What to Eat Before a Workout: Recommendations from Elite Athletes
The food and drink we consume before a workout can have a tremendous impact on our ability to perform. From the quality of our exercise to our energy levels, recovery rate, muscle growth, and even our blood flow - all are influenced by what we fuel our bodies with before a workout.
In this article, we'll explore how different nutrients - such as fast-acting carbohydrates, quality fats, and even stimulants like caffeine - interact with our bodies during exercise. We'll examine how the right pre workout nutrition can provide a quick energy boost, how it influences muscle protein synthesis for better strength, and even how it affects intra-workout recovery and blood flow to help you maintain your performance longer and recover faster.
I’ve even asked some of the professional athletes that train here at Garage Strength to offer specific examples of what to eat before hitting the gym, the track, or the pool. Our objective is to empower you with the knowledge to make informed dietary choices that align with your fitness goals.
So, whether you're a seasoned athlete, a fitness newcomer, or a coach looking for ways to optimize your team's performance, there's something in here for you. Let's dive into the world of sports nutrition and unleash your true athletic potential!
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What to Eat Before a Workout
Carbohydrates are super important for our bodies, especially when we need to exert a lot of energy. They are our body's primary source of energy. Now, not all carbs are created equal. We've got fast-acting carbs (also known as high-glycemic carbs) and slow-acting carbs (low-glycemic).
Fast-acting carbs are like the first responders of the carbohydrate world. They rush to your body's rescue when you need energy, and fast! This makes them perfect to consume 60-80 grams around an hour before a workout.
You will find fast acting carbs in a lot of sugar-loaded treats like chocolate and candy, but we are looking for better options that won’t give you a sugar crash after 15 minutes. Examples of good fast-acting carbs include delicious fruits like bananas or mixed berries, hearty oats, and even certain types of healthy sugars like those found in honey.
When you eat these kinds of foods, your body quickly converts them into glucose, which is a type of sugar. This glucose enters your bloodstream, and boom - instant energy! It's like your body has its very own internal power plant, and you just switched it on full blast.
Now, let's compare this to slow-acting carbs. Foods like brown rice or sweet potatoes are examples of complex carbs. They're still good for you, but they release energy more slowly and over a longer period. They're like a slow, steady campfire, rather than a quick fireworks display. So they're better to eat a few hours before or after your workout, not right before.
Remember, it's all about timing. If you're about to do a heavy lifting session or a long run, fast-acting carbs can be your best friend. They give your muscles the quick energy they need to perform at their best.
On the flip side, you wouldn't want to fuel up on fast-acting carbs before bed. They'd give you lots of energy when your body is trying to wind down for sleep. So, next time you're preparing for a workout, grab a banana, a bowl of oats, or a spoonful of honey.
Don't let the word 'fat' scare you - the right kinds of fats can be a good catalyst for getting the most out of your workouts. We often think of fats as the bad guys of nutrition. But just like carbs, not all fats are created equal. We have healthy fats, and we have not-so-great fats.
Good fats come from natural, whole foods. Think of fresh avocados, dark chocolate, or organic butter. These are loaded with nutrients and can provide your body with long-lasting energy.
However, fats don't typically act as quickly as carbs to give you an energy boost. These fats are going to help you sustain energy for longer, but won’t light up and kick in as fast as carbs. That's why fats aren't typically recommended as a pre-workout food, but more 1-2 hours before you exercise.
Then we have fats found in certain oils and processed foods. These are often called 'inflammatory fats'. Why? Because they can increase inflammation in our bodies. Inflammation is just our bodies trying to protect themselves from something it doesn't like. While a little inflammation can be a good thing (like when you're healing a scrape or a bruise), we want to minimize it during workouts.
Imagine trying to run a race while you're carrying a heavy backpack. That's kind of what it's like when your body is trying to exercise with lots of inflammation. It's working extra hard just to do the normal stuff, let alone the additional work you're asking it to do with your workout.
Also, consuming fats right before a workout could interfere with the effects of caffeine or a pre-workout sports drink, if you're into those. Fats slow down the speed at which your stomach empties, which can slow down how quickly you feel the effects of your caffeine kick.
Now, that doesn't mean you should avoid fats altogether. Good fats should be a part of your overall diet because they support brain health, help your body absorb vitamins, encourage the ability to lose weight, and keep your heart healthy. Just remember, when it comes to pre-workout nutrition, it's typically better to reach for fast-acting carbs.
Caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant found in several foods and beverages. It's found in coffee, tea, and even dark chocolate. While it's best known for warding off sleepiness, it has several other notable effects that can augment athletic performance.
Caffeine increases heart rate and improves blood flow, facilitating oxygen supply to your muscles and boosting your workout performance. It also enhances concentration and reduces perceived exertion, making those strenuous workout sessions feel somewhat more comfortable. However, like any good thing, it must be consumed responsibly.
How much caffeine is sufficient to reap these benefits? Sports medicine suggests that a dose of 150-200mg is generally enough for an average person - roughly the amount in two cups of brewed coffee. It's essential to note, though, that caffeine sensitivity varies significantly among individuals. Some may require less to experience its effects, while others may tolerate more.
Across fitness, caffeine supplements, such as pre-workout powders, pills, and energy sports drinks, are quite popular. While these can be effective when used correctly, they can easily lead to excessive caffeine intake if not monitored. Overconsumption of caffeine can have undesirable effects, such as dehydration and heart problems, not to mention the infamous 'caffeine jitters' and post-caffeine energy crash.
Moreover, sports medicine has found that habitual use of high-caffeine supplements can lead to tolerance, requiring you to take more to achieve the same effects. This potential for dependency is another reason to use these products judiciously.
Best Pre Workout Snack for Athletes
Weightlifting & Crossfit
Almost every weightlifter I asked had the same answer for what they ate before a training session. Hayley Reichardt and Jake Horst both took bananas, oranges, and applesauce as their go-to pre workout fuel.
Fruits like bananas, oranges, or a Go-Go Squeeze applesauce packet are the perfect snack for someone heading to the gym or a crossfit workout. They are very light on the stomach and provide quick energy that won’t create a sugar crash like candy.
Running and Swimming
Runners and swimmers that are moving at a constant pace for the majority of their workout need sustained energy for their workouts. This means eating good fats like nuts or avocado 1-2 hours before a workout and then pushing something quick like a banana, apple, or oats with honey before hopping in the water.
Throwing requires mass and quick bursts of all out power. If you are entering a throwing practice or weight room session, don’t be afraid to load up on calories ahead of time. Elite shotputters, Eric Favors and T’Mond Johnson, recommend eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with whole grain bread or a couple Nutri-Grain apple cinnamon baked breakfast bars before training.
Football players need to stay hydrated throughout intense workouts, because there’s a good chance they are going to do a lot of running and doing a lot of work outside in the sun. This is where fruits with high water content and vasodilatory effects come into play.
We want to maximize blood flow, while having the fast-acting carbohydrates to produce the energy we need. This means eating nuts 1-2 hours before practice and then watermelon, banana, or strawberries 20-30 minutes before practice starts.
How Diet Impacts Your Workout
When you consume food, your body breaks it down into different nutrients, all of which serve specific roles. Carbohydrates, for instance, are broken down into glucose - the primary energy source for your body. Consuming the right types and amounts of carbohydrates is therefore crucial for maintaining optimal energy levels.
Proteins and fats, on the other hand, are processed more slowly, providing a sustained energy release over a longer period. These nutrients also play critical roles in other bodily functions like building muscle mass and hormonal regulation, respectively.
By carefully selecting what we eat, we can manage our energy levels effectively. This, in turn, influences our workout performance, recovery, and overall health. Remember, your body is an intricate machine; the better the fuel, the better it performs!
Muscle Protein Synthesis
Your pre-workout meal might also play a crucial role in releasing the Mechano Growth Factor hormone during your workout. Consuming a protein rich meal before hitting the gym can kick-start this process of muscle protein synthesis. This is where proteins are broken down into essential amino acids in your body, which act as the building blocks for lean body mass.
In particular, a certain amino acid called leucine plays a star role. Foods rich in leucine, like dairy, meat, and eggs, are especially beneficial. When you consume these foods before a workout, they increase the levels of leucine in your bloodstream, which in turn triggers muscle protein synthesis.
A good example of a small snack before a workout is half a turkey sandwich. Although, keep the majority of your protein consumption saved for after your workout so that your body will absorb the nutrients more effectively as it recovers.
The circulatory system is our body's highway, delivering oxygen and nutrients to our muscles. As you can imagine, better traffic flow on this highway can significantly enhance our workout performance.
The foods we consume before a workout can influence our circulatory system's efficiency. Certain nutrients have 'vasodilatory' properties, meaning they help to expand our blood vessels, facilitating improved blood flow.
For instance, nitrate-rich foods like beetroot and spinach have been shown to increase nitric oxide levels in the body, enhancing blood flow and oxygen delivery to the muscles during exercise. Similarly, amino acids such as arginine and citrulline, found in foods like watermelon and nuts, have vasodilatory effects and can be beneficial when consumed pre-workout.
I think there are a few edible items that have made their claim as the best pre workout food throughout this article. When in doubt of what to eat before you lift, grab a banana, applesauce, or a granola bar to have the energy you need to get through your training session.
Depending on how you train or what you will be doing that day, there are different foods and snacks that will make a better impact on your workout.
If you need more help and more guidance on what to eat throughout the day and even after your workout, check out our high performance nutrition plans that will cater to your goals and help hold you accountable to everything you need to put in your body.
Eat like a beast, train like a beast. PEACE.
Individualized Training App
Get elite level strength programming with
Yo, It's Dane
Welcome to the Garage Strength Blog, where it is my goal to provide you with the experience and knowledge I've gained in the strength and conditioning world over many years of learning from both successes and failures. I train elite-level athletes in a multitude of sports from the high school to professional levels, already producing 5 Olympics and 30+ National Champions. If you want to be the next champion I train, check out my strength programs below!
Start Training With Me
Join for free educational videos EVERY WEEK on strength coaching and athletic performance