Your workout begins before you lace up your shoes. Food intake prior to exercise of any variety has a significant effect on performance and reward. If you are not eating properly you are likely to underperform and, what’s more, the positive outcomes of physical activity will be diminished.
Simply, you need some gas in the tank. But it’s not simply a matter of filling up – you need the right stuff (as anyone who has ever filled their car with the wrong fuel will tell you).
In practice, this means eating carbs, protein and fats in the right ratio, at the right time with plenty of water to wash it down. Doing this will help you maximise your performance and minimise muscle damage.
Each macronutrient has a specific role before a workout. However, the ratio in which you need to consume them varies by individual and the type of exercise – there is no one size that fits all when it comes to pre-workout nutrition. Your body and the duration, intensity and type of exercise yore subjecting it to will dictate what you need and in what ratios.
Carbohydrates, found in foods like breads, cereals, pasta, fruit and rice, give your muscles quick energy. For short and high-intensity exercise, your muscle and liver stores of glycogen are your muscles’ main source of energy. However, longer exercise requires less emphasis on carbs, as your muscles can only store a limited amount of glycogen. As these stores are depleted, you will need to rely on the other macronutrients or your performance will suffer.
Protein is essential for your muscles. Consuming adequate amounts of protein ensures that your blood cells will deliver the nutrients and oxygen your muscles need during (and after) exercise. Pre-workout protein consumption improves athletic performance, especially for strength training. Additionally, muscle protein synthesis (smart talk for building muscle mass and getting stronger) is enhanced when protein requirements are met prior to workout. These requirements are not especially high: 10-20 of protein is plenty for regular exercisers.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but fat intake may also be an important consideration in your pre-workout nutrient calculus. While short and high-intensity exercise will draw primarily on energy from carbohydrates, fat becomes the main energy source for longer and moderate-to-low-intensity exercise.
Getting the right stuff in you is only half of the equation, as anyone who has ever experienced stomach cramps after being a little too hasty out of the kitchen will tell you. Timing your food intake properly is essential –too early and you will run out of steam, too late and you may feel lethargic or, worse, suffer from cramps.
In order to maximise the effectiveness of your training, it’s necessary to eat a full meal (containing carbs, protein and fat). This is only recommended, however, if you have 2–3 hours up your sleeve before you exercise.
In some cases, this is not possible, but it’s still important that you eat something. Just be aware that the less time you have to digest before your workout, the smaller the meal should be. If you have less than 2 hours, try to choose foods that are easier to digest and that give you the most energy – something high in carbs that, ideally, contains some protein too.
Even if you have less than an hour, (which is often the case when exercising in the morning) it’s better that you eat something. Without food, exercise can make you feel lightheaded and it’s unlikely you willperform anywhere near your best. So, even if you don’t have time to digest a full meal, eat something light. A banana or a nutritious snack bar can do the trick and don’t take any time to prepare. Again, focus primarily on carbohydrates.
Last but not least, water is an essential part of the equation – your body can’t function optimally unless it’s properly hydrated. Good hydration has been shown to sustain and even enhance performance, while dehydration has the opposite effect. Drinking water and sodium is also a great idea – it improves fluid balance and helps you stay hydrated for longer.
A good rule of thumb is to drink a minimum of half a litre of water in the hours prior to exercise and to top up with a glass of water in the quarter hour before you head out the door. We recommend you top up during exercise, too – especially if you’re working out for a longer duration.
Let us know in the comments your favourite pre-workout snack or meal.