When it comes to pre-workout nutrition, if you look at the research, like with most nutrition advice, you’ll find studies that support ‘fasted is better,’ ‘fed is better,’ and ‘it doesn’t matter.’ The best thing to do is experiment with what works best for your unique body.
If you don’t have time, if having food in your stomach when you exercise makes you cramp, or if the idea of forcing down a bite makes you want to gag, that’s all right! It’s worse to force it.
If not eating (in general or enough) before a workout makes you feel dizzy, lightheaded, weak, nauseated, low energy/lethargic, or experience more injuries, you’ll probably want to eat (enough) beforehand.
If you do eat, be mindful of timing and what food you eat.
Again, experiment with this to see what works best for you, but generally the ideal time to eat is between 45 minutes to 2 hours before your workout. That way you’re not still digesting when you hit the gym floor (hello sluggishness and cramps!), but you haven’t gone and used up all those helpful calories/energy yet.
The best foods to eat beforehand will settle well in your stomach, break down quickly and easily, and give you an energy boost.
Aim to include carbs and protein.
Carbs = energy. They break down into glucose, enter our muscle cells, and give us fuel to exercise at our maximum capacity. If you don’t have enough glucose during your workout you’ll likely feel weak and tired, and will be tempted to call it quits and take a nap.
Protein is important especially if you are doing weight training. When we do strength-training exercises like lifting weights, we create small tears in our muscle fibers. When we rest, our body repairs those micro-tears, building up your muscles bigger and stronger than they were before, and it needs protein to do it. Whether you consume it before or after, studies show it doesn’t really matter.
Here are some ideas for pre-workout meals/snacks:
Simple Meal. Keep it simple so your body doesn’t have to use extra energy for digestion/assimilation, like rice, chicken or fish, and roasted or sautéed veggies.
Oatmeal with Fruit. It settles well and provides long-lasting energy, while added fruit will hit the bloodstream quickly to give you a boost of energy. You can also add some seeds for protein.
Nutbutter Sandwich. Either on bread or a rice cake or a banana, great for fuel and easy absorption.
Date & Nutbutter Poppers (recipe). Dates are one of the best sources of energy there is. The sugars are released gradually due to the type of fiber they contain (beta-D-glucan), so instead of getting a big burst of energy then crashing, you’ll skip the crash and get stabilized energy for your workout that lasts.
Smoothie (like this). Experiment with dairy vs. non-dairy protein/ingredients. Dairy is a common allergen and can make you sluggish, and promote inflammation and mucous. Use a base of water or a non-dairy milk, a protein source, add fruit or oats for carbs for energy.
Homemade Protein Balls (like these or these or these). Sure you can buy a protein bar, but oftentimes they have more sugar (and chemicals/emulsifiers) than they do protein! With these you can control the ingredients that goes into them, along with the quantity and quality.
Beans or Lentils. They contain high amounts of protein and complex carbs—good sources of slow-release energy.
For post-workout nutrition, if you don’t get adequate protein/carbs in before your workout, try to eat some within 30 minutes after your workout is over.
This will help replenish the muscle and liver glycogen stores you used during your workout, assist with muscle repair, growth and recovery, and restore fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat.
And don’t get too focused on the food and forget about the water and rest/recovery!
Hydration is key to make the most out of your workout and your recovery. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, lemonade-colored urine is a sign of appropriate hydration, while dark-colored urine (think apple juice) indicates a deficiency.
The key to growing stronger is putting just enough stress on the body during exercise to create muscles need repair, and then allowing the body time to rest/recover which is where the muscle can grow stronger. Our muscles and tissues aren’t the only things impacted by exercise, our digestion, hormone regulation, fat storage, kidney function, immunity, and more are too.
Without allowing enough rest/recovery time between workouts, this can also negatively impact our sleep, mood, weight, energy levels, immunity, and overall health.