Ensuring you fuel your body as well as possible before a workout is key to getting the best workout you can. If you don’t fuel yourself properly, how can you ever hope to work your muscles as thoroughly as needed for optimal growth?
MYTH: Never Eat Before a Workout
The Truth: A big fitness myth is that working out on an empty stomach will help you burn more fat. But this has been proven totally untrue. You should always eat something before exercising so your body has enough fuel to power through your workout.
The reason given behind this widely accepted myth is that forgoing food before exercise will force your body to burn more fat during your workout. This could not be further from the truth. As a matter of fact starving yourself before exercising can actually be detrimental to your body.
The Benefits Of Eating Pre-Workout Foods
Your body needs a certain amount of energy (sugars) for fuel when training. When the blood sugar is not there, your body will convert your own muscle tissue into energy and you will start to lose the precious muscles you have taken some time to build.
A study published looked at athletes who ate before they trained versus those who fasted before they trained. The amount of fat burn was the same for both groups, but those who had trained without eating first had 10 percent of their calorie burn come from protein — including their own muscle mass.
In addition, your body needs the energy to perform at a high intensity. And nowadays it’s common knowledge that intensity training will have greater effects at an accelerated pace. You cannot do this without properly fueling your body with energy-providing foods.
If you haven’t eaten anything, your workout won’t be as intense as if you’d fueled up beforehand. You won’t have the strength, speed, or stamina to burn those calories and speed up your results because you’ll likely suffer from low blood sugar, which will make you sluggish.
Ultimately, you should picture your body like a car – you can’t expect to drive 150 miles with no petrol in the tank, can you? If you’re looking to perform and train at your best, you need to make sure your body has enough fuel to do so.
If you fail to provide yourself with the energy and nutrients required during exercise, the chances are you won’t see results as quickly as you should. Plus, over a long period of time, the likelihood of becoming ill or injured will be increased
You don’t need to gorge yourself; a healthy snack will do the trick. I suggest you eat something around 45 minutes prior to workout training. No sooner, because that can cause cramps and make you sick during your workout. Aim for something with complex carbohydrates and protein.
Here are the core benefits of pre-fueling prior to a workout:
Gives You More Energy
Our bodies use carbohydrates and glycogen as the first source of fuel. This is because carbohydrates and stored glycogen can be converted into ATP (adenosine triphosphate, i.e. energy) faster than protein and fat. Therefore, filling up your glycogen stores pre-workout will mean you’ll have more energy to perform at your best.
Increases Muscle Anabolism
Eating the right foods pre-workout means you won’t only top up your glycogen stores, but by eating a good source of protein, you’ll also be able to promote muscle-protein synthesis and create an anabolic environment in the body.
Prevent Muscle Catabolism
When we exercise, glycogen stores are quickly used up and depleted, so the body looks for new sources of energy – our muscles. By breaking down hard-earned muscle, the body can utilize amino acids for energy. This is bad, as it puts our bodies into a catabolic state, which can prevent muscle growth and recovery.
At the risk of repeating myself, for your pre-workout nutrition, you want to focus on foods that are high in carbs, moderate in protein, and low in fat and fiber. “Fat and fiber slow down digestion and can cause gastrointestinal upset during your workouts,”. “Carbs are your main fuel source for activity and, just as important, it’s the primary fuel source for your brain. Additionally, the more substantial the meal is, the more time you want to allow for digestion, so it’s not sitting in your stomach.”
What and When to Eat Pre-Workout
Supplements aside, pre-workout, the nutrient you most need to concern yourself with is carbohydrates. Not simple carbohydrates, but complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates will provide your muscles with a great amount of ready glycogen but won’t spike your sugar levels like simple carbohydrates.
In every meal, you need to consider the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fats. You also need to consider the ratio in which you are eating them.
There are two types of carbohydrates: simple, high glycemic index carbohydrates, and complex, low glycemic index carbohydrates. But which one is the best pre-workout?
This ultimately depends on your goal and the time of your pre-workout meal. Simple carbohydrates are great for 30 minutes to an hour before a workout, as they provide the body with fast-acting glucose as fuel. However, complex carbohydrates also play a role in energy metabolism. By consuming low GI carbohydrates around 2-3 hours before a workout, you can give your body a slow-releasing source of energy. This means you’ll be able to work out for longer and be less likely to have a dip in your blood sugar levels in the middle of your workout.
Pre-workout, it’s best to avoid too much fat. This is because, although high in energy with 9kcal per gram, fats are slow-digesting. This means, instead of making you energetic, they can actually make you feel sluggish and heavy.
Pre-workout meals containing protein provide us with a major benefit – the prevention of muscle catabolism. By consuming a good source of protein before a workout, you can give your body the amino acids (branched-chain amino acids in particular) that it needs to prevent muscle breakdown, whilst aiding muscle recovery and growth.
How Long Should You Wait Before You Workout After a Pre-Meal
30 Minutes to an Hour Pre-Workout:
Eat a small (100- to 200-calorie) snack about 30 minutes before you work out. This snack should include fast-digesting (high glycemic index) carbohydrates and very little fat (which digests slowly) so that you digest the meal quickly and the fuel is available during your exercise session. Here are some ideas:
- Fruits: High glycemic fruits like pineapple, apricots, banana, mango, and watermelon. Fruits provide simple sugars that are easy to digest. They’re your body’s preferred source of energy for high-intensity workouts.
- Fruit smoothie: Not only fruit smoothies are great tasting and super-healthy. Whilst smoothies do provide a series of micronutrients that are beneficial for health and well-being, they’re also full of sugars, including fructose. However, consuming a fruit smoothie pre-workout is a great pre-workout meal option that can provide you with a good source of fast-acting glucose. Note that smoothies are high in calories and so take these in moderation so you are not overloading your body with excessive sugars. Smoothies in general are not a replacement for full meals.
- Sports drinks: Balanced with simple carbs, vitamins, and minerals, provide a good balance of nutrients providing a quick shot of energy with electrolytes.
- Pretzels or bagels (but not whole grain varieties, which digest slowly)
- Energy bars (look for 3-5 grams of protein, at least 15 grams of carbs, and very little fat)
2-3 Hours Pre-Workout:
Consume a meal of around 400- 500 calories containing a good source of protein (around 20g) and complex low GI carbohydrates (20-30g).
This is the best option for many people. The larger the meal, and the more fat and protein it contains, the longer you may need to wait before exercising. Ideally, try to eat enough calories to equal about half the calories you expect to burn during your upcoming workout. So if you burn about 600 calories during your workout, aim for at least 300 calories during this meal—or a little more if your exercise is “high intensity” (over 75% of your maximum heart rate). At least 50-60 percent of these calories should come from carbohydrates, which should keep your blood sugar and energy levels fairly stable during your exercise session. Include some protein to help prevent the breakdown of muscle for fuel and give your muscles a headstart on recovery after exercise. Some good food choices and combinations for this kind of meal include:
Fruits, such as banana
Bananas are a great source of natural sugars, simple carbohydrates, and potassium. In the body, potassium is only stored for a limited amount of time, so try consuming a banana around 30 minutes to an hour before your workout. Eating a banana pre-workout is the perfect way to boost your glycogen stores and increase blood sugar levels.
“Bananas are mother nature’s power bar: They’re loaded with simple carbs for fuel and potassium, which helps with optimal nerve and muscle function,” Mazur says. Top one off with a serving of peanut butter—or any other nut butter you like. (Just try to stick to the recommended 2 tbsp serving size.) If you want a little sweetness, drizzle a bit of honey. It’ll release slow, steady levels of glucose into your bloodstream—great for grueling WODs and endurance workouts when your body can start using muscle glycogen as fuel if it doesn’t have enough readily available carbs.
Consuming dried fruit with Greek yogurt can also provide the body with a source of protein to help optimize your workout. Consume a meal like this 1-1.5 hours before a workout.
Adding almond butter, chia seeds, or oats provide sustained energy for longer workouts. This recipe also gets a protein punch thanks to plain Greek yogurt and protein powder (vanilla or unflavored). “A scoop of protein powder adds amino acids to aid your muscles that are breaking down.”
Nuts (Trail mix with nuts and dried fruit is a great option)
Dried fruit is high in sugar and high in calories. When it comes to dieting, dried fruit is generally avoided, however, this food is great to be consumed in measured amounts pre-workout to give a quick source of simple sugar.
Berries and granola provide quick-digesting carbs to fuel your workout, and Greek yogurt provides ample protein to prevent some of that muscle breakdown. Look for a granola that contains nuts, seeds, and wholesome carbs (like oats, amaranth, quinoa, and/or millet). Try to find carbohydrate sources sweetened with coconut oil, dried figs, and/or vanilla; you want to keep sugar to a medium.
Oatmeal or Porridge
Porridge and oatmeal make the ultimate pre-workout breakfast. This pre-workout food contains complex carbohydrates and is also a great source of the soluble fiber, beta-glucan. By consuming oats around 2 hours before a workout, you’ll be able to satisfy your hunger throughout your workouts whilst getting a great source of slow-releasing energy. Try adding a scoop of protein powder to your porridge. That way you’ll also get a great source of protein and amino acids.
Chicken, Rice/Whole Grain Bread
Chicken, rice (brown is preferred), and whole-grain bread (or vegetables) is the classic choice for a healthy meal. Combining a good source of lean protein and complex carbohydrates provide amino acids to promote anabolism (muscle growth) and a slow-releasing source of energy. Consume a meal like this around 2-3 hours before a workout.
Last but not least, protein shakes. If you’re on the go and in a hurry or none of the above appeal to you, a quick protein shake can solve your pre-workout problems. By consuming a shake with a good source of fast-releasing protein, such as whey protein, with simple carbohydrates like maltodextrin powder, you can get all the pre-workout nutrients you need in a matter of minutes.
Some other choices are:
- Cereals (with more than three grams of fiber) and milk
- Hummus and raw veggies
- Hard-boiled eggs or omelet: Omelettes made using whole eggs and egg whites are a great source of muscle-building protein and amino acids.
- Cottage cheese and fruit
- Tomato or vegetable juice
Note: No matter what time of day you choose to exercise, make sure to plan your workout two to three hours after having a full meal. Going overboard with too much food right before a workout will leave you feeling sluggish and can lead to stomach discomfort. The last thing you want is for your workout habits to hinder your digestion process.
IMPORTANT: Your Pre-Workout Fluid Needs: Being well-hydrated will make your exercise easier and more effective. Try to drink 15-20 ounces of water during the 1-2 hours before starting your workout.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Is it ok to exercise after eating?
The short answer is yes. But really this depends from person to person. Some people may feel nauseous exercising after a meal whereas there are others who gorge on a heavy-calorie meal before an exercise session and experience no issues.
In general, you do need to give yourself some time after you eat any type of food.
How long should you wait to work out after eating?
After eating light food like a fruit you may be ready to start your session in 15-30 minutes. Although a heavier meal (more than 400 calories) may require about 2 hours of digestion before you start your workout session.
Is it bad to drink coffee drinks before a workout?
Coffee when consumed before exercise—can cause fat cells to be used as an energy source as opposed to glycogen. Also, the high amounts of caffeine in coffee will increase your metabolism, which makes you burn more calories throughout the day.
- Coffee helps accelerate fat loss.
- Coffee Increases workout performance.
- Caffeine in coffee helps you improve focus resulting in a better workout.
- Coffee helps decrease muscle pain if taken prior to a workout session.
- Black coffee contains high amounts of antioxidants which protect against damage from free radicals. Coffee may help prevent some diseases. Note: adding dairy to black coffee will reduce or eliminate the positives provided by the anti-oxidants.
Is it ok to work out on an empty stomach?
Many people work out on an empty stomach often referred to as a fasted state. Working out in fasted state is not dangerous to health in general (although watch out if you are diabetic). Eating before a workout is more conducive to fat burn. Thus big drawback of working out on an empty stomach is that you do not lose as much fat as you would if you had some food prior to exercise. Empty stomach workouts increase the risk of cramps for some due to a lack of fluids.
In summary, you do not need to have a heavy meal before a workout session. But topping up on fluids and a light snack (like a banana or apple) prior to a session will help you stay engaged in the workout.