If you're a fitness fanatic, you have probably heard this before: what happens outside the gym is just as important as the workout itself. Whether you are working out to build muscle, train for a race, build stamina, lose weight, or tone your figure, diet and lifestyle is just as important as your workouts to achieving these goals. Two ways to achieve these goals are proper nutrition before a workout and after.
The pre workout meal is one of the most contested topics in fitness. The fitness community is full of conflicting information ranging from only workout fasted to always fuel before a workout. If you have fallen trap to the noise and no longer know what to do or how to know what's best for your body, here is what our research has to say:
PRE WORKOUT DEBATE//
The argument against eating before working out sounds pretty convincing: you burn more fat when working out fasted. This argument is based on the idea that when in a fasted state (ie you haven’t eaten in four to six hours) your body has had time to stabilize your blood sugar. When you eat, your blood sugar increases as your body processes your food into fuel for your cells. When blood glucose is high, the body uses the glucose (or sugars) for fuel. However, after a few hours, your blood glucose will subside and balance out, and you will no longer have so much extra glucose to use for energy. To ensure that your blood glucose does not drop too low when you work out in a fasted state, your body will draw upon its fat stores for fuel. Additionally, research shows that when in a fasted state, insulin sensitivity and the production of growth hormones increase, factors which may also aid in fat loss (cite).
All of this sounds great, but it doesn't take into account the numerous other factors at play as well as individual physiology. You see, the above holds true only in very certain conditions. For example, the intensity of the exercise impacts the way the body uses fuel. Heavy lifting or fast running will draw on your glucose stores more than fat regardless of if you are fasted or not. And, regardless of if you burn fat in your workout, it probably won't be enough of a difference to have an impact overall.
Your 30 minutes to hour long workout is just a small portion of your day. And, if you are working out more than that and/or are doing intense workouts be aware that when you work out too intensely without proper fuel your muscles can begin to degrade. This happens because when in a fasted state you don't have enough blood sugar so your body will pull apart amino acids from your muscles to help preserve your blood glucose to keep you alive. This can also increase stress, and chronic low blood sugar and high stress levels can depress your immune system, which no one wants (cite). Also, because you workout fasted you may feel extra hungry after a workout which may lead to overeating later in the day, undoing any of the benefits you may have reaped.
HOW TO MAXIMIZE WORKOUT//
It is clear that the risks of working out fasted far outweigh any benefits. This isn't to say that you must always eat before working out, but that you should make a habit of properly fueling your body to ensure you can maximize your workout. The next question becomes what and when to eat before a workout. The answer depends on what your workout is and how long before working out you are eating.
Carbohydrates are an important source of fuel. As previously discussed, our body's preferred source of fuel is glucose aka the sugar that your body breaks carbs down into. When you do short high intensity workouts, your body uses glucose as your muscles main energy source. With longer kinds of exercise, the use of glucose varies depending on the intensity, activity, and overall diet. Research shows that regardless of exercise, as your body will use glycogen to fuel itself and when the stores of glycogen become depleted your intensity will decrease as you will no longer have the energy to go on.
Research also shows that consuming carbohydrates before a workout can increase blood glucose and therefore glycogen stores. However, it is important to remember that not all carbohydrates are equal. Consuming too many simple carbohydrates before a workout can lead to a drop in energy during the workout. But consuming too many complex carbs may lead to digestive distress. This is why many athletes carb load with a variety of carbs before an event, they want to make sure that their glycogen stores are at capacity so that they have long lasting sources of fuel (cite).
Fat and protein are also important macronutrients to consume before a workout. Fat, unlike carbs, is fuel for longer length exercises when the intensity is moderate to low. Fat may also help to increase endurance. Lastly protein helps with your muscles. Research shows that consuming protein before a workout can increase muscle protein synthesis. Protein consumption pre workout can also improve anabolic response (muscle growth), help to improve muscle recovery, may help to increase strength, lean body mass, and muscle performance (cite). Eating protein before a workout may help to increase the amount of muscle mass gained from the workout especially when the workout involves resistance training.
So, if you are doing a short high intensity workout, consider having a complex carbohydrate rich meal with a moderate amount of protein and fat pre workout. If you exercise is low intensity but lengthy, consider upping the fat portion of the meal. And always include some high quality protein to improve muscle performance (cite).
Timing of your meal is also important. Experts suggest trying to eat a complete meal containing all three macronutrients (but less fat) 2-3 hours before you exercise. This meal should have complex carbohydrates for long lasting energy. If you can't make that work, just know that the closer you are eating to your workout, the smaller and simpler your meal should be. You need to be able to digest the food before you workout, so If eating less than an hour before your workout, opting for easy to digest foods that are mainly simple carbs with a bit of protein is important (cite). This meal should probably have little fat, as fat takes a while to digest so you may not be able to absorb the nutrients before your workout.
If you are short on time because you had a busy day or because you're working out early in the morning, reach for a piece of fruit like an apple or a banana as a pre workout snack. You could also reach for a bite of chocho cookie dough or a granola bar. If you have more time, consider having a meal with a good amount of carbohydrates to get your glycogen stores up. This could be a grain bowl with brown rice, roasted sweet potato, tofu, kale, and a handful of chocho snacks topped with a drizzle of Chocho Garlic Crema. You could also have a protein packed carbohydrate rich smoothie with a scoop of chocho in it. Just remember to simplify your meal the closer you get to your workout.