Knowing how to fuel your workout for the best results — preferably without getting a stitch — can be a difficult one and differs from person to person. While some people like to get up at the crack of dawn and do a fasted workout, this isn’t for everyone and if you’re going midway through the day, then you’re going to want to eat before then and pack in some pre-workout foods. You’re also going to want to eat right, so that you can get through your workout without feeling sluggish from too much, or lethargic from too little. Read on to discover some excellent eats to leave you ready for anything the gym throws at you.
The Benefits Of Eating Pre-Workout Foods
So, let’s start by talking about why you should be eating pre-workout. Many people carry out what’s called fasted cardio, in an attempt to burn and lose body fat, but unless you’re carrying out this cardio from 6am – 7am, you need to fuel your body before each and every workout.
Ultimately, you should picture your body like a car – you can’t expect to drive 150 miles with no petrol in the tank, can you? If you’re looking to perform and train at your best, you need to make sure your body has enough fuel to do so. If you fail to provide yourself with the energy and nutrients required during exercise, the chances are you won’t see results as quickly as you should. Plus, over a long period of time, the likelihood of becoming ill or injured will be increased if you don’t eat the right pre-workout foods.
Here are some of the reasons you want to fuel your body right to smash your fitness potential:
1. Gives You More Energy
Our bodies use carbohydrates and glycogen as the first source of fuel. This is because carbohydrates and stored glycogen can be converted into ATP (adenoise triphosphate, i.e. energy) faster than protein and fat. Therefore, filling up your glycogen stores pre-workout will mean you’ll have more energy to perform at your best.
2. Prevent Muscle Catabolism
When we exercise, glycogen stores are quickly used up and depleted, so the body looks for new sources of energy – our muscles. By breaking down hard-earned muscle, the body can utilise amino acids for energy. This is bad, as it puts our bodies into a catabolic state, which can prevent muscle growth and recovery.
3. Increase Muscle Anabolism
Eating the right foods pre-workout means you won’t only top up your glycogen stores, but by eating a good source of protein, you’ll also be able to promote muscle-protein synthesis and create an anabolic environment in the body.
What and When to Eat Pre-Workout
In every meal, you need to consider the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fats. You also need to consider the ratio in which you are eating them.
Pre-workout, it’s best to avoid too much fat. This is because, although high in energy with 9kcal per gram, fats are slow-digesting. This means, instead of making you energetic, they can actually make you feel sluggish and heavy.
Pre-workout meals containing protein provide us with a major benefit – the prevention of muscle catabolism. By consuming a good source of protein before a workout, you can give your body the amino acids (branched-chain amino acids in particular) that it needs to prevent muscle breakdown, whilst aiding muscle recovery and growth.
There are two types of carbohydrates: simple, high glycaemic index carbohydrates, and complex, low glycaemic index carbohydrates. But which one is best pre-workout?
This ultimately depends on your goal and the time of your pre-workout meal. Simple carbohydrates are great for 30 minutes to an hour before a workout, as they provide the body with fast-acting glucose as fuel. However, complex carbohydrates also play a role within energy metabolism. By consuming low GI carbohydrates around 2-3 hours before a workout, you can give your body a slow-releasing source of energy. This means you’ll be able to work out for longer and be less likely to have a dip in your blood sugar levels in the middle of your workout.
Maybe you’re worried about eating too soon before a workout and feeling sluggish, or maybe too early a crashing before you even tie up your trainers. Follow these simple timing guidelines to get into gear:
30 Minutes to an Hour Pre-Workout consume light meals and foods which contain simple carbohydrates and some protein.
2-3 Hours Pre-Workout consume a meal around 400- 500 calories containing a good source of protein (around 20g) and complex low GI carbohydrates (20-30g).
Bananas are a great source of natural sugars, simple carbohydrates, and potassium. In the body, potassium is only stored for a limited amount of time, so try consuming a banana around 30 minutes to an hour before your workout. Eating a banana pre-workout is the perfect way to boost your glycogen stores and increase blood sugar levels — you can add some peanut butter for that extra protein boost.
2. Chicken, Rice & Vegetables
The stereotypical healthy meal: chicken, rice, and vegetables. This is actually a classic pre-workout meal. By combining a good source of lean protein and complex carbohydrates, this meal can provide amino acids to promote anabolism (muscle growth) and a slow-releasing source of energy. Consume a meal like this around 2-3 hours before a workout.
Check out this barbeque chicken recipe to spice up your rice.
3. Protein Bar
Photo: Instagram @yvonneattree
If you’re on the go and looking for a quick top-up before the gym, then a protein bar is a great option. There are lots of options out there, but in terms of a pre-workout snack, you want to fuel your workout as well as boost your protein intake. Look for one with some carbohydrates too to offer a good balance of energy. A protein flapjack such as Oats and Whey would make a good pre-workout as it contains protein, contributing to muscle mass as well as oats — a complex carbohydrate that’ll have you trampling the treadmill for hours. The low-sugar content is an added bonus for those watching their waistlines too. Eat around an hour before you workout to optimise your workout energy.
4. Porridge and Oatmeal
Porridge makes the ultimate pre-workout breakfast. This pre-workout food contains complex carbohydrates and is also a great source of the soluble fibre, beta-glucan. By consuming oats around 2 hours before a workout, you’ll be able to satisfy your hunger throughout, whilst getting a great source of slow-releasing energy. Try adding a scoop of protein powder or a blob of peanut butter to your porridge too — that way you’ll also get a great source of protein and amino acids.
5. Fruit Smoothies
Many people think fruit smoothies are great tasting and super-healthy. Whilst smoothies do provide a series of micronutrients that are beneficial for health and well-being, they’re also full of sugars, including fructose. This means that smoothies are often high in calories and what are often mistaken as drinks are actually meal replacements. However, consuming a fruit smoothie pre-workout is a great meal option that can provide you with a good source of fast-acting glucose. Add some protein powder to max the benefits of your pre-workout smoothie.
6. Wholegrain Bread, Sweet Potato and Brown Rice
Wholegrain Bread, sweet potato, and brown rice are great sources of complex carbohydrates that should be consumed around 2-3 hours pre-workout. Combining these foods with a good source of protein means you’ll get a good source of slow-releasing energy to fuel you throughout a whole workout. Carbohydrates should be consumed by all those physically active, but in particular, those who carry out regular endurance activities such as cycling and running.
Try these loaded sweet potato toast ideas for a tasty pre-workout.
7. Apple Wedges and Peanut Butter
Enjoying sliced apple wedges with a small spread of peanut butter is one of the tastiest and easiest pre-workout foods. This is a great option for those who are on a calorie restricted diet and are watching their carb intake. The added crunch-factor will satisfy any cheeky cravings while still providing you with protein from the peanut butter and plenty of nutrients from the apple. It’s perfect for consuming around 30 minutes before a workout.
If you’re into your foodie fitness, then there’s no way that could get by without some form of eggs on a daily basis. Although eggs contain a certain amount of fat, omelettes made using whole eggs or just egg whites are a great source of muscle-building protein and amino acids. Omelettes should be consumed 2-3 hours before a workout to avoid muscle catabolism and promote muscle growth — for added nutrients, add some greens such as spinach or kale to make the most of this meal.
9. Homemade Protein Bars
We listed pre-made protein bar options earlier, but if you’re into your baking, then give some homemade bars a go. Homemade protein bars are super easy to make and are top of the list for on-the-go pre-workout foods. What’s more, you can control the content making bars that are high in carbohydrates and protein or low in carbohydrates and high in protein. You can add everything from nuts and seeds to dried fruit and a sprinkle of chocolate — just watch the sugar content.
These easy 4-ingredient strawberry and cream protein bars will have you racing through your workout.
10. Protein Shakes
Last but not least, protein shakes. If you’re on the go and in a hurry, then a quick protein shake can solve your pre-workout problems. A good quality shake will contain plenty of nutrients and you can mix a few more bits and bobs in, such as BCAAs to really make your shake pack a punch. By consuming a shake with a good source of fast-releasing protein, such as whey protein, with simple carbohydrates like maltodextrin powder, you can get all the pre-workout nutrients you need in a matter of minutes. Sip on a shake around an hour before your workout to maximise your gains.
Try this energising homemade pre-workout shake to charge up your workouts.
Take Home Message
Whatever pre-workout foods you decide on, make sure that it packs a nutritional punch. Crack on with the carbs and protein and make sure that you include other nutrients too, so that your body can go full throttle without a breakdown. There are so many tasty options out there, so be creative and keep yourself motivated with the many delicious dishes to fuel your workout the right way.
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Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you're concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.