I guarantee we have all had those training sessions where we feel exhausted, lethargic, and dragging the whole time. A lot of factors can come into play here: how did you sleep last night? How much have you had to drink today? What did you consume before your training session? All of these play a huge role in how well your workout will go. The one we will be discussing today is your pre-workout meal. Before we go into detail, some might be asking why does it matter what we eat before we train? Well, food is fuel for all humans; just like a car needs gas to move. Each food has different nutrients, advantages, and disadvantages to how they influence our training. If we consume the wrong nutrients before our workout, the results will be seen immediately; you’ll be exhausted and won’t perform at your highest potential, which in the end means your overall goals will be hindered.
So, what should we eat before a workout then? To start, there are three main substrates that we must consume everyday, these are: carbohydrates, lipids (fats), and proteins.
What are carbohydrates and why do I need them training?
Simply, carbohydrates are sugar. Now before you freak out because of the word sugar, hear me out. There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are essentially your short-chained sugars (monosaccharides). Examples of these are cookies, candy bars, soft drinks, etc. These spike your insulin levels immediately and essentially have no nutritional value to us. Complex carbohydrates are the long-chained sugars (polysaccharides). Examples of these are whole grains, vegetables, and legumes. Carbohydrates are the body’s favorite/primary fuel source because they are ready to uptake to the working tissue and be utilized. Carbs are the brain’s favorite fuel to keep working at optimal levels. Without carbohydrates in our nutrition plan, we may not lose the body fat or weight we are hoping to lose, not to mention that we may feel fatigued much faster than if we had carbohydrates.
So why do you need them before training?
Carbohydrates fuel your training so you can get that extra rep in and help your overall recovery.
Having the carbohydrates in your pre-workout meal helps preserve muscle and liver glycogen, allowing better muscle retention and growth.
Carbohydrates stimulate insulin release. When carbohydrates are paired with protein before workout, they help increase protein synthesis and prevent protein breakdown.
What are lipids (fats) and why do I need them for training?
I’m sure you’ve heard of a few different types of fat: saturated, unsaturated, and trans fat. There is one superior fat between these three, which one is it? Your answer should be unsaturated. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature and they are considered saturated because they have no double bonds and are saturated with hydrogen molecules. A prime example of saturated fat is butter. Other examples include fatty beef, cheese, and cream. However, saturated fats aren’t always as scary as they sound, especially when it comes to men. Saturated fat actually provides increased levels of testosterone in men (which helps with body composition and many other benefits). It comes down to how much is in your diet. Yes, having too high of saturated fat in the diet may lead to increased LDL cholesterol and higher cardiovascular risk, but having too little can decrease testosterone and HDL levels. Saturated fats should make up no more than 10% of your total caloric intake per day. More than 10% can lead to the unwanted cardiovascular risks, but make sure you don’t cut them completely out if you want to maintain/increase testosterone levels
Trans fats are formed from a process called hydrogenation (where hydrogen is added). These are found a lot in your deep fried foods and some oils. Trans fats raise your LDL (bad cholesterol) if you intake too much per day.
Unsaturated fats are the healthier choices between these three. With these, there are double bonds unlike saturated. These are foods usually liquid at room temperature and increase your HDL (good cholesterol). Examples of these are soybean oil, sunflower oil, and salmon.
So why do I need them before training? The biggest reason is that they help slow down digestion and maintains blood glucose and insulin levels, allowing you to maintain balance. Fats also supply required vitamin and minerals to help facilitate the natural processes of the body (including increased levels of testosterone).
What are proteins and why do I need them for training?
Protein is the building block for muscle and tissue. Without it, we cannot create stronger, healthier tissue. Proteins help to heal and restore. Now protein is mainly found in your meat products (beef, chicken, fish, etc.), but you can find it in a number of places. Other examples are eggs, milk, yogurt, quinoa, and many other foods.
So why do I need them before training?
Protein helps maintain or increase your muscle size; it’s essential in altering your body composition.
Protein also helps reduce markers of muscle damage – preventing degradation and breakdown of your muscles, allowing you to recover faster and see increased progress.
Another top reason for protein in your pre-workout is that you get more amino acids in your bloodstream, allowing more muscle-building to occur and speeding the recovery process.
Ever heard of BCAAs (branched chain amino acids)? These amino acids are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAAs provide the basis for protein synthesis. These amino acids can provide up to one-third of muscle proteins, meaning they provide beneficial metabolic processes and assist with body composition. Consuming BCAAs before training allow them to go directly into the bloodstream, which can increase uptake into muscle tissue. The main benefits of BCAAs are:
May lower lactate levels after resistance training, allowing improved muscular oxidation.
May increase growth hormone, allowing more muscle growth.
Help decrease catabolic enzymes that damage tissue.
Now what do I eat?
Before we go into what we should be eating, just as important is meal timing. Ideally, you want to get your nutrition 2-3 hours before your training session to make sure that the food is digested, because if you have a large meal right before you exercise, you may have an unpleasant time. The hard part with the 2-3 hour suggestion is that some individuals may train early in the morning, making it very challenging to get that meal in. Luckily, if you’re in a pinch, there are other snacks/meals that you can have.
Let’s say you can get in a meal 2-3 hours before your workout, what should it look like? Well, remember the three substrates we talked about earlier (carbs, proteins, fats)? This is where they come into play. A combination of all three should be in your meal. The majority of your pre-workout meal should be protein and carbohydrates, with a little fat. Depending on the individual and their goals, ratios and portion sizes will vary. Here are some general suggestions:
~ 1 cup of protein
~ 1 to 2 cups of veggies
~ ½ cup of complex carbohydrates
~ 1 tbsp. of healthy fat
The goals with these are to make sure they are WHOLE food and minimally processed. With this meal, you’ll have the protein to help preserve muscle tissue, the veggies/carbs for your energy source during the training session, and the fat to help control the speed of the digestion process, allowing us to maintain blood glucose and insulin levels (which will assist in body fat loss).
Now for those individuals who are short on time and don’t have the 2-3 hours ahead of time to get the nutrition in, here are some suggestions for you. The closer we get to the training session, the less time there is to digest. Liquids are more beneficial at this point, but you can still have snacks. If you prefer a shake or a smoothie, here is an example:
~ 1 scoop of protein powder
~ 1 cup of veggies (eg. spinach)
~ ½ to 1 cup of fruit (eg. berries or bananas)
~ 1 tbsp. of healthy fat (eg. mixed nuts or flax seeds)
~ 8 ounces of a low calorie beverage (water works wonders or even almond milk).
We are still getting our essential nutrients in before the session, but the measurements are less than that of the full meal. Same rules apply, aim for whole food and minimally processed.
For those individuals who literally have no time for a full meal or a shake, there are still options for you. Since training time is very close, lighter food is the better solution here. A quick example here would be:
1 slice of whole wheat bread
½ sliced banana
½ tbsp. of natural peanut butter
Another quick example is:
½ tbsp. of almond butter or peanut butter
With minimal to no time, lighter foods are better so you don’t feel sick during the training. With the above examples, we are getting a protein source, carbohydrate source, and a fat source. Feel free to mix and match foods, but make sure everything is whole and minimally processed. Just keep in mind that the closer you are to your training session, the less heavy the meal should be.
You should be able to get all of the nutrients you need through whole foods and nutrition. I’m not saying that supplements are bad, but people rely too heavily on them and don’t focus on eating whole, healthy foods. However, supplements and pre-workout drinks may be beneficial for you if you’re an athlete with high sport demands or if you’re lacking your main nutrients, meaning that you aren’t getting the proper nutrition that help with your training session. Another factor that comes into play is what you’re trying to accomplish during your training session. Not everyone needs the same supplements; it comes down to what you’re training for, what the training session is going to entail (what energy systems are being tapped into), and what your nutrition has been for the day. Here is a general pre-workout drink, with the focus on high intensity, strength/power/metabolic sessions:
5g of plain BCAAs (the rule of thumb is 5g of BCAAs per hour of training)
5g of plain creatine (anymore is not beneficial and will be stored as excess water weight)
250-500 mg of caffeine (helps improve central nervous system output)
This one is controversial because everyone handles caffeine differently. Some individuals can’t tolerate it, while others can. It’s important to know if it bothers you or not.
A carb powder. This can be adjusted based on your needs. Cytomax, or G2 are examples that work for most.
8-12 oz of water
Basic nutrition before exercise will help with your overall goals, increase your energy levels during the session, and help alter body composition. If we keep feeding ourselves junk, we are going to train like junk, basically yielding unwanted results. This goes the same for not eating before a training session; your body has no fuel and your results will be hindered. The suggestions above are for the average individual. Your nutrition plan will vary depending on your goals, body composition, and if you have any nutritional deficiencies; but this is a great starting point. Athletes will require different pre-workout nutrition depending on their sport demands.
If you need help with your overall nutrition or have plateaued with your goals/body composition you can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org for help getting you back on track!
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