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What to eat before a workout?

By Darren O'Toole | In Fitness, Nutrition | on July 23, 2018

A common question that we get asked is: What should I have to eat before workout?

The rather unhelpful answer which is often delivered: ‘It depends’, but there is a valid reason for this retort.

Let’s start with some nutritional basics. We consume carbohydrates, proteins and fats. We then use or store these for various purposes. Proteins mainly for repair and growth of muscle tissue; Carbohydrates for faster energy delivery; and fats as a slower provider of lots of energy and benefits such as insulation, hormone regulation and effective neural pathways.

Ideally, we never want to use protein for energy. If we need to, we’ll be breaking down our muscles which we’d like to preserve for strength purposes, posture and metabolism. So we want our main energy to come from fats and carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates and fats

Carbohydrates are stored in the muscles and liver. When we exercise, we’ll start to use up some of our supplies irrespective of the intensity. However, traditional high intensity activities mainly rely on our muscle glycogen (carbs) stores for providing energy. Yet we have a finite about we can store – approximately 400-500g i.e. 2000kcals.

Fats are in abundance. We all carry a lot. Most of us would like to carry less – and most of us would benefit from carrying less. Each gram of fat contains 9kcals. Working out your percentage of body fat and how many kilograms of fat that equates to will usually make people realise that they have anything upwards of 70,000kcals of fat tucked away for a rainy day. Some have considerably more.

The result: None of us is going to starve if we miss a meal or two, or if we work out on an empty stomach.

But going back to the ‘it depends’ response.

Training intensity

If we all have more than enough fat and also likely have enough carbohydrates stored in our body, do we need to bother eating before training? In essence, we don’t. We will have enough energy to complete one hour of physical activity. However, let’s say that our energy stores of glycogen (carbs) are lower as we’ve been using them up and not replacing them. Plenty of research suggests that even when ‘hitting the wall’ we don’t necessarily use up all of this readily available glycogen, rather our body withholds some to prevent this happening. As such, what we thought was 2000kcals, may in fact be 1500kcals. If that’s the case, then if we are a little depleted from various sources, for instance: our brain uses glycogen for energy even when sleeping, we may have run for a bus, we got up off of our seat quickly 30 times across the day etc. we may be at a point whereby we are low on stored glycogen. The result: we wouldn’t have the energy needed for bouts of high intensity training.

So we going into burning fat? Fab!

True, if we do wish to burn fat then a lack of carbs will force us to burn fats. However, it will also force us to lower our intensities too. Fats provide us with energy at lower intensities hence why we can walk for hours on end but not run for hours without fueling the body. But consider this: if we are looking to maximise our workouts, would it not be better to push as hard as we can? Would burning 800kcals as a mix of carbs and fats not be better than 400kcals of mainly fats? Of course it would.

Individual needs

So, it does depend. It depends on:
1. The intensity of the workout to follow
2. How stocked are glycogen stores pre-workout
3. The fitness and experience level of the client

Eating pre-workout, be it a morning or evening session is unlikely to hugely affect training capacity. Certainly fat stores will always be sufficient. Therefore, if eating before workouts is advantageous given what has been discussed, then carbohydrate-based meals providing a relatively instantaneous supply of energy would be the order of the day.

Food ideas

This could be in the form of fruit: a banana or some form of berries if the session is immediately imminent.

A pasta or rice-based dish 3 hours or more before a session would stock up glycogen stores appropriately for the session which is late in the day.

A breakfast of oats or brown toast with a little jam would be ideal pre-morning workout but allow for 90 minutes of digestion to ensure optimum readiness.

However, remember the take-home point. It depends. Trial different options. Fasted and fed. See what works best for you. There is no right way.

There is just the right way for you.

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