Last week I wrote about post-workout nutrition: who needs it, why they need it, and when and what to consume. If you missed it, you can find that post here. Today we are going to look at pre-workout nutrition and whether or not it is something that you should be focusing on. Before we go any further, please note that when I refer to "pre-workout nutrition", I am referring to actual foods/liquids that give nourishment and fuel the body. I am not referring to pre-workout supplements, which are a whole different topic.
Eating a meal/snack prior to exercise can fuel the body so that you can push yourself during your workout. Studies have shown that eating prior to exercise can benefit endurance performance but can also help you push harder during short, intense bursts of activity such as a HIIT workout. But how important is it to make a specific "pre-workout" meal part of your routine?
That really depends on the type of workout you are about to do, your fitness goals, and your own personal preference. Making sure that you've consumed something before working out really only becomes important when you are going to be pushing yourself: a long run or a difficult speed workout, circuit training with plyo and challenging weights, or an intense HIIT workout, for example. Any type of workout that you want to put everything you have into.
Now all that being said, what if your goal is fat loss? There have been claims that exercising "fasted" or on an empty stomach can force the body to burn fat as fuel. This study found that there was no difference in fat loss between women who fasted and those who ate prior to exercise. There could be a few reasons for this. When we eat, our bodies have to work to digest our food which results in an increase in metabolism from a resting (or fasted) state. Therefore, the group that ate prior to exercise may have made up for any fat loss benefit seen by that fasted group by increasing their caloric burn by jump-starting their metabolism. Another potential reason that there was no difference between the two groups could be that the group that ate had more energy and was able to push harder during their workout, once again leading to a higher caloric burn. Either way, it is not necessary to workout on an empty stomach to lose fat. If you do choose to eat prior to working out, sure that this snack/meal does not increase your intake, but rather adjust the timing so that you are fueling your body to perform optimally.
Now what if you workout first thing in the morning? Should you set your alarm an hour earlier just so you can eat? If working out on an empty stomach first thing in the morning has been working for you, then don't change it! Think of it like this: if you have to wake up an 30-60 minutes earlier to eat prior to working out, will you be exhausted later in the day? Would it be better for your body to use that time to get more adequate rest? If you answered yes to both of those questions, then continue to work out fasted. On the other hand, if you find that you are feeling weak, light-headed, or low in energy when you work out fasted first thing in the morning, then maybe you need to readjust some things. If waking up earlier to eat prior to working out doesn't work for you, then maybe you can move your workout to later in the day, when you've had time to properly fuel your body.
So, you've decided that you should eat something prior to working out. What should you eat? And when should you eat it? Food to fuel your workout should focus mainly on carbohydrates, since that is the body's preferred source for energy. Protein can also be included, which can help you feel full longer, and can provide the body with the tools for protein synthesis. Fat and fiber should be avoided the closer you get to your workout, as they are digested more slowly and can lead to gastrointestinal distress.
What your actual meal/snack looks like depends on how much time you have before your workout. You want to be sure that your body has time to digest your meal. The reason for this is that once you start working out your digestion will slow as your body shunts blood from your gastrointestinal system to your extremities and cardiovascular system. If there is any food left undigested it could result in GI upset such as indigestion, nausea, cramping, or diarrhea. In order to avoid these problems, you should tailor what you eat by how quickly it can be digested. If you have 2-3 hours before your workout, a meal of full foods with an emphasis on complex carbohydrates, protein, and some fats. Some examples are: lean protein with brown rice and vegetables, an omelet with whole grain toast and fruit, or whole wheat waffles with turkey bacon and berries. If you have 1-2 hours before your sweat session, you will need a smaller meal or a substantial snack that is more easily digestible. For example: whole grain cereal with milk, oatmeal and banana, or a protein bar. If there are only 30-60 minutes, then you should be focusing on a snack that is very easily digestible, and preferably liquid. Some options: protein smoothie with berries and milk or water, greek yogurt with berries, or a banana.
There is a lot of information out there about pre-workout nutrition. The bottom line is, pay attention to your body and do what works for you. I, for one, almost never eat before working out. I tend to workout first thing in the morning, and I am not interested in losing sleep in order to wake up early enough to eat and digest prior to my workout. I do, however, make sure to have a meal directly after I am done exercising. I also have a calorie-dense snack an hour or two before bed every night, which may help fuel my morning sessions. The only time I do make sure to eat something to help fuel my workout is when I am working out later in the day, especially if I have an intense workout planned such as a long run or a leg workout with HIIT intervals. Everybody is different, and what works for me may not work for you.