Monday 17 November 2014

Optimizing Pre-Workout Nutrition

Is your eating helping or hurting your training? In addition to what you eat throughout the day, the foods you eat (or don’t eat) before training can have a big impact on your training session safety and your results. If you are going to spend your valuable time in the gym training, you want to make sure you are getting the very best possible results for your time investment and sweat equity. Before you grab your barbell, be sure you are eating the right foods at the right time.
There are two important issues to consider when it comes to pre-workout nutrition.

Issue # 1: Safety
Over the past 16 years of working as a trainer, the most common first aid issue I’ve seen in gyms is hypoglycemia (i.e. low blood sugar). When you do intense training, your body will burn sugar. If you have not eaten prior to training, your body quickly uses up what little sugar it has left and you can go hypoglycemic. This can also happen from eating the wrong foods (e.g. refined carbohydrates) which can spike and then crash your sugar levels. At best hypoglycemia will cause you to have a horrible training session. However, if not caught in time, hypoglycemia can cause you to feel shaky, light-headed and possibly cause you to faint. While fainting is never a good idea, it is an especially bad idea in a weight room filled with hard metal objects for you to hit on your way to the floor. 

Issue #2: Results
Every training session is an opportunity to move one step closer to your goals. Eating the right foods at the right time will help you take full advantage of this opportunity. A proper pre-workout meal will give you the energy you need to train intensely. It also has the following physiological benefits:
  • Reduced muscle breakdown
  • Lower cortisol (a stress hormone that can waste away muscle tissue)
  • Increased insulin (this is good around the training time for healthy individuals as insulin is a powerful anabolic hormone)
  • Promotes muscle hypertrophy
  • Increases nutrient delivery to muscles
  • Spares muscle glycogen & protein
  • Limits immune system suppression 
  • Sets the stage for faster recovery
Pre-Workout Nutrition Guidelines
If you are serious about safe, effective training, do yourself a favour and always eat before training. Here are some guidelines to help you with this:
  • Eat about 1-3 hours before training
  • Adjust the size of your meal/snack according to how much time you have until you start your training session
  • Choose whole, non-processed carbs
  • Have a balanced meal with some protein, fats and carbs. Many people make the mistake of just having carbs or eating refined carbohydrates and this can cause a spike and then a crash to your sugar levels which can also cause hypoglycemia. Note: some people are very sensitive to this than others.
  • Select foods that have an appropriate digestion speed depending on how long it is until your next session (e.g. whey protein if right before training, meat if you have longer before your session)
  • Use caution with higher levels of foods that for you can cause GI distress (digestive organ discomfort) such as too much fructose or fiber
  • Do some personal experimentation with timing and types of foods you eat. Then, when you train, carefully monitor how you feel and how you perform after eating certain foods. Find what gives YOU the most energy and stamina during your training sessions.
  • Experiment with different ratios of foods. For example, some people find that eating too many carbohydrates (even whole, unprocessed ones) can make them feel sleepy. 
Whole food vs. shakes?
One of the questions people often have is, “Should I have whole foods or protein/carb shakes?” There is research on pre-workout nutrition that uses shakes right before training. The challenge with this research is that it can lack real-world applicability. For example, you may see studies where 2 groups of subjects both fast for 12 hours. Then, one group is given a protein/carb shake and the other is given a placebo (in this case a drink that contains no protein or carbs) and then both groups hop on a bike and pedal to exhaustion. Then surprise, the group that had the protein and carb shake can pedal longer and harder than the group with the placebo. This makes a very well controlled research study. However, what I want to know is if you have a shake right before training and I have a whole food meal 1-2 hours before training, will there be a significant difference between our performances? 

Some examples
So what actually do you eat then? This can be very individual, so ultimately you need to do some experimentation based on the guidelines above. However, to spark your creativity, here are the different meals I use before training based on how much time before my session starts:

2-3 hours before training
With this time frame, I like to choose slow digesting foods. My typical meal would be: 
1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1-2 cups mixed vegetables (e.g. broccoli, zucchini, onions, tomatoes, garlic)
1-2 baked yams
4-6oz of chicken or beef. 
Nothing fancy here, but I find it effective for training and my blood sugars stay stable. 

1-2 hours before training
With this time frame, I want something a little faster digesting to make sure I don’t have this meal sitting like a brick in my stomach when I start my session. With my current schedule, this time frame happens when I train in the morning so I opt for an egg-based meal which digests at a good rate for this amount of time. My typical meal here would be:
1 apple
1 tbsp coconut oil
4 whole eggs
1 cup spinach
2 slices of sprouted/whole grain toast
1tbsp olive or butter (for toast)

15 min before training
If it is going to be longer than 2 hours after eating before starting my training session, then I will often go for a really simple protein & carb meal. My personal favorite is:
0.5-1 scoop protein powder
1 banana 
Note: this is also a good option for those who have to train first thing in the morning.

What about pre-workout stimulants?
This is one of the most popular supplement trends right now. Since most people are already used to being hopped up on stimulants, they naturally enjoy getting a buzz before training. Personally, I don’t use stimulants nor do I encourage them with my athletes or clients. See my post on pre-workout drinks for more information. 

But what about fat burning?
One of the popular trends in bodybuilding and fitness circles is to do cardio first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. The theory behind this is that it will force your body to use a greater percentage of fat as a fuel source. While there are successful physique athletes who do this, it is important to remember that they are doing a lot of things right and I believe this is unlikely the game-changer for getting ripped. Also, this really only works with low-intensity cardio. If you are doing high-intensity athletic based training (even Athletic Training for Fat Loss), you want to eat before you train so you can train at a higher level of intensity. This style of training is not about using low-intensity cardio to get into the fat burning zone, but rather training in a way to boost your post training EPOC (the amount of extra calories you burn from the post-training metabolism boost that following high-intensity training). You will not be able to train hard enough for this if you go first thing in the morning on an empty stomach.  

What about you?
What is your favorite pre-training meal? Please share what you find help to eat before training in the comments section below.

Antonio, J, et. al (eds.). Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press; 2008. 
Ivy, J., & Portman, R.  (2004).  Nutrient Timing.  North Bergen, NJ: Basic Health Publications.
Smith-Ryan, AE. & Antonio, J. (eds.). Sports Nutrition & Performance Enhancing Supplements. New York: Linus Publications; 2013.


  1. Great, informative article. Since I typically exercise mid-morning, I love making pre-workout breakfasts that can be made the night before. We have two kids, so this helps take the guesswork out when there is so much else to get ready before we all leave our apartment in the mornings.

    Overnight bowls:
    I love unsweetened coconut (non-dairy) yogurt with hemp hearts and either whole or ground chia seeds (or ground flax). Topped with choice of fruit (I especially love frozen wild blueberries), a few drops of stevia for sweetness (since I'm off refined sugars), and shredded coconut and some cinnamon. Others may wish to add dried fruit and nuts. I sometimes stir in some oats or rolled quinoa flakes or whole quinoa (I often keep some on-hand in the fridge). You can do so many variations of this. The seeds and nuts soaking in the yogurt overnight also softens them and makes them easier to digest.

    You can also soak raw buckwheat groats overnight, then rinse them in the morning and add them to a yogurt bowl or to your oats for some varied texture, nutrition, and flavour.

    Overnight oats done in a similar fashion with these kinds of toppings are also good.

    --Vesna (Ivan's sister) :)

  2. Vesna, thanks so much for sharing that overnight bowls recipe! It sounds delicious!