Ever have a panic attack as you drive watching the fuel meter tick lower and lower towards “Empty”? We all have. Everyone knows that you must fuel a vehicle to keep your engine running efficiently. Your body is your vehicle – which means fueling your body by eating the appropriate food and staying hydrated is essential to optimizing performance. Good nutrition can help your body perform better and recover faster after each workout. However, optimal nutrition intake before exercise can stimulate maximizing performance and minimize muscle damage. The important factors in determining what to eat before a workout are: knowing what to eat, the timing, and hydration.
What is Pre-Exercise Fueling and why is it important?
Pre-Exercise Fueling, as the word suggests, is eating essential foods before starting a workout. Determining what to eat before exercise will provide you with the energy and strength you need to optimize performance. Though each macronutrient plays a specific role in providing energy, the ratio of carbs, fats, and proteins varies depending on the type of exercise and training goal. Pre-Exercise Fueling is beneficial to make up for the energy losses during a workout, boost muscle endurance, and improve body stamina. In most cases, people who exercise with an empty stomach get tired sooner than those who consume a pre-exercise meal.
Some of the most important points of Pre-Exercise Fueling are:
- Reserve glycogen and energy levels for muscles during strenuous exercise.
- Avoid dangerous oxidative reactions that take place in your muscles during exercise.
- Prevent your body from dehydration and unnecessary cramps or muscle pulls.
- Enhance performance and boost stamina.
Pre-Exercise Fuel and Macronutrients
Pre-Exercise Fuel includes various essential macronutrients that fulfill the required energy needs, and the liquids that prevent dehydration. The ideal Pre-Exercise Fueling includes:
- High Energy Carbs
- Vital Fats
- Essential Proteins
The nutrient requirements and timing of food before a workout depend upon the type of workout mainly, such as strength and power sports, endurance training, cardio, etc.
Your muscles use glucose from carbohydrates for fuel which is why “carbs” are the main fuel source for providing energy. Glycogen is the way the body stores glucose which is conserved in the liver and muscles. The degree to which carbs are used depends on the intensity and type of training, as well as your overall diet. Carbs are mainly used for short, high-intensity exercise or strength and power sports. However, these glycogen stores become depleted and your intensity begins to diminish. Nonetheless, carb loading, consuming a high carb diet for 1-7 days, is a method to maximize glycogen stores before training or before a big game day at the end of the week. Carb loading also is used to prevent cramps and help with unnecessary muscle cramps and aches. Additionally, adding carbs can prevent hypoglycemic conditions which cause the blood glucose level to drop to dangerous levels leading to malfunctions of the body.
Before a workout, it is better to focus on eating more protein and carbohydrates. However, it is also important to incorporate healthy fats in a balanced diet. Fats digest more slowly than carbohydrates, and the body may not be able to break down and absorb fats before a workout session. Therefore, fats are the fuel source for long, moderate to low intensity exercise. Present studies demonstrate that higher levels of fat in the diet up to 40% have shown to increase endurance training. Though carbs are good for athletes, fats are the preferred energy source to maximize endurance and boost fat burning during low-intensity exercise.
Protein is essential to recovery after exercise, nevertheless, studies have noted protein consumption can improve athletic performance as well. This greatly depends on the type of protein, timing of protein intake, and other nutrients consumed with the protein. Amino acids are described as the building block of protein which plays a crucial role in muscle synthesis, enzymes, and regulating the numerous metabolic pathways. Free amino acids plus carbohydrates before exercise result in an improved anabolic response to exercise. Though multiple sources of protein play a role in promoting protein synthesis after exercise, only those with essential amino acids can elevate syntheses to not only help recovery but for adaptation to exercise training such as muscle hypertrophy and mitochondrial biogenesis. Supplements such as BCAAs and Beta-alanines are among the most common when referring to the essential amino acids. However, creatine and caffeine are other multi-ingredients pre-workout supplements aid to optimize performance.
Liquids before exercising are used to prevent any kind of dehydration conditions. Dehydration during a workout can lead to muscle cramps, hyperventilation, and loss of stamina. Studies have shown that less water intake can lead to life-threatening situations such as the formation of various kidney stones or serious fluctuations in blood pressure. Use fresh juices to keep up the water as well as the level of vitamins in your body.
Pre- Exercise Meal Timing
Optimal timing of pre-workout eating varies from athlete to athlete depending on the sport. The most common recommendation is to eat 3-4 hours before the event to avoid becoming nauseated or uncomfortable. To maximize the results of training, eating a complete meal containing carbs, proteins, and fats could aid in optimizing performance. In some cases when athletes cannot consume a full meal 3-4 hours before a workout, they can still eat a smaller simpler meal. Choosing to eat an hour before, the food should be simple to digest and mainly contain carbs and proteins.
The type of pre-workout meals is dependent on the type, intensity, and time of the workout. The ratio intake ratio of certain macronutrients plays a role in enhancing muscle recovery and tissue repair, protein synthesis, and mood during intense exercise. Fats should be consumed a couple of hours before exercise; however, carbs and proteins may be consumed closer to an hour or less before starting to exercise. Following are some types of meals with different timing, suitable for your specific workout:
- 2 – 3 hours:
- Whole grain bread sandwich with lean protein, lean protein and brown rice with veggies, egg omelet with a fruit cup
- Within 2 hours:
- Protein smoothie with mixed berries, whole-grain cereal and milk, a cup of oatmeal with bananas
- Less than an hour:
- Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, nutrition bar with protein
- Pre-Exercise Fueling, as the word suggests, is eating essential foods before starting a workout. Determining what to eat before exercise will provide you with the energy and strength you need to optimize performance.
- Carbs are essential to maximizing glycogen stores for higher intensity workout whereas fats help fuel your body for endurance training. Proteins are utilized for improvising protein synthesis and help with recovery.
- It is highly recommended to consume a full meal 2 – 3 hours before exercising, or if you choose to eat a meal closer to a workout, choose simple carbs and some protein.
- Staying hydrated is important for performance to prevent excess water loss.
- Simple pre-exercise nutrition practices can go a long way in boosting performance, faster recovery, and overall day-to-day activities.
Nicholas Monette received his undergraduate degree in Kinesiology from Stephen F. Austin University and his Master of Science in Kinesiology from Texas A&M Corpus Christi. He is a certified personal trainer and has many years of experience. He has not only worked as a personal trainer and group exercise coach but also supervised various recreational departments, which included recruiting and training new hires in their prospective job duties in order to enhance professional growth. The immersion in the administrative side, as well as the client-facing environments of management, group fitness, personal training, and strength and conditioning, have given him an extensive knowledge base to continue to grow and succeed in the health and wellness industry. His all-around leadership and motivation have helped develop a strong commitment to the promotion of healthy/active lifestyles. Nicholas is the owner of Mint Health and Wellness, a published author, and a physical education teacher in Beaumont, Texas.