If you are going to be working out as part of your life routine, then you might as well start thinking about nutrition; they go hand in hand. The fact that some of the world’s leading sports personalities have a diet expert as part of their technical team means that nutrition plays a critical role in physical performance. You could just visit a nutrition expert to establish your rate of metabolism and match this to suitable foods and portions to take every time before you begin your workout. But, that’ll cost you time and money. So, we’ve done the groundwork for you. Here’s everything you should know about eating before workout.
Eating Before Morning Workout: Good Or Bad Idea?
It is a good idea to eat something before your morning exercise routine. Think of your body as a machine that requires fuel every time to run effectively. While it is true that some level of exercise is not affected by current blood sugar, the idea is to have something for the body to burn.
Experiencing dizziness, nausea, lethargy, or lightheadedness during a workout session could mean that your body did not have sufficient energy to burn before you started. Many people tend to injure themselves in this state, which ultimately cuts back on gains made during the workout.
It begs the question, how do you know if you have had enough nutrition for your upcoming workout session?
For some people, the answer to this is derived from trial and error. If you are clear about the benefits you want to get out of working out, you can experiment with various foods before your session begins.
Keep a record of what you eat, how you feel and which symptoms you are experiencing during a workout, and how long your body takes to recover from the effects of exercise. Eventually, you will be able to narrow it down to a pattern that works for you.
Equally as important as providing your body with nutrients to burn during a workout is the timing. Even the most balanced will not do you good if you do not take it appropriately.
There are times when your routine of eating right before a workout does not work. If you have run out of time to catch a meal before your exercise session, consider smaller portions of a meal that is easy to digest.
What Foods Are Easy To Digest?
Carbohydrate-rich foods take a shorter period to travel through your gut compared to fats and proteins. A pre-workout meal taken 45 to 60 minutes before exercise should mostly contain carbs, a bit of protein and some limited amount of fat.
For many people who work out to either lose weight or tone muscle, the common concern is whether meals before exercise will derail their efforts. Studies on the effects of exercise that extend beyond an hour indicate that individuals stand a better chance of optimal body performance if they eat before a workout (9).
Most studies that supported the idea of eating before workouts base their conclusions on benefits derived from meals that constitute a proportionately large portion of carbohydrates.
These studies show that more significant benefits are obtained by people who take high-carb meals 3 to 4 hours before endurance training (15).
What To Eat Before A Workout?
The best time for you to eat if you plan to hit the gym is 30 minutes before you begin. If you wait longer, try to not go beyond 3 hours, as you will have used that energy for activities other than the upcoming workout.
That said, these timings will not work the same way for everyone – it is essential to try out different timings to establish what works best for your body. Those who prefer to work out in the morning before they start the day might find it challenging to have a complete meal.
Here are some essential macronutrients to consider including in your pre-exercise meal and reasons why they will aid your workout:
Anytime you perform a task that requires physical exertion, the body derives the needed fuel from glucose. When we consume foods rich in carbohydrates, they are broken down to glucose which the body reserves in the muscles and liver. It is the first source of fuel when the need arises.
If your workout regimen is short and intense, the body will derive energy from glycogen (glucose that has been stored in the muscles). Long-duration workouts will consume carbohydrate reserves based on the type of exercise, overall diet composition, and intensity of training (17).
The human body is incapable of storing large amounts of glycogen at once. That is why a high sugar diet leads to a rapid spike in energy levels and a crash soon after. As the glycogen levels in the muscles and the liver diminishes, productivity and performance also go down (16).
Findings of multiple studies on glucose utilization during physical activity indicate that eating a pre-workout meal comprising carbohydrates increases glycogen in storage and promotes its oxidation when exercising (16).
Suppose you feel pressed for time and unable to make a complete meal, consider a piece of bread, a fruit, rice cake, or oatmeal. Many dieticians suggest eating a banana before a workout instead of not eating at all.
Your pre-workout meal will not be complete if you do not incorporate a portion of proteins. It is especially essential if you are involved in weight and resistance training.
Any time the body is subjected to exercises that require intense physical strength like weight lifting, the muscle fibers suffer small tears. Repair of these muscles takes place when the body is in rest mode. When the micro-tears heal, they form stronger and bigger muscle mass (18).
It is a repetitive process that goes on and on as long as a routine is upheld. For this process to occur, you must include dietary protein in meals taken before working out.
While all protein sources will facilitate tissue repair, it is good to take easy-to-digest alternatives that will be synthesized through the body quickly and, hence, act faster on muscles. Suggestions include; Greek yogurt, nuts, turkey slice, animal or plant milk, and boiled egg.
Numerous studies on the relationship between eating protein-rich foods before workouts and athletic performance have discovered a positive correlation (18). When athletes consume proteins alone or in combination with carbohydrates before they participate in any form of physical activity, the outcome is enhanced protein synthesis levels.
Additional benefits to those who ingest protein-rich foods as part of their pre-workout routine include:
- Rapid growth of muscle
- Enhanced recovery of muscles
- Toned body and enhanced physical ability
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There is a different process when you engage in an intensive workout for a short duration of time versus when your training runs for a more extended period of low or moderate intensity. For the latter, carbohydrates are the energy source while fats fuels workouts structured on the former (5).
Studies have been done to establish the relationship between physical performance and fat consumption. One study demonstrated that including 40% fats in meals over four weeks enhanced runner running endurance durations (8).
Taking a pre-workout supplement could enable you to train better and hastens the recovery of muscles afterward. A person who takes supplements before they start exercising could achieve above-average intensity training, and it could result in rapid changes (7).
Here are some popular and highly effective pre-workout supplements;
Creatine is arguably the best performing performance enhancer used by sports personalities. Studies on its effectiveness indicate that it builds muscle mass, increases muscle fiber size, and enhances power and strength (4).
Experts recommend taking 20 grams per day at different times when you start taking the supplement. After the introductory phase, you can take 3-5 grams per day as a maintenance dose (14).
People ordinarily take coffee in the morning to stimulate their minds and body. The effects of caffeine are more than starting a great productive day; studies indicate that caffeine intake improves physical performance, enhances stamina, and stimulates certain parts of the brain to reduce fatigue (13).
While the vast majority will consume caffeine from energy drinks, tea, and coffee, fitness enthusiasts ingest caffeine-laden pre-exercise supplements.
Regardless of how caffeine gets into the body, the influence on performance is going to be similar. For optimum performance, experts recommend taking 3-6mg of caffeine per kg of body weight (13).
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
Branched Chain Amino Acids are a combination of leucine, isoleucine, and valine amino acids. According to studies conducted to assess the effectiveness of BCAAs on performance during workouts, the supplement reduces damage to muscles and enhances protein synthesis in the muscles (3)
It is worth noting that high-quality protein found in meat, eggs, and dairy provides sufficient BCAAs to support muscle growth. So, if your diet has the recommended quantities of protein, BCAA supplements may not be necessary.
This amino acid promotes muscle storage of carnosine, especially for individuals involved in intensive short-duration exercises. The supplement increases the body’s capacity for exercise and enhances the endurance of the muscles to reduce fatigue (11).
Some studies indicate that this supplement can increase endurance over the long term, but the effects are not as pronounced as those for a short exercise. A dose of 4-6 grams per day is recommended for optimal performance (12).
The human body requires constant hydration for optimum performance – serious decline in performance has been associated with dehydration. Dietitians recommend drinking water before starting to exercise.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), you will maintain your body’s fluid balance if you take about half a liter of water four hours before exercising and another 0.3 liter 15 minutes before you start a workout session (1).
It is a good idea for people involved in intense workouts to bring a water bottle along and take sips every 15 – 30 minutes.
What Not To Eat Before A Workout?
Working out on an empty stomach is that you will get tired faster, and the chances are high that you will not even complete your session.
Many people will feed on the wrong foods to provide their bodies with fuel to burn when exercising. Here is a list of major foods to stay away from before working out and reasons why they will hurt your fitness efforts:
There is no doubt that beans are rich protein sources, but many have experienced the dark side of bean-laden diets. It might seem like the only option for vegetarian athletes but consider this; 1 cup beans equals 16 grams of fiber (more than half of an entire day’s requirement) (2). Your body needs fiber, but not before a workout. Fiber is hard to digest and may make exercises uncomfortable. You could experience some gastrointestinal discomfort like bloating and flatulence.
In this case, we are speaking about cauliflower, cabbage, sprouts, and broccoli. These foods are every dietician’s friend because of how nutritious they are. On the flip side, they are rich in sulfur and can cause gas and bloating.
Dairy is high in fat and is digested slowly. Your body works harder to break dairy products down, and this might leave you feeling sluggish before you hit the gym.
If you’re lactose-intolerant, it is best to avoid such foods before working out to avoid discomfort. If you highly prefer dairy foods before exercising, consider lactose-free options.
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While it is crucial to provide your body with sufficient energy supplies during a workout, oily foods will bring more harm than good. Deep-fried foods, pizza, and burgers are rich in saturated fats, and this makes them linger in the stomach much longer as they are broken down. Your body works hard to break down high-fat food into energy. That can make you tired even before you start working out.
These are carbonated water, beer, and soda which will pump the belly with unwanted gas. When it eventually starts getting out by belching and flatulence, your workout session will become somewhat uncomfortable.
The high sugar content in fizzy drinks is equally problematic. It gives a short, sudden burst of energy before you crash. You will not have enough energy to last the entire session.
While hydration is essential for a successful workout, alcohol does not count as a hydrant. Not only are alcoholic beverages dehydrating, but they are also suppressing when it comes to the oxidation of fat. Furthermore, any form of exercise done under the alcoholic influence can be hazardous (6)
Sweets And Desserts
Doughnuts, cakes, and meat pies might pass as healthy foods and even a source of carbohydrates. The truth is that wheat-based pastries and dessert foods such as ice cream and chocolate have high levels of fats, butter, cream, and shortening that will prevent your body from performing well. Plus, the sugar might give you a short burst of energy at first but will leave you drained.
Unless you have been eating spicy food from way back, a bowl of food laden with chilli and other hot spices will irritate your gut. It can lead to heartburn and should thus be avoided at least 24 hours after the session.
FAQ About Pre-Workout Nutrition
We answer some common questions about what, when, and how to eat before and after exercise.
Is It Better To Workout Before Or After Eating When Keto Dieting?
If you are on a keto diet, eating before a workout is recommended. A keto diet comprises fats that do not move through the digestive system as fast as other macronutrients. Since you will be eating fat-rich foods, it is advisable to allow enough time between eating and exercising to facilitate digestion.
How To Speed Up Digestion After Eating Before A Workout?
Remember that your stomach is full, and any extreme moves will cause discomfort. Even on the treadmill, a light stroll will help kick start your digestion because the light movement will stimulate your system to draw energy from available food.
How Long To Wait Before Eating After Workout?
Eating within 30 minutes after working out is ideal to ensure that your body can benefit from the food you’re consuming.
Get into a habit of eating a complete meal rich in proteins and carbohydrates after workouts to synthesis muscle protein. Food intake after exercise also shortens recovery time and enhances future performances.
How Long Should You Wait Before You Workout After Eating?
30 minutes to 3 hours, depending on what has been eaten.
In most cases, a wait of 30 minutes post snacking and 3 hours of a complete meal is sufficient for avoiding side effects. The wait should be longer for endurance training that extends beyond an hour.
How Long To Wait After Eating Cereal Before Workout?
High-fiber cereal will move through the digestive system much slower compared to other simple carbohydrate-rich foods. If you want to exercise in the morning after eating cereal, wait for at least 1 hour.
The Bottom Line
Working out keeps your body in shape, but there is no golden rule that fits everyone. Whether to work out before or after eating depends on personal preference, among other factors.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility.
- American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement (2007, pubmed.gov)
- Bean Nutrition Overview (n.d., beaninstitute.com)
- Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality? (2017, biomedcentral.com)
- Creatine Supplementation and Lower Limb Strength Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses (2015, nih.gov)
- Dietary fat and sports nutrition: a primer (2004, nih.gov)
- Drinking Before and After Lifting Weights or Doing Cardio (2020, alcohol.org)
- Effects of a multi-nutrient supplement on exercise performance and hormonal responses to resistance exercise (2007, nih.gov)
- Effects of dietary fat and endurance exercise on plasma cortisol, prostaglandin E2, interferon-gamma and lipid peroxides in runners (2001, nih.gov)
- Effects of fasted vs fed-state exercise on performance and post-exercise metabolism: A systematic review and meta-analysis (2018, nih.gov)
- Effects of supplement timing and resistance exercise on skeletal muscle hypertrophy (2006, nih.gov)
- Effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis (2012, pubmed.gov)
- International society of sports nutrition position stand: Beta-Alanine (2015, biomedcentral.com)
- International society of sports nutrition position stand: caffeine and performance (2010, biomedcentral.com)
- International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise (2007, nih.gov)
- Nutrition for endurance sports: marathon, triathlon, and road cycling (2011, nih.gov)
- Nutritional needs of elite endurance athletes. Part I: Carbohydrate and fluid requirements (2006, tandfonline.com)
- Role of carbohydrate in exercise (1984, nih.gov)
- Stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis by whey protein ingestion before and after exercise (2006, nih.gov)