Whether you’re headed to your weekly soccer game, crossfit box or a new HIIT bootcamp class you’re likely to wonder, “Should I eat before a workout?”
Honestly, heading into a workout properly fuelled can mean the difference between a good and mediocre workout – and, other than working out without a grumbling tummy, the correct food will help fuel you throughout your training session, so you don’t start strong and then fade as you run out of energy. Selecting the right foods can help your performance (and body) reap the rewards.
That said, what to eat, how much to eat and when to eat it are all factors that aren’t always as cut and dried as one may think. The time of day you work out can influence your food choices and quantities. For example, if you’re exercising right after work, you might have a substantial lunch three to four hours before the workout (optimal time for digestion) followed by a snack closer to the workout if needed. However, if you’re a morning person and work out before the rest of your day starts, you may only have a small snack or drink before heading out the door.
While many fuelling guidelines before sport are dependent on the intensity of your workout and your stomach sensitivity, there are some common mistakes we should avoid.
Avoid these three pre-workout fuelling mistakes:
Getting too hungry
Even if you’re looking to drop a few kilos, heading into a workout session hungry can result in lower energy levels and might not help you lose weight – as your body may actually go into starvation mode. In fact, it may cause you to have a sub-optimal workout followed by over consumption of food after.
Instead, have more energy so you can work out harder, by choosing a balanced meal (that includes carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and aim to eat it with plenty of time to digest before hitting the gym, circuit or field. If you need a little something right before your workout choose something small, such as a piece of fruit or raw vegetable crudité with a nut butter.
How much you eat is definitely dependent on a number of factors, including your size, fitness level and duration of your exercise. There was a time when it was advocated to only focus on carbohydrates as a pre-workout meal. We now know that having a meal that is more balanced to include both carbohydrates and proteins is a far better to provide you with a sustained fuel while exercising e.g. it won’t give you a lift only to drop you as your blood sugar gets depleted i.e. like when you eat or drink a high sugar food or liquid. Regardless of your activity, avoid getting trapped in the carbo-load mind-set and instead eat sensible portions and give your body enough time to digest the food prior to your workout.
Eating too much fibre
One component of carbohydrates, found in foods in varying quantities is fibre. Fibre is found naturally in foods like oats, fruits and vegetables and are often added to snacks such as granola bars and cereals. As high fibre foods, especially before exercise, may cause sensitivity in your stomach e.g. bloating, gas etc. it is recommended you stay away from these prior to excersizing. If you realy do feel like that granola bar, leave it for after.
When preparing your pre-workout meals or snacks try and choose foods that can settle comfortably in your stomach, such as piece of fruit or sports drinks/mixes that are a source of mixed carbohydrates and proteins. You may find that these foods are easy to digest before your start moving.
So, what are good options to reach for before your workout?
Here is a list of my top six foods :
Any fresh fruit will do but bananas are a favourite thanks to their portability. Eat alone 30 minutes before your workout or make it more of a substantial snack by adding a nut butter. Bananas also offer your body potassium, an electrolyte required by the body that is lost during exercise via sweat.
Vegetables like beetroot and carrot are very beneficial pre-training as they not only provide nutrients, but can actually assist in boosting performance (think additional nitrogen in the case of beetroot). So blitz up a pure vege or vege/fruit combo smoothie with a scoop of plant based protein. Just give yourself enough time to digest before actually training e.g. at least an hour.
Rolled oats are a great option to have for breakfast when you’ve got some time to digest before heading to your workout (like a weekend morning). However, because they are higher in fibre, you will want to give yourself some time to digest.
Dried Fruit and Nuts
For an easy grab-and-go option a few handfuls of dried fruit and nut trail mix can do the trick. It can be a good snack when you need something on the fly because you can get nutrients and energy for very little volume. Nuts and fruit can provide a combination of carbohydrates, good fats and protein, but watch portion sizes. Calories in dried fruits and nuts add up quickly and so does fibre.
Gluten-free or 100% Whole Grain Bread with Nut Butter and Jam
Sometimes you can’t beat a good old peanut butter and jam sandwich. For a portable snack, pack a PB&J and eat it two to three hours before leaving the office and heading to work out. The peanut butter provides protein while the bread and jam can help to top off your glycogen stores.
For the times when food just isn’t an option, consider a good sports drink – and here I don’t mean reaching for the over coloured, flavoured and sugared drinks masquerading as “sport drinks” these days. Choosing a drink that will offer you carbohydrates for energy and some proteins. A fruit juice mixed in a shaker with a helping of plant based protein powder will do the trick. If you prefer adding some caffeine, add a small helping of green tea.
Keep the container in your gym bag and shake one scoop in your water bottle before and you’ll be ready to go.
The bottom line
A hard workout, especially one significantly over 60 minutes in length, can deplete energy stores in the body. Proper fuelling of balanced meals or snacks can be effective in helping support your energy levels during the workout.
And finally, practice makes perfect. You will likely find that some foods work great before your workout and others not so much. Practice your fuelling just like you do your sport and never test anything new on game or race day!