For some reason, we are afraid of eating something before we hit the gym, or the floor, or wherever else works. It could be for various reasons – we don’t want to feel heavy before a workout; eating makes us feel lazy (crashing on that couch after a meal is so much more inviting than breaking a sweat, true story!); or the ultimate nightmare of not wanting all the good stuff to come out. It’s no laughing matter. While it would be an insult to call the above mentioned statements falsehoods or myths, science begs to differ.
We can all agree that none of us would work out on a full stomach. Unfortunately, lying on our backs on a comfortable mattress with our eyes closed doesn’t count as exercise. That being said, not eating anything isn’t any better, either. Going for a jog first thing in the morning is a good way to kick start the day, but if you want to make the most of it, you’d be wise to not do it on a hollow stomach. The logic is so: strenuous physical activity requires a lot of energy, and our body derives energy from food. When the food goes missing in that equation, things start seeming a little off. In fact, eating before a workout regulates blood sugar levels. If you’ve felt like your head is feeling a little too light, or felt too tired too soon, your blood sugar levels aren’t where they should be. So don’t count the calories in your pre-workout diet.
In order to fuel up properly before a workout, it’s important to understand how the body uses energy. The first source of energy, lasting just a few seconds, comes from the breakdown of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), which is naturally found in the body. Next, the body uses glucose (sugar) for immediate but longer lasting energy. Finally, during endurance training, the body starts to break down stored carbohydrates called glycogen, to provide sustained energy. The type of workout itself, and the duration, will affect the different processes taking place in our body. So, the duration and intensity of your workout determines your energy needs. Knowing how to best fuel your body can help you get the most out of every sweat session and get you one step closer to achieving your goals.
There are a few points to ponder on before you zero in what will be the optimum pre-workout diet.
As a general rule of thumb, when it comes to pre-workout eating, you can time it any way you like, but the closer you get to a workout, the simpler the meal should be. If you eat two to three hours before, you’ll have time for your food to digest and be absorbed into your blood. Therefore, you can eat a more complex meal containing protein, fat, and fiber, which take longer to break down. Within an hour of a working out, however, you should eat something that will be digested and absorbed more quickly – like a small bowl of cereal or a piece of fruit. Not only is undigested food useless in this case, it can also feel heavy in your stomach, leading to cramps and sluggishness.
Now don’t go thinking simply lacing up your sneakers justifies a big, hearty snack. The amount of effort you put into your workout will dictate what you should be consuming before a workout session. The higher the intensity, the smaller the meal or the further out you want to eat. You don’t want your body to be expending any extra energy on digestion when you need it to perform to its best. If you’re going out for a 30 minute morning walk, you don’t need to shove food in your mouth to fuel up. A lower intensity workout doesn’t require as much energy as a demanding one. For instance, if you’re planning on burning only 350 calories on the elliptical, a 200 calorie snack isn’t required. And, as a general rule, if you’re going to exercise within a few hours of a meal, those are the times you may be better off skipping your pre-workout fare.
So, here’s how you could prep for maximum performance. Two or three hours prior to a moderately intense workout, a somewhat complex meal such as a sandwich on whole grain bread with lean protein, or roasted vegetables and avocado is a good option. It will provide you with ample time for your food to get digested and absorbed by your system. On the flip side, if you’re planning to repeat the same workout regime within an hour or two, a small bowl of low fiber, whole grain cereal like puffed brown rice, or corn flakes with organic skimmed milk or a plant-based milk is ideal. The cereal provides for easy digestion of calories and releases a burst of quick energy, while the milk provides sustenance through protein. For those seeking a simpler meal option, oatmeal with a banana will provide the same benefits.
Now that we’re done with the theory, let us get down to the specifics: What to eat, why you should eat it, and how it helps your workout. It’s no surprise that a quality nutrition bar (we are talking about the ones with ingredients that don’t sound like Greek or Latin) or homemade protein shake will work wonders for you. For workouts with an hour or less lead-time, quickies like Greek yogurt or low-fat chocolate milk are good options, but if you are someone who watches their sugar, yogurt and chocolate might make you cringe. And let’s not forget nature’s wonderful gifts to us – fruits!
When it comes to prepping for a workout, carbohydrates are absolutely necessary. You need a mixed bag of complex and simple carbs, so the release of energy during your workout is slow and steady during the course of your regimen. Whole-wheat toast with fruit packs a punch with both types of carbs and comes with the bonus of being easy-peasy to digest. Complex carbs will keep your motor humming, while the fruit adds an extra kick of energy. Bananas are perfect for raising the body’s level of potassium, which will plummet when you sweat buckets. Spice it up with a pinch of cinnamon. You might be surprised to know that cinnamon improves brain function and regulates blood sugar levels, too.
About to run a mini marathon? Help yourself to some yogurt. It’s easy on your tummy and gives you that little vroom you need to rear up and trot on. Be sure to choose a nutty and dried fruit based flavor, but hold up on those chocolate chips just yet. The dried fruit come with sugar (the healthy kind) that provide a quick boost. Seeds and nuts keep insulin levels from falling off the edge in the middle of a workout. A word of caution – seeds and nuts are fat-high and take a while to break down. Too much too soon, and you’ll start feeling all woozy.
Getting late for the gym and don’t have much time to make yourself a power snack? There’s nothing to worry about. The apple is best for a snatch and grab, or should I say snatch and grub (pardon the pun). It beats having to resort to crushing candy and running on a sugar rush that is a desperate measure that will not end well. Apples come packed with just the amount of sugar you need to get through your workout, without crashing out of exhaustion midway. To curb those hunger pangs, spread a layer of almond butter on the slices. The almond butter will also kick your energy levels up a notch.
A smoothie is where it all comes together. It’s more than just chucking a bunch of things and switching that blender on. It requires almost no cooking, it’s cool unlike tea (you don’t have to wait until it simmers down or risk burning your taste buds right off), and it doesn’t take too long to make yourself a glass. Making up your very own blend and figuring out what works for you is a fun experiment, with a bunch of bodily benefits as a result. To start with, slice up your favorite fruit, introduce it to a cup of Greek yogurt and some granola for thicker consistency. Once done, pour yourself a glass or bottle it up and head to the gym.
So, there you have it. Eating right is important, not just in daily life, but also before, during, and after working out. Strenuous physical activity amplifies hunger. This is why working out on an empty stomach shouldn’t be encouraged at all. It’s simpler to keep eating moderately, than starving first and stuffing yourself later.