What to Eat Before a Workout

How To Eat Before A Workout 

The classic meathead advice for pre-workout nutrition may not be that wrong. Back in the day, Martin Burkan used to blog about trying to train fasted to get lean gains. Another classic meathead piece of advice talked about having 30% of your carbohydrate intake 1 hour before resistance-based training, something Anthony Ditillo used to promote quite a bit in the ‘70s and the early ‘80s. Another piece of meathead advice came directly from Bill Pearl, who talked about keeping carbohydrates simple around the workout, like glucose, fructose, tapioca starch, or waxy maize, simple carbs that are easy to digest that gets right into the bloodstream to get a big pump. Then there is the old standby of not having carbs until right after training for the anabolic window to spike insulin. But what does science say?


Fortunately for us, Henselmans ended up reviewing multiple different studies that researched what carbohydrate consumption can do to performance. Some of the research was based upon supplementation of carb-powder consumption before training. Other studies were based on training that involved a ton of glycogen usage, so maybe high-intensity interval training or sprint interval training in which a lot of the glycogen storage is used but is then manipulated by consuming fast-acting carbohydrates before training. Other studies focused on short-term manipulation of carbohydrate consumption relative to strength training, and resistance-based training. And other studies that Henselmans ended up reviewing focused on the long-term manipulation of carbohydrate intake and its impact on pre-workout nutrition. 


Henselmans ended up analyzing 49 different research papers. The subjects studied in the tests were from various strength training backgrounds, ranging from novice up to elite. In the one-off scenarios of higher carbohydrate intake, Henselmans found that in 13 studies a higher carbohydrate intake did not improve resistance-based training performance, but in 6 studies there was an improvement. The improvement typically occurred when it was compared to fasted control groups–so people who had more carbs had a better performance than someone who was fasted. That positive impact was also seen typically when there were at least 10 sets done per muscle group. Higher carbohydrate intake benefits the body when it comes to performing 10 or more sets during training.


Another research paper found that higher carbohydrate intake had a better benefit than just consuming water before training. In that research paper, there was also a comparison to a sensory match placebo meal, which was almost identical to the response with the carbohydrate intake. This tells us that if we are going to train, we should at least eat something because we will perform better than if we just have water.


In all reality, carbohydrate research sort of sucks; it isn’t overly precise. But with the information presented thus far, we can take away that if we are doing a cardio-based workout, a high-volume bodybuilding workout, or a high-volume strength training workout, we should focus on pre-workout nutrition that does have higher carbohydrate intake.

LSD Based Training

Long slow distance, say on the bike for 60 minutes, research tells us that if we have carbohydrates, about 40 to 50 grams an hour out from training, it will probably improve our steady state cardio. If we want to knock down the intensity and go a little bit slower for 60 minutes, we could probably train fasted and feel completely fine.

With high-intensity interval training, we can decently benefit from being fasted or we can have about 20 to 30 grams of carbs 60 minutes out and feel perfectly fine. 

Resistance Based Training

Garage Strength is notorious for me programming athletes' high-volume strength training workouts. I will have athletes do 10x10 back squats and move on to doing 4 to 5 sets of lunges and reverse hypers. 


Doing a high-volume workout like this, we need to have 60 to 80 grams of carbohydrates about an hour out from training. It will help us feel better when we are deep in the workout. Our performance will improve and it will lead to better adaptations.


Now people with short periods of training. People who work, have to get their kids ready, or anything that eats up the lack of time in the day. Things need to get done in 30 minutes because of the business of the day. The time crunch allows for fewer sets. The research states that with fewer sets in a shorter training window, being in a fasted state won’t hinder performance.

Specific Foods

Oats are my favorite pre-workout nutrition. Having 40 grams of carbs an hour before training of eating oats is solid. Oats are pretty easy to digest, especially if they are soaked overnight. Oats are also high in fiber which is good for the gut microbiome.

Bananas are my next favorite pre-workout nutritional food. I recommend one banana for athletes with more cardio-based training. Now if a ton of volume is programmed and the training will last for at least 60 minutes, two bananas may be in order.


Apples are another favorite: easy to digest with good, quick-acting sugar to get into the bloodstream to replace glycogen. 


Honey is another try and true food. Weightlifters can have 2 to 4 tablespoons 15 to 20 minutes before training if the body is dragging. Honey is great pre-workout food going into a second session as well.


Potatoes and rice are awesome. Rice and potatoes 45 to 75 minutes before training works well. Having about a half cup will have you feeling like a freight train.

what to eat before a workout

Carb powders are great and perfectly fine. However, if you are husky, or even a little overweight, I don’t think carb powders are necessary. But hard gainers who struggle to get those calories in, the carb powders can help.


I love fiber consumption so my go-to foods are oatmeal, raspberries, bananas, apples, and other foods with fiber to help build our gut microbiome which will help with our overall recovery and ability to digest other foods. A healthy gut helps with recovery. Microbiota-accessible carbohydrates and the MACs will lead to better performance later on because the body can adapt more effectively.   

Recap

I think a lot of research can be done where carb intake, protein intake, and fat intake are compared in a myriad of ways to see what is done relative to performance with LSD, HIIT, sprint interval training, resistance training at high volume, and resistance training at high intensities; we can take all the different studies with the different types of macros and figure out which type of sports benefit the most from specific types of nutrition. We can go even deeper into the weeds and see how dark chocolate’s stearic acid compares to coconut oil and butter’s butyric acid or lauric acid to see how performance is impacted. We can do the same thing with specific types of carbohydrates.


We will probably find out that it depends on the individuals, their genetics, and the type of sport they are doing. Henselmans reviews showcase that most of the time it is a mixed bag of what is needed via carbohydrates. Most importantly, we need to keep digging deeper, learning, and cultivating that brain power. 

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