“What should I eat before I work out?”
This is a question that I get all the time in the gym. The reason for all the confusion is because there’s such a large amount of conflicting information in the media, magazines, and blogosphere.
For example, if you are a contest bodybuilder and read the muscle magazines then you probably believe that you should be drinking a special shake with all kinds of extra pre-workout supplements in it like it’s part of your religion. If you’re a fat-adapted paleo guy then you think you should be fasted and running on empty when you step through the door, ready to use those hunger hormones to chase down an antelope.
For most people, like the bulk of things in life, the answer is in the middle.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: If your overall daily nutrition isn’t that good, then what you eat pre-workout probably isn’t going to have the effect you’re looking for, whether that’s increased energy, more muscle mass, or greater fat burning. A good pre-workout meal is really just a piece of a bigger, healthy diet puzzle.
However, with that being said, the addition some good pre-workout nutrition into your already solid overall nutrition plan you will feel stronger during your workout and recover faster from it.
Got it? Great. So here’s what I tell my clients:
1. I prefer real food over supplements whenever possible. Supplements are fast, easy, and have their place (more on that later), but there’s all kinds of goodness in real food that you don’t get from a powder. The closer something is to ingredients, not processed, the better off you’ll probably be.
2. The priority for pre-workout eating is to get some protein and carbohydrate into your system so your body can make use of it. Lots of people try to skip the carbs when they’re in fat loss mode because they think that it’ll help keep insulin low and burn fat. That’s true, but it’s short-sighted. The body loves to have some carbs to run a hard workout on and to recover with, so it’ll actually shed body fat better if it has a little carb to run on.
How much should I eat?
That depends on your size, goals, and what type of workout you’re doing. Most of our workouts at Relentless are fairly fast-paced sessions designed to build strength and muscle while maintaining a basic conditioning effect, so they require a fair amount of carbohydrate. For most of our clients I recommend about 15-30g of protein and 30-50g of carbs before they train.
If you have a couple of hours before your workout, I recommend that you get this from real food. It can be the standard chicken and rice, but could also be fish, turkey, dairy, or lean beef combined sweet potatoes, fruit, oats, or another healthy carb source. I have a lot of great workout from egg whites and oats, personally.
A note on fat and fiber: Both of these will slow your digestion down. So if you’re going to be a few hours away from your workout and not going to eat again, then get some fat or vegetables into your pre-workout meal so the meal will “stick to your ribs” longer. If it’s going to be under an hour or so until you work out then I wouldn’t add much of either of these as you might end up with an upset stomach from a hard workout. We’ll address short-term pre-workout nutrition in the next section.
Some people have a tendency to go hypoglycemic and have blood sugar crashes during workouts if they take in too many fast carbohydrates. For these people a little bit of fat (5-10g) or fiber (3-6g) will slow down digestion a bit and help prevent that bonk.
What if I work out really early or eat just before I come into the gym?
We have a lot of early morning clients. Some of them don’t do well with training on a full stomach and get nauseous (I personally actually get queasy from training on an empty stomach, so some people go the other way), so a solid-food meal for them is out. Other clients we have train later but can’t eat during the day and try to get something in while they’re driving to the gym.
For these people a meal of whole food really isn’t going to work all that well because a) it’ll possibly make them sick, and b) they are trying to train and digest a meal at the same time, which means that the nutrients they’re trying to utilize aren’t going to be getting into the blood where the body can use them in a timely manner.
Here’s where the supplements come in. For these folks I recommend a protein shake (whey, egg, or plant-based) and some simple carbohydrates like gummy bears (yes, really), Gatorade, coconut water, or a pre-workout carbohydrate powder. As I said above, some people have a tendency to get a bit of a blood sugar crash from fast carbohydrates on an empty stomach. A little fat (olive oil, peanut butter) or fiber (supplemental) will help prevent that if you run into it.
If you really want to do the whole food route then make it something super-quick digesting like yogurt and fruit.
Nutrition doesn’t have to be nearly as complex as everyone makes it out to be. If you’re eating a healthy overall diet then your workout nutrition becomes less important (although still something to think about) as you should have quality nutrients available for use when you need them. Simply give your body what it needs to run, fuel, and repair and then let it do it.
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