The warm weather during the summertime can do wonders for workout motivation, but if you don’t fuel up properly, all may be for naught! Few would speed down the Autobahn in a car with its low fuel light on, yet too often we expect our bodies to be able to power through a workout on an empty stomach. It may not always be convenient, but fueling up before a workout will aid in muscle recovery, decrease the risk of hypoglycemia, and ultimately lead to a better sweat session.
Carbs are our number one source of energy, so now is not the time for Atkins or keto. Twenty grams is a good rule of thumb before physical activity, which is the amount found in a piece of fruit, a cup of yogurt, or about three-quarters of a cup of cooked oatmeal. Not all carbs, of course, are created equal. Some recommend quick-acting, low-fiber carbs just before the workout, because the fiber can delay your stomach from emptying and cause discomfort. If you go too low fiber, though, you can cause an insulin spike that may impede fat mobilization. Aim instead for a middle ground with low-moderate glycemic carbohydrates, such as oatmeal, quinoa, dairy milk, and apples.
Carbs may be the primary focus pre-workout, but incorporating small amounts of protein is also important. The amount and type of protein needed before a workout largely depends on your goal. A mere 10 grams is usually enough for fat mobilization, whereas 20 grams of fast-acting protein (like whey isolate) has been shown to enhance muscle synthesis. Whey and soy proteins have both been found to aid muscle recovery particularly well. Powders can work, but whole food sources can also easily be used, such as a glass of dairy or high-quality soy milk (EdenSoy or WestSoy, for example), Greek yogurt, or baked tofu.
Fat is really the only nutrient that needs to be kept to a minimum before physical activity. High-fat meals and snacks take longer to leave the stomach, which can result in an unpleasant workout experience. It can also prevent the energy-containing carbohydrates you ate from getting into your bloodstream quickly enough, leaving your body low on usable energy. Make sure you don’t just avoid the obvious sources of fat, like butter and oils, but also high-fat proteins such as nuts, seeds, and butters made from them; red meat; and cheese.
Putting It Into Practice
First of all, size does matter. The guidelines above are pretty universal, but the exact quantities should be adjusted depending on how far away the workout is. Personally, I prefer a solid but not heavy meal about two hours before I work out. A peanut butter and apple sandwich, a hearty bowl of oats with nuts and fruit, or a whole grain pasta dish with three ounces of chicken breast and a cup of non-starchy veggies all work. In fact, if the previous meal was within four hours of your workout time, you may not need anything else. With enough fiber and fat, a calorically adequate meal eaten three or four hours before a workout may be all you really need. Sometimes, though, we get caught starving with less than an hour until a workout. Here, opt for something smaller and less complex, like a glass of low-fat milk, a quarter or half cup of edamame or roasted chickpeas (watch the fat), or low-fat Greek yogurt drizzled with a little honey. If you’re prone to cramping, choose a simple piece of fruit instead. What it really comes down to is listening to your body and how it responds to the physical demands placed on it during the workout. If you cramp up easily, try a larger meal several hours before or something very small, like a piece of fruit, 30 to 60 minutes before. If you tend to peter out and get lethargic halfway through your workout, try something a little more substantial a little closer to the workout itself. Don’t forget to stay hydrated, either. Your best bet is to hydrate throughout the day no matter what, but make sure you get at least two or three cups of water in the hour or two before the activity, especially when it gets this hot out. (And remember, a good pre-workout snack is important, but so is eating a nutritious diet 24/7 so that your body is always fueled and ready to go!) Now get out there and get moving!