Knowing what to eat & what not to eat before a workout can be tricky, especially if you’re new to the game & you haven’t had a chance to test the waters yet. The punchline is that you should eat what makes you feel your best when you exercise & what won’t get in the way of how well you perform. BUT, while eating what makes you feel best should be your main concern ALL DAY, EVERYDAY, there are certain macronutrients that’ll help make your workout more effective, not only in terms of energy levels during your sweat but also after!
It’s no secret that a meal that’s extremely high in fat &/or dairy might lead to some digestive discomfort, cramping, gas or bloating during your workout, especially if you don’t eat within a window that gives your body enough time to digest & because fat is also one of the macros that take the body the longest to digest.
This isn’t to say your pre-workout meal shouldn’t contain any fats at all, but the focus should be placed on carbs & protein. Let me tell you why. I generally like to eat about an hour before my workout (especially if I’m doing something intense like tabata/HIIT, spinning, boxing or circuit training).
When combined, carbs & protein give you the energy you need during your workout, BUT ALSO, provides your muscles with what they need afterward to get even stronger. They work synergistically to make your workouts the most effective during & after! How so? The carbs supply the muscles with glucose to fuel the workout sesh &the protein provides the amino acids that the body needs to use that protein, versus breaking down protein already stored in the muscles. ‘
How does this work? Let me explain it in simple terms.
ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is a chemical compound made up of adenosine & three phosphate molecules. It’s the energy currency of the body & if we want to perform any activity, we must “pay” for it in ATP. When food is broken down by the body, the released energy is captured into the ATP compound to power all cellular needs.
Depending on the intensity and the availability of oxygen, the cells of the body can produce ATP, using both anaerobic & aerobic metabolic methods. Anaerobic systems are limited & inefficiency, whereas aerobic system is very efficient because it uses an abundant supply of fat & carbs to produce ATP to fuel activity (HENCE, WHERE THE CARBS COME IN!).
The human body uses 3 systems when forming ATP:
- ATP-CP (creatine phosphate) system (anaerobic – without oxygen)
- Lactic acid or glycolytic energy system (anaerobic – without oxygen)
- Aerobic or oxidative energy system (aerobic – with oxygen)
At rest, small amounts of energy are needed and they are supplied almost entirely using aerobic metabolism of fatty acids.
At the beginning of exercise, the energy system may vary, depending on the difference between resting state & the level of exercise during the warm-up. If energy demand is only slightly higher than at rest, the aerobic system will continue to be used but if energy demand is immediate & high, stored energy or ATP will be used.
During steady state exercise, once the supply of oxygen meets the demand, the muscle cell creates ATP, using the breakdown of glucose (a.k.a. carbs) through the oxidative system. This system works as long as needed, provided ENOUGH GLUCOSE IS AVAILABLE (all hail the carbs). If the intensity is low enough, fat metabolism can occur as long as enough oxygen is available.
During really hardcore strenuous exercise, when energy demand is rapid & expected for an extended period of time, energy demands require that the anaerobic system provide ATP. Once the ATP-CP phosphagen system is tired out (approximately after JUST 10 SECONDS!), the glycolytic system takes over the responsibility to produce ATP. The production & accumulation of lactic acid dictates the longevity of this system, along with intensity. People who are more fit have a higher lactate threshold & can exercise harder before surpassing it. Fatigue or failure may result if oxygen demand exceeds supply & high-intensity exercise continues beyond two minutes.
During recovery, as the need for a higher supply of energy is reduced or eliminated completely, the body continues to take in more oxygen than it needs, thereby making it available to pay off the debt of oxygen that occurred at the beginning of exercise.
While all 3 of the systems function together at any one time to provide the body with the energy it needs, there are times when certain systems are more predominant, for example: the anaerobic systems provide much of the energy at the start of exercise, when intensity increases & during high-intensity activity.
But, one thing is for certain: Carbs are one of the most efficient sources of energy for exercise & muscle contraction (& we’ll get into what KIND of carbs a little later, because there’s a discrepancy to be made!). Once consume, carbs are broken down into smaller sugars (glucose, fructose & galactose) that get absorbed & used as energy. Any glucose that isn’t needed right away is stored in the muscles & liver in the form of glycogen. Once glycogen stores are filled up, any extra is stored as fat.
Glycogen is necessary for any short, intense bouts of exercise (think of a sprint, weight lifting) because it’s immediately accessible. It also supplies energy during the first few minutes of any exercise. During long & slower duration exercise, fat can also help fuel activity, but glycogen is still needed to help break down the fat into something that is readily available for the muscles to use, which means, yes, YOU STILL NEED CARBS.
Eating enough carbs also ensures that your protein isn’t used as energy. If the body doesn’t have enough carbs, it naturally looks for protein & the protein is then broken down to make glucose for energy. BUT, because the main role of protein is to help build muscle, bone, skin, hair & other tissues, when the body relies on it for energy (because you’re not consuming enough carbs), it can limit your ability to build & maintain tissue, lead to thinning of the hair, loss of elasticity in the skin, prolonged muscle soreness & that feeling that you’re doing EVERYTHING RIGHT but you’re still not able to gain muscle.
All this to say, the carbs & protein are both necessary pre & post-workout & work synergistically in order to ensure that you are getting the most out of your workouts!
Now, let’s get back to those carbs. My telling you that you should eat carbs pre-workout doesn’t mean you can load up on JUST ANY carbs. It most certainly doesn’t mean you should stop at Tim Hortons & pick up a maple or honey glazed donut or McDonald’s to pick up a supersize french fry. The key to making the most & reaping the most exercise benefits out of the food you’re nourishing your body with, is to make sure that food is actually NUTRITIOUS!
Go for carbs that are easy on your body to digest (this can be different from one person to the next – you know your body best!) & make sure these carbs also come from foods that you actually enjoy eating!
Know the difference between good & bad carbs (read more about that here: Carbs Are Not The Enemy!), a.k.a. it’s important that you know how to distinguish simple & complex carbs & stay away from refined, processed, packaged carbs that provide little to no nutrition, hardly any fibre or vitamins & minerals & lead to spikes in blood sugar levels.
Some of my faves are organic Medjool dates, homemade protein/energy balls,rice cakes with any spread of your choice, sweet or savoury (hummus, homemade jam, nut butters, coconut butter, tigernut butter, seed butters etc.), hearty bowls of oatmeal or granola with or other grain-filled breaky bowls with fruit, bananas with nut butter & cinnamon, etc.
For more on healthy snacking in general, click here:
- Everything You Need (& Want) To Know About Healthy Snacking a.k.a. Why I Believe in Snacking If It’s Done Right (& Right Doesn’t Mean You Can Never Let Loose!)
- The “Nutshell” Version Of KITK’s Take On Snacking!
For more insight & inspiration for pre & post-workout snacks, click here:
- Healthy Snack Inspo: Hummus On Buckwheat Crisps With Crunchy Veggies & Nutritional Yeast
- Pre-Workout Granola Power Breaky Bowl a.k.a. The Healing Power Of Food In Bowl Form!
- One Of My Go-To Pre-Workout Snacks: Banana Halves, Almond Butter, Hemp Hearts & Ceylon Cinnamon… Read This To Know WHY!
- Apples & Nut Butter: Why This Is One Of My Go-To Pre-Workout Snacks!
- Pre-Workout Snack Inspo: Dates, Raw Almonds & Ceylon Cinnamon
For my take on fasted workouts, click here: