To be honest, we’ve all been there at least once in our training lives. This can be a reflection of what you put into your body prior to training. Yes, that cheese and egg sandwich you scarfed down on route to the gym, or that heavy dinner you had “to give you energy” before an evening session are doing more harm than good.
You are probably sitting there reading this and asking why…?
Well, let’s break it down to understand the what, when, whys and how’s to creating a simpler formula to feel your best during your workouts.
What and when you eat before exercise can make a big difference on your performance and recovery. Having foods that are easy to digest before a workout can help you push harder, lift heavier, ward off energy crashes mid-workout from low blood sugars, avoid hunger pains mid-workout, and prevent nasty GI symptoms like nausea/abdominal cramps. It’s more than just physical energy too. Having a good pre-workout can help with mental focus during your session and ability to stay focused to push throughout. Many people who step into a workout fasted, find they mentally start to drift off on top of feeling low on energy. From this standpoint, having good fuel can help prevent injury by keeping you mentally alert, focusing on muscle activation, and maintaining proper form/cues important to keep movement safe.
What you should eat before you workout
Let’s keep this simple for everyone. There are 2 main components to a good pre-workout meal or snack. Yes just two things! Drum roll please – protein AND carbs.
Protein prior to training will elevate blood levels of amino acid levels and is proven to help increase protein synthesis. It also will help prevent blood sugar fluctuations and keep you full throughout the session, then if you are to have carbs on their own. Generally 15-35g is enough to do the trick. Some lean protein options include protein shake/ powder, egg whites, turkey jerky or other lean jerky, leftover chicken breast, tuna, nitrite/ sulphite free deli meats, powdered peanut butter, low fat dairy, smoked tofu.
Pre workout nutrition is pretty simple when it comes to carbs. Eat them! Carbs are your friend when it comes to training. If you’re training at a pretty high intensity, ie/ interval training, metabolic conditioning, heavy weight training, then you need carbs to fuel those sessions. Restricting carbs pre workout will have a detrimental impact on performance. Overwhelmingly, the research points to the fact you should have carbs before you train. And if you’re already in a calorie deficit and targeting fat loss then it becomes even more important because your workouts are already in danger of being a bit “off” due to less fuel. So, you don’t want to make your workouts any worse by limiting carbs. In fact, if you manage things right you should still have great workouts. There’s no need to suffer with crap workouts for months on end.
Quick release carbs are the most effective. And that’s especially true if you’ve got a short window before you train. You want something that your body can absorb quickly and feel the effect of. Example quick digesting carb sources can include rice cakes, saltine/ rice/ simple crackers, white rice, tortilla, banana, grapes, watermelon, rice crispy squares, cereal (Shreddies, Life, Chex, Rice Krispies), dried mango/ dates…
What you should avoid having before you workout
Circling back to example of the cheese and egg sandwich prior to training, one nutrient there that can deter from training is high fat content. Fats do slow digestion, sitting heavier in your digestive system and possibly slowing absorption of carbs into your muscle to give you energy. Similarly, if you eat a giant salad with tons of vegetables or a big bowl of bran/ high fibre cereal you might not feel the best. Fibre like fat slows digestion, which is great away from training but not right before. We want those carbs and protein to be absorbed pretty quick. Fats and fibre are essential for everyone, but just not essential for pre workout nutrition.
When you should eat your pre-workout
Studies show that your body takes time to digest and absorb the nutrients from the food you eat. And if you had a heavy meal, that process can take several hours (anything from 2-4+ hours). That basically means, if you pigged out on a load of protein a few hours before your workout, you’re unlikely to need anymore. Therefore, pre workout nutrition becomes less of a necessity. However, if it’s been a few hours since your last meal and last intake of protein, then getting some pre workout protein is going to be beneficial. Why? Because keeping protein levels elevated pre workout helps increase protein synthesis and ensure you’re in an anabolic state. All of which are important for keeping metabolism revving and repairing/ building lean muscle.
As a general rule of thumb, if you are having a full meal before a workout, aim for about 1.5-2hrs before your workout. However, if you train before your meals (ie/ early morning sessions or right after work), have a light snack with protein and carbs 30-60min before you train. My go to for an early morning session is a simple protein shake and some watermelon, and after work having a few rice cakes and a glass of soy milk or low fat cow’s milk (protein shake would work too).
There are literally hundreds of pre workout supplements on the market today. But the sad truth is that most of them aren’t worth spending a single penny on. Unfortunately, the supplement industry is pretty unregulated, so what companies claim goes into their products may not always be the case. And on top of that, they’ll list an impressive array of ingredients on the label. But what they won’t tell you is that they are often under-dosed compared to what the research says is optimal. More often than not, you’re paying for cheap ‘filler’ ingredients that are low cost and high margin for the manufacturer. And that leaves you with a huge whole in your wallet and nothing to show for it.
Now at this point I’ll say that pre workout supplements are 100% not essential for a good workout. Getting the right amount of sleep, hydration, protein, and carbs is far more important. However, some caffeine and creatine can help if everything else is in check. That could be as simple as pairing your food with a double espresso and you’re good to go. However, a good pre workout supplement can be beneficial if you’re at the stage where your nutrition and recovery is on point and you want that extra little edge.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Keep it simple. Just shifting your focus to carbs and protein before training can make a world of difference. There will be a certain degree of trial and error as everyone’s body is different. Try a simple shake with protein powder and banana or a bowl of low fat Greek yogurt topped with your favourite cereal and see how it goes. If it doesn’t feel great, adjust the timing or swap the food sources. Don’t get hung up on the numbers unless you are someone more advanced or looking to really dial it in. In that case, it would be valuable to sit down with a dietitian to get tailored amounts.