In the internet era, we are buried beneath an abundance of conflicting information. Even well-read students of exercise and nutrition find themselves at the crossroads of differing internet opinions. So what wisdom should you follow regarding pre-workout fuel-ups?
A number of studies have proven arguments for and against eating before meals. To keep things simple, the most important variable is workout intensity: the harder the workout, the more important the pre-workout meal. So we’re writing with the assumption that you’re about to go beast mode and embark on a pretty good, sweat-inducing workout.
What’s Happening In Your Body?
When you train/perform exercise on an empty stomach, the body does indeed seek stores of fat at the first fuel source. Sound beneficial, right? Many studies demonstrate just that. However, your body will soon move beyond burning fat to devouring hard-earned muscle as its energy source. As the body becomes low on sugar, it begins to feed on muscle tissue instead. While you’re in the gym working to build muscle, your starving body is eating it. Talk about irony.
So yes, you get the benefit of burning fat on an empty stomach. But that benefit turns into a disadvantage as the duration lengthens and intensity kicks up.
Conversely, there’s an entirely different metabolic process occurring if you’ve consumed a proper meal before training. With the right pre-workout meal, your body instead leverages its stores of glucose (blood sugar). After glucose, the body shifts to your storehouse of simple and complex carbohydrates (glycogen). Glycogen is critical in giving you the energy you need to power through your workouts and, the greater storage of glycogen, the more energy you have as fuel.
To put it plainly, eating before working out is important. And the more intense the workout, the better the supply of energy you’ll need. Can you skip a meal with less intense workouts? Technically, yes. And many do. In these cases, strenuous workouts cause the conversion of muscle tissue into glucose instead of the body leveraging glucose and glycogen from a pre-workout meal.
The consequences of skipping pre-workout meals can result in:
- A wonky metabolism
- Rapid breathing
- Lightheadedness associated with low blood sugar
Getting The Timing Right
Timing is one of the most important aspects of the pre-workout meal dilemma: the farther away from your workout you are (2-3 hours), the bigger the meal you can afford. The closer you are (45 mins or less), the smaller the meal should be. Not only is size important, but what should be consumed changes as well.
If your workout is 2-3 hours away, you can afford a larger, more complex meal, consisting of protein, fat, and carbs and totaling about three to four hundred calories. You don’t need a massive meal, you only need to feel satiated and have the right storehouse of fuel to power your workout. An egg white and spinach omelet with whole wheat toast, fruit, and yogurt gives you a nice balance of carbs, protein, and fat.
The closer your workout, the smaller and more simple the meal you should consume. The main reason for this is that you don’t want to tax the body with the unnecessary expenditure of energy from digesting a large meal. You’re also giving the body just enough time to extract the glucose from the gastrointestinal tract (GI) so your food can and converted into the necessary energy to power the workout.
Stick to a simple meal, one that is high carbs, low on fat, and has some protein in the mix. Try fruit with yogurt, or a small bowl of oatmeal, for example. Fruit, containing simple sugars, is perfect because it gives the body a quick boost of energy.
Also, gauge your food intake by the intensity of your workout. If you’re an MMA fighter and you’ve got four hours of intense training before you, you’re going to need much more energy than a Dad taking his infant for a morning stroll on the beach.
Pre-workout Meal Options
Carbs are critical to your fueling process. So when you’re close to beginning your workout, you want to ingest a carb-rich meal of around 200 calories. Bananas are a great selection: they’re filled with great, digestible carbs, and of course, loaded with potassium. Other options include a handful of fruit, yogurt & fruit, or a small bowl of applesauce.
When you’re about to eat right before training, try to narrow your meal toward foods containing simple carbs, which are quickly broken by digestion. A piece of whole grain toast is ideal, which you can supplement with simple sugars (fruit) and a little protein (milk products contain simple sugars and protein).
While not perfect, the simple sugars in refined sugar products are quickly absorbed by the body and will add energy to your body even though they aren’t the best options for nutrients. So it’s better to stick to fruit, nature’s candy. Ideally, you would eat a mix of complex and simple carbs for optimal fuel. Sugar adds a boost of energy while the carbs give you the slow-burning fuel necessary to endure your workout.
And don’t forget protein. Protein fuels your muscles with oxygen and nutrients and aids in preventing muscle breakdown during training. So an ideal pre-workout meal contains protein and simple and complex carbs.
Pre-workout food ideas:
- Whole grain toast
- Shakes w/ fruit, yogurt, and granola
- Two eggs w/ whole grain toast
- Brown rice or quinoa
- Oatmeal with fruit
- A minimally processed nutrition bar or nut and fruit bar
- Apple or banana and almond butter (mix of carbs and protein)
- Whole grain toast, almond butter, glass of milk (mix of carbs and protein)
Things to Keep In Mind
Fatty foods, which you’re probably hoping to avoid most of the time, are a bad option no matter how much time you have. If you’re sensitive to certain foods or know that things like beans or broccoli give you gas, avoid them as well. Excessive burping during burpees certainly isn’t cool. And lastly, some individuals know their bodies very well. Runner’s, for example, may understand after years of training what gives them Runner’s Stomach (symptoms include cramps and vomiting) and may know how far they can push themselves on their preferred empty stomachs.
With a ton of studies on this very subject, it’s difficult to comb through them all and make sense of the opposing points of view. Suffice it to say that it is certainly possible to workout on an empty stomach and many people do it all the time either through ignorance or personal preference. However, the positives to a pre-workout meal outweigh the negatives. You can avoid hunger, push harder, and avoid the risk your body chowing on its own muscles as an alternative source of fuel. And, last but not least, don’t forget to hydrate. Liquids are important too!