Fitness

What to Eat Before a Workout for Great Results

Nutrition sets the foundation for your workout. It is the fuel that will power you through your training sessions. So it’s important to learn what to eat before a workout.

We are what we eat is never truer than when it comes to training our bodies. What you put in it in the critical window before your training session will be the single most important determiner of the quality of your workout.

Get it right and your will fuel yourself through a results driven, muscle quivering and fat scorching straining session that will take you where you want to go. Get it wrong and it doesn’t matter how much will power you put into your training, your body just won’t have the mojo to follow through. Let’s learn what to eat before a workout so you can get it right.

Should you eat before you train?

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Nutrition sets the foundation for your workout. It is the fuel that will power you through your training sessions. Yet, there is a widespread belief out there that you shouldn’t eat before you train. That, though, is the biggest mistake you can make in your training preparation – especially if you are intent on building muscle. You simply must provide your muscles with the right environment to operate at their peak.

When to eat it

The optimal time to eat is 60 – 90 minutes before the workout, if you’re concentrating on consuming whole foods. Any sooner than that, and you may suffer from gastro-intestinal upset while you’re training.

Planning is critical. Give yourself plenty of time to prepare your meal, so that the time you are actually eating, rather than preparing it, is within that 60 – 90 minute window. Alternately, prepare your meal ahead of time. The food needs to be well and truly into your bloodstream and coursing toward your muscle cells as you walk through the gym door.

What to eat

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Eating fish pre-workout is a great idea. It is one of the fastest digesting proteins, whereas meat, which is a slow digesting protein, will take 3-4 hours to get into your bloodstream. White fish, however, will provide a steady stream of amino acids into your bloodstream just in time for when it counts. This will help promote recovery and prevent catabolism.

You do not want to eat fat prior to your workout. When you are working out, you should be spiking your insulin. You can achieve this by sipping on a workout shake while you’re training. Insulin is a storage hormone, so when levels are high, any fat floating around in your bloodstream will go straight to your fat stores.

You will, however, need to add some quality carbohydrates. Slow release carbs are the way to go here. Fast release carbs will spike your insulin levels, but you don’t want this to happen until you are working out. So, leave it until you are in the gym to spike your insulin. Slow release carbs will provide a steady stream of energy to power you through your workout. Brown rice is a great choice here.

Some alternative pre-workout meals are an apple or a banana with some tuna, a protein shake, or a slice of bread with tuna on it (no butter on the bread).

The protein shake meal

If you choose to take your pre-workout meal in the form of a shake rather than whole food, then you should move it closer to the workout – within 30 minutes of training is ideal.

You should be looking for a shake that will give you 20 grams of protein and about 30-40 grams of carbohydrates, to provide the ideal environment to carry you through your workout, prevent muscle breakdown and encourage muscle recovery and growth. Whey protein powder is the fastest digesting protein that you can consume.

The amino acids in whey protein will get into your bloodstream and to your muscles during the workout, when you need them the most. Whey is also a great source of the branch chain amino acids, Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine, which reduce fatigue and increase energy levels during the workout, as well as keeping your testosterone levels high and reducing muscle breakdown after the workout.

A pre-workout shake will supply your protein needs. For carbs, the best thing you can do 30 minutes before the workout is to eat some fruit like an apple or a banana. Carbs from fruit will provide a slow release energy source without interfering with fat burning.

Fruit is also a great choice because it provides powerful antioxidants that maximize nitric oxide levels during training. Research has also shown that polyphenols in such fruit as apples not only increases muscle strength and endurance, but also enhance fat burning.

No carbs?

If you are trying to maximize fat loss, you should consider ditching your pre-workout carbs completely. Even though slow carbs will interfere less with fat burning during the workout than fast carbs, the only way to truly maximize fat burning during the workout is to avoid carbs completely.

Ideally, your pre and post workout meals should be no more than 3 to 4 hours apart, with a 45 – 60 minute training session sandwiched between them.

What about supplements?

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Within 30 minutes before your workout, you should get your pre-workout supplements into your system. The following products are the ones that have been proven both by scientific research and in the trenches experience, to provide the energy and strength boost that will power you through an amazing workout.

Don’t think, though, that you need to go shopping for each of these pre-workout supplement ingredients individually. The idea is to take this list and use it as the basis for selecting the pre-workout supplement stack that ticks most of the boxes. So, here goes:

1. Beta-alanine

Beta-alanine is an amino acid that is naturally produced in the body, meaning that is not an essential amino acid. In recent years, however, it has come to be seen as an essential pre-workout supplement due to its ability to increase carnosine levels within the muscle cell. This allows you to do more work at high intensity. How? Beta-alanine is an inhibitor of hydrogen ions that are produced during high intensity exercise.

Hydrogen ions lower the pH levels within muscle cells, which leads to muscle fatigue. Because beta-alanine restricts the build-up of hydrogen ions, it helps to ward of muscle fatigue. Beta alanine works best for high intensity anaerobic exercise that lasts for at least 5 minutes.

Recommendation: Consume 5g of beta-alanine as a pre-workout supplement just prior to your workout.

2. Creatine

Creatine is found naturally in the human body and in foods such as meat products. It is one of the most researched substances in the world, with over 200 studies done on it in the last 10 years. These studies have shown conclusively that creatine supplementation will assist the body in:

  1. Building muscle
  2. Improving strength
  3. Enhancing anaerobic endurance
  4. Reducing post work-out muscle soreness and overall bodily fatigue

The majority of the studies mentioned above have been conducted on standard creatine monohydrate. A large number of creatine derivatives have hit the marketplace, however, each one claiming to boost its effectiveness exponentially. Despite the claims, and the expensive price tags, good old fashioned creatine monohydrate will do the job nicely.

Recommendation: Use a loading protocol, involving consuming 3 g per kg of body weight for 3-5 days, followed by 3-5g after that. Take as a pre-workout supplement immediately prior to your work-out.

3. Nitric oxide

Nitric oxide (NO) is a gas that the body naturally produces. The body uses the amino acid arginine to produce it. NO affects your workout performance by regulating the release of hormones and adrenaline. In addition, NO increases blood flow, allowing nutrients to get to the muscle cells more quickly.

This will also produce a faster and more prolonged muscle pump. The supplement taken as nitric oxide is actually a combination of arginine, citruline and beta-alanine, which boost the body’s natural production of the gas.

Recommendation: Take 7-9 g of arginine, citruline and beta-alanine as a pre-workout supplement daily.

4. Taurine

Taurine, named for Taurus after being discovered in bull’s bile, is a non-essential amino acid. It has been proven to increase muscular endurance and strength by increasing blood flow to the muscles due to its ability to boost Nitric Oxide (NO) production.

Taurine also has the ability to increase water absorption by muscle cells, with the effect of achieving a better pump. When we work out, our muscle concentrations of taurine drop, leading to reduced contractile ability. Supplementing with taurine will offset this natural drop.

Recommendation: Take 1-2 g of Taurine per day as a pre-workout supplement just prior to your work-out.

5. Testosterone

Testosterone is the male growth hormone. As such, it makes our muscle cells larger (hypertrophy) as well as encouraging them to replicate (hyperplasia). Higher testosterone levels also allow us to have more energy, be more focused, and control body fat levels. In order to boost our testosterone levels naturally, Zinc has been shown to have a beneficial effect on testosterone.

Zinc deficiency is linked with decreased testosterone, so normalizing one’s zinc levels will bring up the levels of testosterone. Vitamin D has also shown positive signs in its ability to enhance the body’s production of testosterone.

6. Caffeine

Caffeine is a stimulant that preps the body for better focus and improved endurance performance. Specifically, it makes us more mentally alert, increases the metabolic rate and decreases the perception of fatigue. How it does all of this is not totally clear, but it is known to stimulate the release of catecholamines and the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine.

Caffeine also inhibits arginine activity, which makes more arginine available for nitric oxide production and a greater blood flow to the working muscle.

Caffeine pre-workout supplementation should take place an hour prior to working out. The ideal dosage is 5-6 mg per kg of body weight, which equates to 3 – 4 cups of coffee.

7. Protein

Protein supplements – powders, pre-made drinks and amino acid tablets – are heavily promoted as essentials for building muscle and priming your body for a decent workout. The truth of the matter is that protein supplements have a place, but should not be overused or relied upon.

The key benefit of protein supplementation is as a convenient way to take in protein on the run. It’s also a great way to add some protein to your meal by sprinkling the powder over your food. The human body was designed to eat food, not to drink it. So, getting in a whole food meal an hour before your workout is a better option.

For those who have issues with food digestion, however, getting their protein in shake form may prevent gastric problems during the workout.

Only for the ladies

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Do women have any unique pre-workout supplementation requirements? Yes they do. While all of the supplements listed above will work equally well for men and women, the addition of a good branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplement will provide an energy boost to the muscle cells of the female trainer.

This is important for women, who more readily store carbohydrates as body fat than men, a tendency which encourages many to cut back on their carb intake. Too few carbs, however, means no energy. BCAA’s can help fill the void. In addition, they will help speed muscle recovery and aid in protein synthesis.

Recommendation: Take 5 gms of BCAA’s as a pre-workout supplement just prior to the workout.

Get stacked

Stacking supplements (taking them as a pre-made combination product) makes a lot of sense. For one thing, the work of finding the best supplements, getting them in the right dosage and ratio is all done for you.

Then there’s the synergistic effect that takes place when pre-workout supplements work together. The compounds have the ability to work along different pathways to achieve the same result – enhance energy, build muscle and aid recovery – in a way that is more effective together than when acting singly.

Our recommendation, then, is that you go shopping for a pre-workout supplement product that includes the supplements listed above in a single product. Then check out their professional reviews, the “per serving” price, and the feedback from real customers. That way you’ll be in the position to make a smart choice about what you’re going to put into your body during that critical window to allow you to blast your way through your next workout.

Key facts

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  1. Have a meal 60 – 90 minutes before the workout.
  2. Focus on fast release proteins and slow release carbs.
  3. Take no fat in your pre-workout meal.
  4. Take in 20 grams of protein and 30-40 grams of carbs.
  5. If you are taking a pre-workout shake have it 30 minutes before the workout.
  6. Your pre-workout shake should be whey protein based.
  7. Take an apple with your shake.
  8. If on a fat cutting diet, ditch the pre-workout carbs.

Now that you have all the information, there's nothing stopping you from a proper workout.

About the author

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Steve Theunissen

Steve Theunissen is a former gym owner and personal trainer who lives in New Zealand with his wife, Shelley, and two daughters. For the last decade, Steve has taught literacy to Middle School students. He also runs a fitness boot camp for pre-teens.

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