the food amounts a bit. If you can’t finish your workout without starving then your pre-workout meal needs to be a bit larger. How much you should eat before training is somewhat relative to each individual so some experimentation is required.
A lot of people mistakenly think that training, especially doing cardio, “on an empty stomach” is ideal when dieting to lose weight. The belief is that without food their body will be more likely to burn fat for energy during training. In fact, your body will access energy from the most available sources (blood glucose, glycogen, fatty acids, etc.) not the food you just ate so skipping a meal before training will not allow your body to pull immediately and directly from your body fat stores. When glycogen stores are depleted and blood sugar is low, the body will utilize fatty acids broken down from triglycerides that are stored in fat cells and transport them through the blood stream to the muscles as an energy source, but this does not require an “empty stomach”. It’s still ideal to have a protein serving (even if it’s only a shake) and enough calories from carbs and/or fats to fuel your efforts so that you can actually have the energy to do the degree of work needed to effect a change.
Remember, your body needs energy and your calories have to come from somewhere. Even if you are limiting your total carbohydrate intake, the pre-workout meal is an ideal spot to place them as they will help maximize your training and metabolism. Having a 250-300 calorie meal that will then fuel a workout which burns 500-700 calories and leads to an elevated post-workout metabolic rate, will have you on the fast track to success. Missing that meal and limiting your training intensity and capacity and creating a metabolic slowdown due to under-feeding is the last thing you want to do. Even if you’re in a fat loss phase, fasting before training is not necessary to access you’re fat stores.
The body is an amazing machine that is constantly running. It needs regular fuel to function properly along with adequate rest. Even while sleeping your body is utilizing energy. The greatest energy requirement we have is during intense physical exertion like exercise. It makes sense to insure that your body has the quality and quantity of nutrients it will need to meet your training demands in terms of energy and to support the beginning stages of recovery. By feeding yourself properly before you train you will maximize the effectiveness of your workouts and greatly improve your chances of successfully reaching your fitness goals.
Photo: C. Redd