Meal Timing: When & what should I eat before I work-out?

There is a lot of misinformation out there these days. Many people who claim they are health and nutrition “experts” are telling you all kinds of things about what you should eat before you work-out.

“Don’t eat, train fasted.”
“Do eat, but eat lots of fat to help you “burn fat”.”

Or perhaps, “just have bulletproof coffee”. The prescription that has become a trendy pre-workout “fuel” these days.

Well, I am here to tell you (with an evidence-based opinion!), that YES, you should eat before you work-out, and yes, what you eat does matter. However, it may be simpler than what you have been hearing around the ‘fitness’ block these days.

Simply put, a combination of carbohydrates and protein is recommended prior to a workout, sporting event or other physical activity. Eating before your training will prevent you from having hunger, and low blood sugar which could put you at risk for injury. Essentially, if you train with some fuel in your system, you will support the activity of your muscles and brain, optimize your performance, and support training adaptations (aka get bigger, stronger and faster!).

So what, and when should you eat exactly? The length of time between when you eat and when you train will affect the composition of your meal or snack. The time that you choose to eat before will likely depend on your schedule and what is convenient for you, but here are some general guidelines on how to choose the right combinations of macros depending on the timing prior to your workout.
Pre-Workout Nutrition: 2-3 Hours Before
This is the ideal time frame for most individuals; providing enough of a window for your body to digest food and supply your muscles and organs with macronutrients, vitamins and minerals. Having a meal with carbs and protein, and some healthy fats is best at this time to carry you through your training.

Which macros and why?

  • Carbs: Carbs provide you with energy and fuel to support your muscles during the activity. Include complex carbohydrates like starchy vegetables and whole grains to provide longer lasting energy. However, avoid having too much fibre, like dried fruits and raw vegetables which are slower to digest and may cause discomfort during your workout.
  • Protein: Protein will supply you with amino acids to promote muscle protein synthesis during your training, and help to keep your blood sugar stable in order to maintain stable energy levels.
  • Fat: Fat slows the digestion of food so eat some healthy fats, but keep it low (under 5-10 g). This will ensure that the protein and carbs you’re eating are more effectively utilized.

Food Ideas:
Chicken with sweet potato and cooked vegetables
Oatmeal with berries, banana & Greek yogurt
Eggs on whole grain toast with a piece of fruit

Pre-workout Nutrition: 1 hour before
You may not have time to eat 2-3 hours before your workout and that’s okay. For some of us, eating 1 hour before exercise works best. Personally, I enjoy having a coffee and protein bar an hour before my weight training sessions, as I have found this is the most energizing combination and has resulted in some of my best training sessions.

When eating closer to your workout, choose a smaller sized meal or snack. This will help prevent you from feeling full during your activity, but still give you the fuel you need.

Which macros and why?

  • Carbs:  Lower fibre carb sources like bananas, grapes, starchy vegetables (sweet potato, potato, plantain, squash) and crackers/ breads/ cereals are quicker digesting and ideal for this time period. Carbs keep us fueled, so don’t skip out on carbs before your workout!
  • Protein: Don’t skip protein either, include a source of lean protein in your meal or snack.  
  • Fats: Keep it low (under 5 g total).

Food Ideas:
Smoothie with banana, spinach, blueberries, and milk
Protein bar (look for under 10 g of sugar)
Scrambled egg whites and whole grain toast
“Proatmeal” (Plain oatmeal + scoop protein powder)
Greek yogurt and banana

Pre-Workout Nutrition: 30 Minutes Before
Eating earlier is optimal to allow enough time to digest your food. However, if you’re unable to (for example, if you’re working out early in the morning), eating right before is better than not eating at all. Stick to a smaller snack, rather than a meal to avoid feeling heavy during your exercise.

Which macros and why?

  • Carbs: With less time for digestion, stick with simpler carbs like white rice, bananas, rice cakes, pumpkin or squash purees, energy gels, and baby food.
  • Protein: Protein is important to keep your muscles fueled during exercise. Due to limited time to digest, now is a good time to opt for a protein supplement (like a whey protein powder), because they are faster digesting than whole food sources of protein.
  • Fat: Like the other meal timings, fat should mostly be avoided in this meal. It slows digestion and you want those nutrients utilized as quickly as possible!

What to eat:
Protein shake
White rice + 2 oz chicken
Piece of fruit

Additional Tips:
Some additional words of advice on what you eat before you work-out:

  • One of the main reasons we keep foods low in fat and fiber before we train is to avoid digestive upset.
  • Keeping with the same logic, it would beneficial to avoid foods before you train that trigger you personally to experience digestive upset. Can you really workout your best if you feel bloated, gassy and uncomfortable? For instance, if dairy is a trigger for you, then avoid having whey or anything like milk or Greek yogurt before (because no one wants to be the one with bad gas at the gym!). If you aren’t sure which foods upset you, try keeping a food journal and track your symptoms to see if you can make any connections.
  • Another thing to point out is that the type of sport and activity you engage may alter how you follow these recommendations. For example, if you train as a powerlifter, you may get away with having a larger sized snack or meal closer to your workout as your training is more stationary. But if you are primarily a CrossFit athlete, then your workouts involve a lot more moving around (jumping, running, rowing, etc.) so you would benefit from feeling lighter and having more time to digest prior to your training. As a runner, I personally feel best having some quick carbs about 30 minutes before to fuel my runs, like some rice cakes with jam.
Final Notes:
To summarize, having some form of fuel prior to your workout will help you to perform better, and choosing the right combination of macronutrients can take this a step further. There is some room to play in terms of timings and meal types, so choose what works best for you (and try different things)! However, in general, having enough time to digest beforehand helps us feel lighter and more energized during our workouts.

The tips expressed in this blog post are meant to be general recommendations. If you are looking for a more personalized approach, that takes into account your individual needs and goals, consider getting involved in our Food for 6S nutrition program.

Remember: when we eat good, we feel good, and when we feel good, we perform even better. 

Blog written by : Leigh Merotto
FF6S Nutrition Coach

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