What Should I Eat Before Working Out?
I'm often asked what the best foods before exercise are. Well let's think about it. You're about to exercise, so that means your muscles need nutrients and energy. You won't find what you need in a greasy piece of pizza, or in a box of animal crackers. You need a snack-like meal that is small, and not filling. That way, you won't feel like you have a lump in your stomach. Another benefit of the snack being small, is that blood will not rush to your stomach to digest a heavy meal.
If you feel a strong need to eat something before a workout, also known as food cravings, it's a sign that your body did not get all of the nutrients it needed from your previous workout. Also, before exercise, hydration should also be kept in mind to keep your muscles working fluently.
Intensity, Carbohydrates, Fat, and You
What your pre-exercise meal is depends on what kind of exercise you will be doing. That being said, let's take a look at the sources of fuel during exercise, or what is being used.
During a longer, less intense workout, the primary source of energy comes from fat. In fact, 70% of the energy used during lower intensity workouts is from stored fat. That leaves approximately 20% from carbohydrates, and 10% from protein.
For moderate exercise, most of the energy used is in the form of carbohydrates, at 60%. Stored energy used (fat) is 35%, and only 5% of energy is from protein.
For intense, short workouts 90% of energy used is from carbohydrates, 7% from fat, and only 3% from protein.
As you can see, these three energy systems use different energy sources. As intensity decreases, the energy used comes more from stored energy, or from fat. This shows us how we are going to fuel up for our workouts, so we can have enough energy to reach our goals.
So What Do I Eat?
For the higher intensity workouts we will fuel up with simple carbohydrates, the best source is fruit. Simple carbohydrates are high in glucose which goes straight to the muscles and is ready to be used; however, after about one hour of exercise this small supply of quick energy will be gone, and you will have to use stored energy.
Moderate exercise will require carbohydrates, and easily digestible fats and proteins. Most of this snack will consist of mostly carbohydrates, and will include small amounts of easily digestible fats and proteins, which are contained in nuts and seeds. The combination of these proteins, fats, and carbohydrates will release the sugars into the blood slower, allowing you to have energy for a longer period of time. This source of energy ends at about the three hour mark.
Lower intensity workouts, or workouts lasting longer than three hours, consist of a well balanced mix of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. The best way for an athlete to have prolonged endurance is to be able to access and use fat stores more easily. This means training the low intensity system often. The amount of fat on the athlete does not matter, even at 2% body fat, the athlete has enough fat to run non-stop for days. So that means you don't need to load up on donuts before a race.
More Fat Does Not Equal More Energy
Eating fatty foods does not give you more energy either. Have you ever seen an overweight person able to run 3 miles in 15 minutes? No, I didn't think so. The fat in the foods would have to be converted into the fat that is stored in the body. Only then can it be used. But, the athlete has to be efficient in using stored energy in order to access that form of energy. So, someone who does not train that system effectively, will benefit very little from that system.
Good Fat vs. Bad Fat
Yes, not all fat is the same. Dietary fat is necessary in a healthy diet. What it does is lubricate joints and allow us to use fat-soluble vitamins such as A and D. And, as we said earlier, it is drawn on as an energy source when carbohydrate levels are low.
To use fat, the body must first break it down into fatty acids, or nutrients that it can put together and use. Consuming fat sources that are directly made of these fatty acids is even better because the body does not have to take the extra time to break it down. So, the good fats are the essential fatty acids or EFA's.
These essential fatty acids are omega-3's, omega-6's, and omega-9's. Consuming a healthy diet will get you all of the omega-6's and 9's that you'll need, but what is a concern is getting enough omega-3's. Unlike omega-6's and 9's, the body can't produce omega-3's. Omega-3's reduce inflammation and muscle soreness, while also burning fat very efficiently. Having these high quality fats makes all the difference to the athlete. They allow you to recover more quickly, and let you train harder for longer.
On the other hand, the bad fats are the nutrient-less fats. These fats come from fried and processed foods. Bad fats to an athlete are like sun to a snowman. Prolonged eating of these bad fats will dramatically decrease your performance, and leave you feeling sluggish and weak.
An example of one of these fats is animal fat. Let's take a cow and turn it into a burger. Then, add some cheese, which is a double negative because it is made from dairy. Next you eat it. What's going to happen? Well, that animal fat will slowly, as in over a couple of days, make permanent residence on your body. That fat that you are carrying is in exactly the same form as it was on the cow. Since you ate that burger, you literally have cow fat on your body!
The Weakest Link
Have you ever wondered why you feel sluggish at the end of a workout? Or why you feel hungry before the end of a workout? Well, here is a list of those common weak links and their solutions.
You Get What You Give
Pre-workout nutrition is not simply “getting something inside of you”, it is getting the right combination of nutrients. It might take a while to figure out exactly what you need, but when you finally find the right combination you'll have the energy you need to stay strong through your whole workout. Remember what you put in is what you get out; putting grease-soaked french fries and donuts into your body before working out will give you absolutely nothing, it'll only bring you down. On the other hand, if you make good choices, you will be rewarded with strength, focus and energy.
Chronicle, R.. The Evils of Fast Food Explained. Lifestyle, 15 Aug. 2007. Web. 2 Apr. 2010.
Brazier, Brendan. Thrive Fitness: Physical and Mental Strength for Life. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Penguin Group, 2009. Print.
- Felt sluggish at the start of a workout - Can either mean you need more blood flow, which means a longer warm-up, or low blood sugar, which means you need that pre-workout snack.
- Faded toward end of workout - If your nutrition is good, then this could be because of your workload. Once fitness increases this problem should no longer occur.
- Feeling stiff - Can mean that you have not fully recovered since your last workout. Stretching and good recovery nutrition should fix the problem.
- Poor concentration - Probably low blood sugar. Don't forget your pre-workout snack.
- Muscles shaking toward end - Muscles are tired, muscles worked hard earlier and are fatiguing.
- Muscles twitch or cramp - May suggest dehydration, sip drink with electrolytes to prevent dehydration.
- Feel hungry before end of workout - If you had your pre-workout snack and you still feel hungry it is probably because your body is burning fuel quickly and needs more fuel, so a very easily digestible snack with simple carbohydrates will do the trick.