Before talking about what we should eat before a workout, what about not eating at all? A popular fat-burning strategy is to exercise first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. In his book Body for Life, Bill Phillips states that performing 20 minutes of intense aerobic exercise after an overnight fast has greater effects on fat loss than performing an entire hour of cardio in a sated state.
Indeed, there is evidence that training on an empty gut can increase fat oxidation and allow greater mobilization of stored fat for fuel. But using more fat doesn’t necessarily mean increased fat loss, since most of the fat used comes from inside muscle cells, not from the fat below the skin. And once exercise has ended, any fats that are not oxidized will ultimately return to adipose tissue. This essentially cancels out any fat-burning benefits of pre-training fasting. And worse, protein from your precious muscles will be burned for energy as well. A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that nitrogen losses from protein breakdown were more than doubled when training in a fasted state. This is bad news for those seeking to maximize muscle mass.
To optimize your performance, you need to eat. Research has established that carbohydrate intake during exercise delays the onset of fatigue and improves endurance exercise performance. This happens because carbs enhance the availability of blood glucose to active muscle. Roughly 70% of the energy in your pre-workout meal should come from carbs, but choose low-glycemic carbs like oatmeal, veggies or sweet potatoes instead of simple sugars or candy to avoid wild fluctuations in your blood-sugar levels. Protein is the next important nutrient to consider in order to decrease muscle breakdown during and after your workout. Fat takes the longest to digest, so a pre-workout meal should be relatively low in fat.
Your biggest challenge will be knowing how much food you can eat pre-workout, based on your own experience. Some guys can eat a full meal an hour before a rigorous workout, while others with more sensitive guts might have to wait three to four hours. In general, a meal that is around 500-600 calories and is eaten by a 180-pound man two to three hours before a workout should be fine. Smaller snacks of 300 calories or less can be eaten one hour pre-workout, but you should experiment with the timing and meal size to suit your individual needs.
If you’re fueling for an intense endurance activity, then more carbs should be added. Those who are weight-lifting or building muscle should add more protein. Depending on your activity, the foods listed here will ensure that you get the best out of your workout.
10. Muscle OatsRecipe: 1/2 cup steel-cut oats with 1 scoop whey protein
Best for: Endurance exercises. Consume one to two hours before exercise.
Calories: 420; Protein: 33 g; Fat: 7 g; Carbs: 57 g; Sugars: 2 gSteel-cut (Irish) oats are the least-processed type of oat cereal and have a lower glycemic load compared to quick-cooking and instant oats. Steel-cut oats take a bit more time to cook and they’re a more hearty, chewy cereal. If you’re not crazy about the texture or extra cooking time, old-fashion rolled oats have very similar nutritional qualities and the same glycemic impact as steel-cut oats.
9. Veggie OmeletRecipe: 2 whole eggs, 2 egg whites, peppers, onions, mushrooms, grapefruit/oatmeal
Best for: Muscle-building. Consume one to two hours before exercise. For circuit training or more cardio, add a grapefruit or 1/2 cup rolled oats.
Calories: 321; Protein: 26 g; Fat: 18 g; Carbs: 13 g; Sugars: 6.47 gThis classic omelet is perfect for those who head to the gym soon after breakfast. As far as whole foods go, eggs have the highest bioavailable proteins. Proteins are given a biological value that measures a protein’s ability to be used by the body. Eggs are used as the gold standard with a biological value of 100.
8. Turkey leaf wrapRecipe: 4 oz turkey chunks or slices, 1 large collard green leaf, purple onion, red pepper, small tomatoes, 1 tbsp deli mustard. Smear the leaf with the mustard and top with the remaining ingredients. Roll and pin with a toothpick.
Best for: Muscle building. Consume 30 minutes to one hour before exercise. For circuit training or more cardio, use a whole-grain wrap instead of the collard green leaf.
Calories: 184; Protein: 28 g; Fat: 3 g; Carbs: 13 g; Sugars: 6 g.Turkey is a lean source of protein that is easily digested and won’t cause any digestive upset during exercise. This variation on the classic wrap uses a large collard green leaf to reduce the calories and carbs, perfect for fat loss programs and muscle-building routines. It is also ideal for those who abstain from grains and gluten.
7. Bodybuilder Lunch ClassicRecipe: 6 oz grilled chicken with sweet potato and broccoli
Best for: Muscle building and circuit training. Consume two to three hours before exercise.
Calories: 368; Protein: 59 g; Fat: 9 g; Carbs: 37 g; Sugars: 11 gThere’s a reason why fitness models and athletes consume this meal regularly. Each ingredient is at the top of their class. Lean poultry has high-quality bioavailable protein, sweet potatoes have complex carbs with added antioxidants, and broccoli has a treasure trove of vitamins, minerals and healthful phytochemicals. These foods have everything the body needs to perform at top speed. It’s a full meal, though, so don't eat it too close to your workout session.
6. Fruit and CottageRecipe: 1/2 cup low-fat cottage cheese with 1/2 cup fresh berries or melon. Add a banana for endurance.
Best for: Endurance or circuit training. Consume 30-60 minutes before exercise
Calories: 117; Protein: 14 g; Fat: 0.1 g; Carbs: 13 g; Sugars: 6 g
Cottage cheese has no lactose and is considered an excellent source of protein. Blueberries and melons provide the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants needed for your workout. If you need the extra energy for longer endurance, add a banana. Bananas have more carbs than most other fruits and contains potassium, a nutrient that is essential for proper nerve and muscle function. Potassium is important to consider for long, intense sessions, especially if they're done in hot-weather conditions. This low-calorie, easily digestible snack is perfect for bridging the gap between your last meal and your workout.
5. Homemade protein barsRecipe: 1/2 cup vanilla whey powder, 1/4 cup flaked coconut, 1/4 cup coconut flour, 1/4 cup milk, 30 g melted 85% dark chocolate. Mix the protein powder and coconut flour with milk and shape the batter into bars. Melt the chocolate in a glass bowl on top of a pot of boiling water. Once melted, dip the bars in the chocolate. Place the bars in the freezer for 30-45 minutes.
Best for: Muscle building and circuit training. Consume 30-60 minutes before exercise.
Calories: 212; Protein: 17 g; Fat: 13 g; Carbs: 9 g; Sugars: 3 gNutrition bars are the most convenient pre-workout snack. But watch out -- they can be candy bars in disguise. Read the nutrition label and ingredient list carefully and make sure that it contains high-quality protein (hydrolyzed whey or whey isolates) and is low in sugar. For intense endurance training, choose high-carb energy bars or natural bars made with whole food ingredients. For muscle-building workouts, choose a protein bar that has at least 15 grams of protein. If you want a special treat, try making your own nutrition bars. The toasted coconut and vanilla whey protein bars listed here are delicious and easy to make. Coconut has heart-healthy medium-chain triglycerides that can be helpful for those on fat-loss programs.
4. Yoberries a-go-goRecipe: 1 cup non-fat vanilla Greek yogurt and 1/2 cup fresh blueberries
Best for: Muscle building and circuit training. For endurance, add a banana. Consume 30-60 minutes before exercise.
Calories: 173; Protein: 14 g; Fat: 0.5 g; Carbs: 28 g; Sugars: 22 gGreek yogurt is basically made by straining ordinary yogurt to remove the whey, resulting in a thicker, creamier product. Compared to regular yogurt, Greek yogurt has almost double the protein, fewer carbs and half the sodium. Both types are considered to be good sources of calcium, but regular yogurt has about three times the amount of Greek yogurt. Plain, non-fat versions of Greek and regular yogurt have similar calorie counts per serving and contain similar quantities of beneficial probiotics. Ditch the flavored yogurt varieties that have added sugar and add your own fruit instead.
3. Mocha protein shakeRecipe: 1 cup iced coffee with 1 scoop chocolate whey protein
Best for: Muscle building and circuit training. For endurance, add 1 cup cooked rolled oats. Consume 30 minutes before workout.
Calories: 150; Protein: 26 g; Fat: 2 g; Carbs: 7 g; Sugars: 2 gThis delicious shake gives you the added kick of caffeine. Research shows that caffeine can be a powerful ergogenic aid that could permit the athlete to train at a greater power output and train longer. It has also been shown to increase speed and power in simulated race conditions. The effects of caffeine have been found in activities that last as little as 60 seconds or as long as two hours, with no adverse effects on hydration or ion balance. When it comes to improving strength, however, caffeine doesn’t seem to help out much. This protein-enhanced coffee recipe can be taken minutes before or even during a workout. Liquids are digested much more rapidly than solid foods, so you don’t need to worry about stomach upset.
2. Almond butter crunchRecipe: 2 tbsp almond butter on celery sticks
Best for: Muscle building. For endurance, use whole grain bread. Consume one to two hours before exercise.
Calories: 206; Protein: 7 g; Fat: 18 g; Carbs: 8 g; Sugars: 3 gNut butters are a favorite for many athletes because they are packed with protein and healthy monounsaturated fats. Almond butter contains vitamin E, potassium, magnesium and iron, calcium, and phosphorus, and is considered a healthy food choice. Unlike many commercially available peanut butters, almond butters are mostly minimally processed and have no added salt, sugars or fats. Remember that peanuts are not true nuts, but rather legumes, so they contain certain lectins (peanut agglutinin) that may disturb your gut lining. For this pre-workout snack, simply leave a jar of almond butter at work, home or even in the car, and scoop out a few dollops with a celery stalk. The fresh crisp of the celery mixed with the soft smooth almond butter makes this a delicious treat that can be easily overeaten. Be careful.
1. Sweet & spicy trail mixRecipe: 1 cup raw unsalted nuts (almonds, sunflower seeds, cashews, walnuts), 1 tbsp olive oil, 1/4 tsp each of cinnamon, cayenne pepper, chili powder, sea salt, 1 tsp maple syrup. Pre-heat the oven to 350 F. Slightly roast nuts on a lined baking sheet for 5-10 minutes. Mix olive oil, spices and maple syrup together in a bowl and add semi-roasted nuts. Return nuts to baking sheet and roast for another 5-10 minutes.
Best for: Muscle building and circuit training. For endurance, add dried fruit. Consume 1-2 hours before exercise.
Calories: 546; Protein: 20 g; Fat: 60 g; Carbs: 23 g; Sugars: 7 gThanks to Cosmopolitan Primal Girl for this incredibly easy and super-delicious treat. Nuts are calorically dense because of their fat content, but they provide the needed protein and calories for those wanting to put on muscle mass. But be careful -- they may set you back if your goal is fat loss. Endurance athletes, use only 1/2 cup of nuts and add 1/2 cup of dried fruits (raisins, apricots, figs, dates) to boost the carbs and decrease the fat content. If you decide to buy a commercially prepared trail mix, skip out on the ones that contain chocolate-, yogurt- or candy-coated nuts to avoid simple sugars.
Proper nutrition plays an enormous role in athletic performance, endurance and recovery. A carefully planned pre-workout meal will enable you to get the most out of every workout. So prepare your snack or meal in advance, and feel comfort in the fact that you now have the necessary weapons to combat fatigue and be at your best during your most grueling workout.