Login | April 21, 2019

What to eat before a workout

Published: June 11, 2018

What should I eat before a workout? It’s a question that likely predates famed fitness guru Jack LaLanne. It’s also a question I’m frequently asked…and unfortunately my answer’s usually rather murky.

That’s because the right answer actually exists as many shades of grey. Pretty crazy isn’t it? Indeed, this simple question had existed as a physiological riddle which challenged clinicians and researchers for decades.

After a vast amalgamation of time, testing, and clinical trials they discovered a whole host of correct answers. Subsequently, they’ve taught us that what you eat before exercise is far from a one-size-fits-all answer. Here’s the scoop.

The correct answer will actually hinge on several very important questions. How long is the time between eating and exercising, what is the workout activity, its intensity and length, and what are one’s food preferences and gastrointestinal tolerances? Those are a lot of questions to consider when all you want is a some pre-workout nourishment.

So let’s start the discussion with this established tenant: Fueling the body pre-workout is basically the same for all individuals, and the best pre-workout eating strategy involves consuming a well-balanced, high carb/moderate protein/low fat meal several hours before exercise. What’s more, this tenant is pertinent to both fat loss and muscle building exercise programs.

Now those carbs are more crucial to providing the body with energy because they can be digested the quickest, in approximately two hours. Proteins and fats are a bit harder to break down for energy production - they can take approximately three hours and five hours to digest respectively.

But given several hours of digestion time, all three nutrients will contribute the much needed energy for one’s workout.

So based on the above, it’s easy to see how some people might interpret all that as a one-size-fits-all answer. But in reality, most people don’t have the luxury of eating a well balanced meal several hours prior to a workout. And that’s where things begin to get murky.

Because the closer your eating is to your intended workout time, the less digestion time is available…which means fat and protein intake must decrease as the time between eating and exercising decreases. Not only that, but meal size must correspondingly decrease.

Once you get to the point to where you have less than an hour between eating and working out, the nutritional strategy must move toward eating only small, easily digestible carbohydrate meals.

So this is where we stand: On one side of the spectrum you have the dictum of eating slightly larger, high carb/moderate protein/low fat meals several hours pre-workout, and on the other side, where time between eating and working out is short, you have the dictum of consuming smaller, easily digestible carbohydrate meals.

Between those two margins, the percentages of carbs, proteins and fats change as time between eating and working out narrows. Yet amidst all that, you still have to factor in your exercise selection, duration, and intensity. For instance, you may eat something different pre-run than you would pre-bike. And even those choices might have to be tinkered with when you change exercise duration and/or its intensity.

But hold on, we’re still not done, because you also have to take into account your personal food preferences and gastrointestinal tolerances. With all that being said, you just might discover there’s a whole lot of judiciousness involved in making pre-workout meal choices.

This is why I can’t give an absolute answer to the what-should-I-eat-before-a-workout question. But what I can say is this. As a general rule of thumb, the closer you get to a workout, the higher the shift should be towards smaller, easily digestible carbohydrate meals, and the further away from a workout, the safer it is to consume larger, more complex multi-nutrient meals. The aforementioned rule is the same but magnified when you factor in workout intensity and/or duration. The remainder, food preferences and gastrointestinal tolerances…that’s totally your call.

So what should you eat before a workout? Well, by following these general guidelines - and by doing a WHOLE lot of nutritional probing, scrutinizing and experimenting - I can tell you you’ll definitely find your optimal pre-workout power meal.

Bon Appetit.