17 Feb What should I eat before a workout?
What you eat before a workout can determine how well you perform and recover, so it’s vital that you understand your body and the food you’re putting in it.
The first thing to consider is what you are trying to achieve, as different exercise regimes require different balances of protein, carbohydrates and fats. You also need to factor in your lifestyle and how much time you have between eating and working out.
When you should eat before a workout
A good diet is key to exercising well, but you need to think about when you eat as much as you do about what you eat.
Some foods take longer than others to digest, and if your food is not properly digested before you work out then you can experience stomach pains. You will also miss out on getting the full benefit from the food.
As a general rule, you should leave at least hours between a full meal and a workout. Anything less than that and you should choose foods which your body can digest quickly.
Carbs are your energy source
Anyone doing regular exercise needs plenty of healthy carbohydrates, because these are your energy source. You may have heard of “simple” and “complex” carbs, and as a rule of thumb you are better off eating the complex kind.
The simple/complex split refers to the length of the chains of carbohydrate molecules in the food. The simple ones are easier to digest but the complex type raise glucose levels for longer so they give you a longer-lasting energy boost.
So look for nutritious foods with complex carbohydrate, such as pasta and any food with whole grains, but make sure you give your body long enough to digest it.
If you have less than two hours before your workout, you should avoid the pasta, but wholegrain breads and cereals should still be fine. If you need to eat less than an hour ahead of your exercise, you will get more benefit from nutritious foods like fruit which have plenty of simple carbs.
Protein helps build and repair muscle
Protein is essential for building and repairing muscle fibres, so anyone doing power or strength work needs to ensure they get plenty of it in their diet. Endurance athletes need protein too, as it helps your muscles to recover after exercise.
Recent research suggests that the best way to get protein to your muscles is by spreading your intake across the whole day.
Don’t guzzle down a protein shake just before you work out, as your body will take at least an hour to digest it. Keep any protein supplements until after your session.
As with carbohydrates, the best approach is to eat balanced meals, and your best sources of protein are lean meat, fish and eggs.
You need fats but not just before you work out
Everybody needs unsaturated fats from foods like nuts, avocados and olive oil, but they are not the ideal option when deciding what to eat before a workout.
Your body does not digest fats quickly, so you will not get the benefit and are more likely to have food still sitting in your stomach if you eat them within two hours of exercise.
Fats are still important, especially if you are an endurance athlete, but just try to build this into your overall diet and avoid too much before a workout.
Don’t forget your hydration
When you plan your diet, don’t forget to consider hydration. Your body needs water to function, and you should aim to keep your hydration levels high throughout the day and especially throughout a workout.
Water is particularly important when you are exercising, performing vital functions to enable you survive and thrive as your body works harder.
Ideally, you should be fully hydrated about half an hour before starting, but you can also drink small sips of water during longer sessions to keep your body topped up.
Make sure you have lots of fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet, as these can be up to 90 percent water and are a good source of fibre and carbohydrates.
You can benefit from supplements
You may be able to improve your performance and recovery by taking the right supplements shortly before a workout. Always speak to your personal trainer before you start using any supplements, as they can advise you on what is most appropriate.
Caffeine has been shown to boost performance and alertness during exercise, but even that takes time to get into your system. Some studies have shown benefits within 15 minutes, but you’re likely to get the best effects after about an hour.
Many athletes use pre-workout supplements containing branch-chain amino acids, which have been show to reduce muscle soreness after your workout.
Another popular option for before your workout is beta alanine, which can help improve performance in all types of training. You might get a tingling sensation after taking beta alanine, but this is a harmless side-effect that passes quickly.
In general, you can eat before a workout, as long as you are sensible about your intake. Water and supplements like beta alanine and BCAA are fine within an hour, but for complex food types like proteins, carbohydrates and fats make sure your body has enough time to digest it.