Confused about what to eat before you head to the gym?
You’re not alone.
There’s so much contradictory information out there on the topic, that it’s no wonder most people don’t know which way to turn.
You know that you need to fuel up for your workout. But does that mean you should be having a whole food meal? And, if so, which ones will give you the energy you need without making you feel bloated and lethargic during the workout?
In this article, we’ll take you through the best way to pick out the natural foods to include in your pre-workout meals/snacks based on your specific goals.
Before We Get Started
- 1 Before We Get Started
- 2 What Is A Pre-Workout Meal/Snack?
- 3 Working Out To Get Slimmer
- 4 Working Out To Gain Muscle
- 5 Recap
Don’t Overestimate It's Importance
The culture surrounding working out can feel very intense, demanding and specific at times, but it’s important to remember that your body can probably do a lot more than you think without following specific supplementation, diets, workout methods or any of that.
Especially if you’re just starting to workout, you may want to start exercising without changing much else, block out all the noise about what you “should” or “shouldn’t” do and get a genuine feel for how your body is reacting to your workouts. Then, try and spot the specific problems you’re having with respect to your goals, and tweak your diet or pre-workout foods, etc. accordingly.
Many Nutritionists Disagree With Each Other
Nutritional science is constantly getting updated, challenged and changed over the years. This is the general nature of science- you never know what might change or what might be refuted. Therefore, be sure to keep an open mind when it comes to food and exercise.
There are even plenty of nutrition scientists that have drastically opposing views from each other, but here we’ll list out the methods that have been most successfully applied.
Individual differences are not something to be ignored, though, so if you find that a particular way of eating before exercise works best for you, by all means go for it.
The Food You’re Used To Will Probably Work Better At First
We have to keep in mind that the body adapts to the fuel it’s used to getting. For example, it may be “healthier” not to consume a meal with so much refined sugars, but if your body has been used to a certain consistent amount of sugar for energy, not having enough of it before a workout may cause your body to feel more lethargic than someone who isn’t used to that much sugar.
The body also grows unaccustomed to foods it hasn’t had in a while. This means that even if a certain food is good for you, your body won’t be able to digest it soon enough for your workout, if at all.
For that reason, it may be better to slowly wean yourself into healthier pre-workout meals to make sure you’re getting the most out of them.
Genes & Medical Conditions Play A Huge Role
Lastly, we should always remember that even though getting results is often presented as purely a matter of discipline and will power, there’s a large proportion of that that’s influenced by genetics and/or an underlying medical issue you may unknowingly have.
Genetics largely determine the outcome of things like your gut microbiome, hormone levels, metabolism, fat distribution, etc. All these things that have a major impact on how your body reacts to certain foods, how you exercise and how fast you’ll see the results you want.
That being said, it’s important to approach your diet and exercise journey as an opportunity to explore how your own unique body works rather than through a judgmental lens of what it “should” be capable of doing.
What Is A Pre-Workout Meal/Snack?
A pre-workout meal or snack is the food you eat up to 4 hours before you start working out. It’s usually the time when you try to prep your body with some extra fuel for a workout, so it’s usually full of relatively easy-to-digest foods that you’d be able to absorb on time before you exercise.
Foods that may be important for exercise, but take a long time to digest are usually saved for refueling (post-work out meals, or anytime throughout the rest of the day). For that reason, it’s important to remember that your general diet is more important for your workout than the meal you have right before it.
Foods To Avoid
For an effective workout, you need your pre-workout meal to give you a proper boost without leaving you with uncomfortable digestion right before it. It’s no good reaching for foods you know are good for you, but would probably still be sitting in your gut as you workout.
Having food in your tummy throughout exercise can cause you to feel lethargic, or even cause you to throw up (depending on the sport). It would also minimize the amount of energy you actually get from your pre-workout meal. In other words, you would have wasted a pre-workout meal your muscles won’t be fully able to access for energy anyway, because you didn’t absorb them in time.
Here are some things to avoid in order to keep that from happening:
Foods That Are Hard To Digest
There are a bunch of foods that generally take a long time to digest and are best to be included in post-workout instead.
- Meats take too long to digest to be incorporated in a pre-workout meal (around 4-6 hours).
- Fats and fibers both slow down digestion and therefore make food absorption more efficient. This is usually a good thing, but for a pre-workout meal, you would want to absorb the energy from it as quickly as possible.
- Legumes and greens contain substances like cellulose that are generally difficult to digest and best to be avoided before a workout.
Foods Your Body Isn’t Used To
When we eat foods we’re not used to, the enzymes and gut bacteria we need to digest them quickly are usually much lower, so they usually sit in our gut for a longer time than it does for others, and would have a lower chance of being absorbed and used during your workout.
It’s therefore advisable that you slowly ease your diet into a healthier one over time.
Working Out To Get Slimmer
When working on losing body fat, your body has to be burning more calories than it adds on. Therefore, you should keep your pre-workout meals relatively low in calories.
However, you have to also be careful about drastically and consistently being in a catabolic state (especially while exercising), as your body can eventually go into breaking down protein as an energy source and therefore make you lose muscle.
The types of exercises that use fat as an energy source are called “aerobic” exercises, also referred to as cardio. This is the type of exercise your muscles are usually doing throughout the day- standing, walking, jogging, swimming etc.
Since this usually relies on fat for fuel, and most fats take a long time to digest, most of the energy you would need for such exercises would have to be from your general diet, not your pre-workout meals. Your pre-workout meals therefore wouldn’t necessarily be more useful if they contained a lot of carbs, since it’s not the main fuel source you will be using.
Studies have generally shown that a good carb, protein (and low fat) meal is ideal for cardio workouts.
Below are some good pre-workout foods for people trying to burn fat:
A Stick Of Honey (Right Before Exercise)
According to nutritionist George Lockhart, our body has the ability to lock onto its fat and glycogen reserves when it “feels” it doesn’t know when it’ll next get food. A smart way to override this instinct is to take a teaspoon of honey right before a workout.
This tricks the body into thinking that it doesn’t need to reserve its fat and glycogen stores and would allow more of it to be burned off during exercise!
This is also partly why nutritionists often suggest eating at the same time everyday, so that our body could get used to getting food consistently and not hold onto its fat reserves as a pre-caution.
Ice-Cold Water (Right Before Exercise)
If you’ve ever been in a hot desert for a long time, you may have noticed that after a while of being in immense heat, you stop sweating and you don’t pee as much as you’d think you would. That’s because our body also locks onto water reserves for the same reason- when it think’s it’ll be a while before we hydrate.
Therefore, drinking a good amount of water right before exercising allows your body to sweat more, therefore making you lose water weight. Making sure the water is ice-cold also allows your body to heat up for a lot longer before it starts sweating more, which has been shown to enhance your strength and endurance during exercise!
The recommended amount of water to have before a workout is:
- 2-3 hours before a workout: 17 – 20 oz
- 20 minutes before a workout: 7 – 10 oz
Fruits & Veggie Juices High In Nitrate
Research has been booming when it comes to nitrates for workout performance. It has been found that dietary nitrate decreases our muscles’ demand for oxygen during cardio, which would allow us to become more efficient throughout the workout. You’d be able to run/swim/jog more without losing your breath, and consequently burn more calories.
Veggies are usually higher in nitrate content than fruits, some of those include:
Parfait is the exact blend of proteins and carbs that could be useful before a workout. You should especially pick out parfaits made with Greek yogurt, as they’re higher in protein and lower in simple sugars.
Parfait even has a little bit of fats in there that could help fuel your workout if you consume it early enough.
Eggs are a perfect, easy-to-digest protein source you could use for a workout. Ingesting low carbs and a decent amount of protein before a workout helps activate the hormone glucagon. This hormone has the opposite function of insulin, meaning it tells your body to burn off energy rather than store it.
“Providing your body with proteins before a workout would also help minimize muscle catabolism!”
- 2-4 hours before: Egg sandwich (gluten free), parfait, nitrate fruit/veggie juice
- 30mins to an hour before: Nitrate fruit/veggie juice, yogurt
- Right before: stick of honey, ice-cold water
If you don’t have that much fat you want to get rid of, you could switch your focus to gaining muscle instead. When your muscles grow your fat spreads out more across your body, causing you to “lean out” and look skinner. This is especially the case for men, as their muscles can grow to a much larger size than women, and so their body fat percentage would drop even more drastically.
Check out the section below for pre-workout foods that help specifically with muscle gain.
Working Out To Gain Muscle
If your goal is to gain muscle, you want your body to be in an anabolic state more often, so your muscles can repair from intense exercise. This generally happens when you consume more calories than you burn off.
The key thing would be to make sure what you’re eating is going towards your workout, rather than to just be stored as body fat.
Muscle training focuses more on weight lifting and high-intensity exercises than it does light cardio. These are called anaerobic exercises, where your muscles are working “without oxygen.”
With these kinds of exercises, we typically rely more on our muscles’ glycogen stores, because it’s the fastest way to get energy. Therefore, you should make sure your pre-workout meal is high in carbs to maximize your fuel. Having a high amount of protein is also recommended.
Fruits like bananas and pumpkin are high-glycemic foods that can give you a good boost for a high-intensity workout. Banana is also high in potassium, which ensures healthy muscle contraction.
Oatmeal and cereals are another high-carb, high-protein food that’s perfect for muscle gains. However, you should be sure to either use lactose-free milk, or water, to avoid indigestion.
Both of those options are relatively high in fiber, so you should take them approximately 3 hours before your workout. Supplementing your pre-workout foods with natural testosterone boosting supplements can help you with your fitness goals.
Long-Grain White Rice (Gluten-Free)
Long-grain white rice is a good carb source that also happens to be relatively high in protein and low in fiber. It’s also the perfect filler food for most meals, so it’s a good way to guarantee an enjoyable meal before your workout.
- 3-4 hours before: Egg-fried rice, parfait.
- 30mins to an hour before: Nitrate fruit/veggie juice, yogurt.
- Right before: Stick of honey, water.