Now, just because there are some really effective pre-workout supplements available on the market, which can really help boost your training performance, it doesn’t mean you can afford to neglect your nutrition.
Eating the right kinds of food at the right kind of time, prior to your workout, can be just as important to the gains you make as pumping your body full of creatine, beta alanine and any other synthetic supplement you can get your hands on.
The aim, therefore, of this article, is to give you all the information you need to make sure you’re consistently consuming the best pre-workout meals for your needs. Whether you want to lose body fat, gain muscle or just be healthy, we’ve got you covered with loads of simple hints and tips.
Let’s start with the basics!
Before we kick off with some of the things you need to consider when choosing a pre-workout meal, it might be a good idea to address some of the basics of nutrition. The major macronutrients are probably as good a place to start as any!
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of fuel. Stored in your muscles and the liver as glycogen, it is this nutrient which provides your muscles with the energy to perform short, high intensity activity.
This supply of glycogen is limited, however, and as it is used up, your ability to sustain physical output is diminished. In order to replenish your stores, you must consume foods which are rich in carbohydrates.
Proteins are simply the building blocks of your muscles and are therefore vital to sustaining and building lean muscle mass.
Research has suggested that eating protein, particularly in combination with carbohydrates leads to greater levels of protein synthesis. Consuming protein prior to exercise, more specifically, has been shown to enhance muscle growth, improve recovery as well as increase strength and lean muscle mass.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m putting in the hard work in the gym, I may as well supplement that with the right food outside it. And that means making sure you’re taking on a good amount of lean protein.
Now, for whatever reason, fat has a pretty negative rep amongst the ill informed. Eat fat and you’ll get fat. It’s impossible to eat any fat and still lose weight. Complete rubbish I tell you.
Not only is fat the body’s optimum fuel source for long lasting, low intensity activity, it also performs a number of vital functions within the body, including the absorption and transport of a number of important vitamins and minerals.
Obviously some fats are far better for your health than others but that shouldn’t mean that you avoid them all together!
Pre-workout nutrition 101
One of the most important factors to consider when your trying to find the best pre-workout meal option for you, is when you are consuming it in relation to your session. This will determine not only how much food you take on but also what types of food too.
If you can eat a full 2-3 hours before your workout then you can afford to consume a full meal containing sources of all 3 of the major macros. That could be something along the lines of a chicken breast accompanied with brown rice and broccoli.
If you’re eating within an hour of your session, however, then a full blown meal like the one above is probably going to be too much food too close to your activity. In that case you need to choose foods which are easier to digest and generally higher in carbohydrates with only a little protein.
That could be something like greek yoghurt with fresh fruit, a bagel or even just a banana.
Remember, the closer to your session you consume food, the faster you have to digest it. That means you want simple, sugary carbs (like fruit) rather than slow release options (like sweet potato).
If you end up eating too much, or too complex foods too close to your session, you’re in danger of directing blood flow away from your muscles and towards the stomach. This will not only inhibit your workout performance but is also likely to make you feel sick.
Best pre-workout meal for muscle gain:
There isn’t really such a thing as a best pre-workout meal for muscle gain and anyone who tells you different is full of shit. You might think that consuming more protein prior to your workout could help with lean muscle gains. Not a silly assumption by any means given that it is protein which is fundamental to building muscle.
The latest scientific research, however, suggests that the most important aspect of protein intake is total consumption over the course of the day as opposed to the specific timing of this consumption (i.e. immediately before or after your workout). That means, whilst what you eat prior to your workout can affect how much energy you have and therefore the quality of your session, it will not help to or hinder you from gaining muscle. Sorry!
Best pre-workout meal for weight loss/fat loss:
Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
If your main goal when exercising is to lose weight or burn fat then you really shouldn’t be eating anything prior to your workout. There are certain conditions which make this a viable option but completing what is known in the trade as a fasted workout can be a really effective method of promoting fat loss, in particular.
The idea is that by not consuming any food immediately before your workout your body uses its bank of stored energy instead. That normally means it uses fat to fuel your workout. This is generally a good option for low intensity, cardio type sessions.
If you do fancy giving a fasted session a go, make sure it doesn’t last any longer than 45 minutes as after this point your body is more likely to start breaking down muscle for energy as opposed to using already depleted fat stores.
Drinking a black coffee 30-60 mins before your fasted workout is a great way to boost it’s fat burning potential!
An often overlooked aspect of training nutrition, making sure you are properly hydrated is key to getting the most out of any session. Not only is water vital for a wide range of bodily functions, it has been demonstrated to sustain and even enhance physical performance.
Dehydration, on the other hand, is heavily linked with significant reductions in physical output.
According to scientific studies, you should be consuming somewhere between 16 and 20 ounces of water at least 4 hours before, and between 8 and 12 ounces, 10-15 minutes before you exercise.
Some meal options:
|2-3 hours before workout|
|Less than an hour pre-workout|
The key to choosing the best pre-workout meal for you comes down to two major factors: When you can eat and what your training goals are.
If you can prepare a meal 2-3 hours prior to your session then the options available to you are varied. Be sure to tick all of the macronutrient boxes and opt for low glycemic, slow release carbohydrates like brown rice, wholemeal pasta or sweet potato. These foods will take longer for you to digest, but come session time your body will be optimally fuelled.
If, however, you’re eating within an hour of your scheduled workout, then you need to be a little bit more careful with what you choose. Your body simply doesn’t have time to process complex carbohydrates and lots of protein and fat. As a result, your best bet is to consume mainly sugary, simple carbohydrates. Fruit, yoghurt and white bread products are all great options when you’re a little pushed for time.
Remember, it doesn’t matter what your pre-workout meal is, if you’re not appropriately hydrated then you won’t get the most out of your session… so keep drinking.
Should you lift weights on an empty stomach?
Whilst there are occasions when exercising on an empty stomach is a great way of promoting some extra fat burning, a session based around lifting weights is probably not the time.
Short, intense physical activity requires the use of glycogen stores to provide energy. This is because glucose is the most efficient source of fuel in your body as it is soluble and easily transported in your blood. Whilst fat stores are far more energy dense than glycogen, they are less soluble and therefore take longer to be transported.
Consequently, when you need energy quickly, your body looks to glycogen to provide it. If your stores are depleted and the body looks to fat instead, you’re likely to feel sluggish and your performance will suffer.
What shouldn’t you eat before a workout?
If you’re eating less than an hour before your session then you’re going to want to avoid food types which take time to digest and therefore might cause you gastrointestinal discomfort. That means avoiding things like legumes (lentils, black beans, chickpeas etc) as they are fibre heavy and can cause bloating.
Other foods to avoid include whole grain bread, raw seeds, and cruciferous veggies, all of which are high in fibre or fat and are therefore more difficult for you to digest.
What is the best post-workout meal?
In all honesty there isn’t a whole lot of difference between the foods that make the best pre-workout meal and those which make the best post-workout meal.
You still need to focus on making sure you tick all the macronutrient boxes, so your post-workout feed should definitely include some carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats. You don’t, however, need to worry so much about foods that can be quickly or easily digested because your training session is no longer imminent.
As a result, a post-workout meal is a great opportunity to get a little more protein and fat on board. That means foods like chicken, fish which is higher in healthy fats such as salmon or mackerel and maybe some extra veggies high in fibre.