Training is extremely important. It may even be the biggest part of your day. However, some workouts just feel off, like you’re tired, unfocused, and lack energy. This could be the result of bad meal timing or less-than-ideal meal content before a workout.
You may also purposefully leave meal time for after a workout, such as the practice of fasted cardio for fat loss. The truth is, without proper fueling, you’re missing out on amazing gym sessions and potential gains.
Importance of Fuel
Food has a huge impact on our bodies. What we put into our body can not only contribute to our physical appearance and abilities, but can even impact our mood and mental health.
Sure, you probably put a lot of thought into those post-workout meals, because the hunger you feel after a workout can be intense. However, pre-workout snacks and meals can be just as important for your gym progress.It is understandable that life gets in the way and you may lack the time or appetite for a pre-workout meal.
While many people can easily complete a fasted workout, there are several reasons you should reconsider.Not eating before a workout can lead to severe lightheadedness and nausea due to low blood sugar levels. There is no denying that this alone can make a workout incredibly difficult.
Furthermore, lack of energy, focus, and power due to inadequate energy leaves you more susceptible to injury and more likely to end your gym session early. This is detrimental to reaching your fitness-related goals and can leave you feeling defeated and hungry!
There are several myths surrounding workouts and food. We’ll discuss the top two food and fitness myths below that can potentially keep you from reaching your goals.
- Fasted Workouts Burn More Fat: No! While for most, a fasted workout is not unsafe, it can sure result in workouts that feel sluggish and difficult. Lack of energy can inhibit performance which can then result in less gain potential.
- The Food You Eat Doesn’t Matter: Your local gym bros may slam burgers in the parking lot and you may feel quite tempted to join them. While this can be great for certain goals, such as reaching a caloric surplus, the quality of your food does matter. For weight management, it does boil down to a simple calories in and calories out formula. However, when wanting to achieve a certain body composition or feel a certain way, fried and greasy foods can make workouts feel much harder.
What NOT to Eat Before a Workout
We’ve already debunked the “eat whatever you want when you want” myth, so it’s probably no surprise that there are a few foods you should avoid before working out. We aren’t here to tell you how to eat, but to minimize chances of an upset stomach or sluggish training sessions, try to steer clear of:
- Overly Processed Foods: Processed foods can be highly damaging to our digestive system and may result in an upset stomach. Additionally, highly processed foods tend to have a lot of added sugar and salt, which can be bad for your overall health. This includes lunch meats, meals from the frozen section, pre-packaged pastries, and candy.
- Fried Foods: Fried foods are high in unhealthy fats, can be highly processed, and make you feel sluggish. Fried foods are also typically very disruptive to the digestive system, leading to bloating, gas, and an upset stomach. If you’ve ever tried training with a stomach ache, you probably know it doesn’t work well.
- Foods High in Added Sugars: Those “healthy” protein and granola bars you snack on may not be as healthy as they claim to be. Many granola bars and protein bars have excess amounts of sugar, which will leave you feeling hungry for more. Of course, not every bar is created equally. Check the labels of your favorite bars, it might convince you to try some homemade or alternative products.
- Foods High in Unhealthy Fat: High-fat foods like cheese and certain kinds of meat are detrimental to energy levels and make you feel far too full to function. Additionally, avoid trans fats altogether. These fats are typically found in processed foods and can lead to overall very poor health, let alone bad workout sessions.
Sports and Energy Drinks: We can’t blame anyone for thinking mainstream sports drinks are healthy. While they can be an okay way to get hydration and electrolytes, many of these drinks have highly concerning ingredients. It is best to stick to water and get your sugars from healthier sources, like fruits.Energy drinks can be just as bad and maybe even worse. Many people love chugging an energy drink before hitting the gym. While it is a great tactic for feeling super pumped (and we hate to kill your vibe!), the truth is many of these drinks contain a lot of sugar and other horrible ingredients. If you’re in dire need of some pre-workout caffeine, try a high-quality pre-workout supplement in place of these glorified soda pops.
- Certain Veggies: This is probably the only time you’ll be told to not eat broccoli. Broccoli and other green leafy veggies are hard for the stomach to digest and can lead to discomfort and gas, making it hard to move around freely. Instead, save these veggies for your post-workout meal.
The Best Things to Eat Before a Workout
Now that we’ve gone over the worst pre-workout meals, you’re probably wondering what’s left! You may be surprised at the wide variety of delicious foods to choose from when putting together your pre-workout sustenance.
If you’re on a cutting diet or are on a weight loss journey, you may stray far away from carbs. However, if you’re wanting to push yourself in the gym and boost your performance, carbs are really a necessity. You’ve likely heard of athletes slamming down plates of pasta before big competitions. This practice actually has a lot of factual and scientific evidence.
Carbs are great energy boosters, helping to regulate blood sugar levels and replenish depleted glycogen stores. Glycogen is how our muscles store glucose, which you can get from carbs. Carbs provide you with energy without eating away all your hard-earned muscle.
This is especially important for endurance workouts because you run the risk of losing significant muscle if not properly energized before and during your session. However, even shorter high-intensity sessions, like HIIT or weightlifting, can benefit from the energy provided by carbs.
Carbs are the only macro that can be broken down by the body fast enough to perform these high-intensity workouts.
Good sources for pre-workout carbs are:
- A piece of fruit: Fruit is great for exercise because it is both carb-heavy and full of water, thus providing you with great hydration. Bananas are a typical choice amongst athletes for their levels of potassium, which can help with muscle cramps. Apples are also a great choice and pair well with many healthy sources of fat.
- Sweet potatoes: Sweet potatoes are a great-tasting source for complex carbohydrates, which are healthier and make you feel full for longer periods of time. They pair well with proteins such as chicken or fish.
- Dried fruit: Dried fruit is not as ideal as fresh fruits, but they can be a great choice for those of us hopping from work to the gym. Find a trail mix with dried fruit for the perfect pre-workout snack.
- Fruit smoothie: Smoothies are an easy way to get in lots of nutrients. Furthermore, they are highly customizable, so you can easily add more fats, delicious protein powder, and various kinds of fruits.
- Granola bar (but watch the sugar!): Oats, like sweet potatoes, are a great source of complex carbs. Most people can’t whip up a bowl of oatmeal prior to the gym or find it to be far too filling. Granola bars provide a hassle-free way to get some oatmeal. Additionally, dried fruit and nuts are typically found in granola bars, making it the perfect well-rounded snack.
- Whole-wheat or whole-grain toast: Toast is the perfect base for your nut butter and bananas. However, this can be a good pre-workout treat even on its own.
- Brown rice: Brown rice is another filling and healthy source of carbs. Unlike white rice, brown rice has a lot more nutrient content.
Fat is often the neglected macronutrient. While it’s true that of all the macronutrients, it is fat we need the least of, fat is still incredibly important for proper bodily functions. However, don’t consume too much fat prior to a workout as this can result in temporary but uncomfortable digestive issues.
It is best to pair these foods with a protein or carb. Fat is especially useful for endurance trainers, such as long-distance cyclers and runners, and can even prevent certain types of injury. Good pre-workout fat sources include:
- Peanut butter or almond butter: Nut butter is a highly versatile way to get healthy fats. They also taste great and feel more like a treat than other “diet” foods. Peanut butter and almond butter pair well with most carb sources, but are perfect for bread and smoothies.
- Avocado: Avocados are not only high in good fat, but they also have many essential vitamins. Avocado on toast is a popular and yummy way to get in this super-food.
- Nuts and trail mixes (avoid trail mix with chocolates or candies): Like dried fruits, nuts are an easy on-the-go option when you are just too busy to fix peanut butter toast. Additionally, there are so many types of nuts that almost everyone can find a nut they love to eat.
- Full-fat Greek yogurt: Yogurts can be a “watch out” food because many flavored options are high in added sugar. However, plain Greek yogurt is a great option that pairs well with many other types of foods. You can also find low-fat options if your diet requires it.
- Hummus: Hummus is made from chickpeas, which is a great source of protein and carbs. To make hummus, these chickpeas are paired with olive oil, among other things, which is an amazing source of healthy fat. This makes hummus a well-rounded option for a pre-workout snack and pairs well with carrots and cucumbers.
When we do strength training and weightlifting we actually create small little tears in the muscle fibers. These muscles then work to repair themselves, which is how you achieve muscle growth. Protein is needed for this muscle repair to occur.
While you should strive to eat protein throughout the day, there is a lot of science behind the benefit of pre-workout protein. Furthermore, protein pairs well with carb sources, making a more satiating pre-workout snack. Good sources of protein for a pre-workout snack include:
- Hard-boiled eggs: Eggs are a great source of both fat and protein and are a great morning snack. Hard-boiled eggs are typically more on-the-go friendly than other egg preparation techniques. They can be tasty on their own, but pair well with toast!
- Whey Protein Powder: Protein powder is almost essential for muscle building. The average person simply cannot consume enough protein sources throughout the day, so protein powder really cuts out a lot of the fuss. Furthermore, it is easily incorporated into smoothies and even oatmeal, making it an easy option for busy lives.
- Almond Milk: Almond milk is high in protein and fat and low in carbs. For many people, this is an ideal macronutrient composition. It is also great for non-dairy diets and is easily added to smoothies and coffee drinks.
- Chocolate Milk: You may find chocolate milk to be out of place in this list. However, chocolate milk is not only a great source of protein but will help you get in some fat and carbs, as well. It is also very satiating to most people and can feel like a bit of a treat. Put it in your smoothies for added flavor!
Hydration is just as important as proper nutrition. Without adequate water intake, your performance will likely be severely inhibited. This is one reason fruit is such a great pre-workout snack as it is both hydrating and a great source of carbohydrates.
Many sports drinks promise an abundance of electrolytes. However, we put those on the avoid list because typically, the sugar content outweighs the electrolyte content.
Electrolytes are incredibly important when working out as we lose most of our electrolytes when we sweat. Salt is a good example of electrolytes, which help your body retain necessary water. Electrolytes also aid muscle movement and decrease your risk of short-term injuries or muscular pain.
If you’re someone who suffers when you eat before a workout, it may boil down to timing. Ideally, pre-workout meals should take place 2 hours before your workout. However, if you workout early in the morning or are busy up until workout time, simply lessen the density of your meal rather than skipping it altogether. This will help you avoid any feelings of uncomfortable fullness while still providing a good amount of energy.
Everyone Is Different
Individual needs vary when it comes to fueling the body and there is really no exact formula. What works best for you will likely take some trial and error. Be sure to take into account the type of workout and length of workout you’re doing, in addition to your own individual needs.
In The End…
Your body works hard in the gym, so why not treat it well through high-quality sources of energy and a good balance of macros? What you eat is highly important.
Not only does food play a role in body composition, but it also makes a huge difference in the way you feel and, therefore, the effort you put into your gym sessions. Next time you’re hitting legs or hopping on the treadmill for weight loss, think about the fuel you’ll need to perform at your best level.