Before talking about what we should eat before a workout, what about not eating at all? A popular fat-burning strategy is to exercise first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. In his book Body for Life, Bill Phillips states that performing 20 minutes of intense aerobic exercise after an overnight fast has greater effects on fat loss than performing an entire hour of cardio in a sated state.
Indeed, there is evidence that training on an empty gut can increase fat oxidation and allow greater mobilization of stored fat for fuel. But using more fat doesn’t necessarily mean increased fat loss, since most of the fat used comes from inside muscle cells, not from the fat below the skin. And once exercise has ended, any fats that are not oxidized will ultimately return to adipose tissue. This essentially cancels out any fat-burning benefits of pre-training fasting. And worse, protein from your precious muscles will be burned for energy as well.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that nitrogen losses from protein breakdown were more than doubled when training in a fasted state. This is bad news for those seeking to maximize muscle mass.
To optimize your performance, you need to eat. Research has established that carbohydrate intake during exercise delays the onset of fatigue and improves endurance exercise performance. This happens because carbs enhance the availability of blood glucose to active muscle. Roughly 70% of the energy in your pre-workout meal should come from carbs, but choose low-glycemic carbs like oatmeal, veggies or sweet potatoes instead of simple sugars or candy to avoid wild fluctuations in your blood-sugar levels.
Protein is the next important nutrient to consider in order to decrease muscle breakdown during and after your workout. Fat takes the longest to digest, so a pre-workout meal should be relatively low in fat.
Your biggest challenge will be knowing how much food you can eat pre-workout, based on your own experience. Some guys can eat a full meal an hour before a rigorous workout, while others with more sensitive guts might have to wait three to four hours.
In general, a meal that is around 500-600 calories and is eaten by a 81kg man two to three hours before a workout should be fine. Smaller snacks of 300 calories or less can be eaten one hour pre-workout, but you should experiment with the timing and meal size to suit your individual needs.
If you’re fueling for an intense endurance activity, then more carbs should be added. Those who are weight-lifting or building muscle should add more protein to their diet. Depending on your activity, the foods listed here will ensure that you get the best out of your workout.
1. Muscle Oats
Credit: Stacy Spensley / Flickr
Recipe: 1/2 cup steel-cut oats with 1 scoop whey protein
Best for: Endurance exercises. Consume one to two hours before exercise.
Calories: 420; Protein: 33 g; Fat: 7 g; Carbs: 57 g; Sugars: 2 g
Steel-cut (Irish) oats are the least-processed type of oat cereal and have a lower glycemic load compared to quick-cooking and instant oats. Steel-cut oats take a bit more time to cook and they’re a more hearty, chewy cereal and a great pre-workout meal. If you’re not crazy about the texture or extra cooking time, old-fashion rolled oats have very similar nutritional qualities and the same glycemic impact as steel-cut oats.
2. Veggie Omelet
Recipe: 2 whole eggs, 2 egg whites, peppers, onions, mushrooms, grapefruit/oatmeal
Best for: Muscle-building. Consume one to two hours before exercise. For circuit training or more cardio, add a grapefruit or 1/2 cup rolled oats.
Calories: 321; Protein: 26 g; Fat: 18 g; Carbs: 13 g; Sugars: 6.47 g
This classic omelet is perfect for those who head to the gym soon after breakfast. As far as whole foods go, eggs have the highest bioavailable proteins. Proteins are given a biological value that measures a protein’s ability to be used by the body. Eggs are used as the gold standard with a biological value of 100.
3. Turkey Leaf Wrap
Credit: Liz Mc / Flickr
Recipe: 4 oz turkey chunks or slices, 1 large collard green leaf, purple onion, red pepper, small tomatoes, 1 tbsp deli mustard. Smear the leaf with the mustard and top with the remaining ingredients. Roll and pin with a toothpick.
Best for: Muscle building. Consume 30 minutes to one hour before exercise. For circuit training or more cardio, use a whole-grain wrap instead of the collard green leaf.
Calories: 184; Protein: 28 g; Fat: 3 g; Carbs: 13 g; Sugars: 6 g.
Turkey is a lean source of protein that is easily digested and won’t cause any digestive upset during exercise. This variation on the classic wrap uses a large collard green leaf to reduce the calories and carbs, perfect for fat loss programs and muscle-building routines. It is also ideal for those who abstain from grains and gluten.
4. Bodybuilder Lunch Classic
Credit: snowpea&bokchoi / Flickr
Recipe: 6 oz grilled chicken with sweet potato and broccoli
Best for: Muscle building and circuit training. Consume two to three hours before exercise.
Calories: 368; Protein: 59 g; Fat: 9 g; Carbs: 37 g; Sugars: 11 g
There’s a reason why fitness models and athletes consume this pre-workout meal regularly. Each ingredient is at the top of their class. Lean poultry has high-quality bioavailable protein, sweet potatoes have complex carbs with added antioxidants, and broccoli has a treasure trove of vitamins, minerals and healthful phytochemicals. These foods have everything the body needs to perform at top speed. It’s a full meal, though, so don’t eat it too close to your workout session.
5. Fruit And Cottage Cheese
Credit: Happy Krissy / Flickr
Recipe: 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese with 1/2 cup fresh berries or melon. Add a banana for endurance.
Best for: Endurance or circuit training. Consume 30-60 minutes before exercise
Calories: 117; Protein: 14 g; Fat: 0.1 g; Carbs: 13 g; Sugars: 6 g
Cottage cheese has no lactose and is considered an excellent source of protein. Blueberries and melons provide the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants needed for your workout. If you need the extra energy for longer endurance, add a banana. Bananas have more carbs than most other fruits and contains potassium, a nutrient that is essential for proper nerve and muscle function. Potassium is important to consider for long, intense sessions, especially if they’re done in hot-weather conditions. This low-calorie, easily digestible snack is perfect for bridging the gap between your last meal and your workout.