What you eat before exercise can make or break your fitness progress. That's why elite athletes have entire teams of chefs and nutritionists who plan and prep their pre- and post-workout meals. Some foods will boost your energy and stamina, allowing you to train harder and get better results; others will drain your energy and affect your overall performance. So what's the best thing to eat before a workout to make the most out of your gym time?
The Importance of Pre-Workout Nutrition
A proper pre-workout meal provides your body with the micro- and macronutrients needed for intense training. It can also boost your endurance, ward off fatigue and accelerate recovery from exercise. Ideally, this meal should be rich in fast-digesting protein and complex carbs so it can supply steady energy. Simple sugars and fats are not the best choice before hitting the gym.
A 2014 clinical trial published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition assessed the effects of protein and carbohydrate ingestion before exercise. Athletes who consumed both protein and carbs experienced a greater reduction in creatine kinase compared to the carb-only group. High levels of this enzyme may indicate muscle or heart damage. Low creatine kinase levels, on the other hand, equal faster recovery from training and increased performance towards the end of a game or workout.
The goal of pre-workout nutrition is to fuel your workouts and reduce muscle breakdown during exercise. When done right, it can enhance your overall performance and help you last longer in the gym. Just think how you feel after eating oatmeal versus fries or pizza. Oatmeal skyrockets your energy and keeps you full for hours. Pizza and fries, by comparison, make you feel sluggish and fatigued.
Plan Your Pre-Workout Meal
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommends that gym goers eat a small, easily digestible snack about 30 minutes before strength training. A balanced pre-workout meal or snack should be around 20 to 25 percent protein and 70 to 75 percent carbs. As ACE points out, low-glycemic foods are preferred.
Candy, cookies, pastries, chocolate and other goodies all contain simple carbs. At first glance, you may think that they're a great choice before a workout as they'll boost your energy levels; nothing could be further from the truth. These foods have a high glycemic index, leading to blood sugar spikes followed by crashes. In the long run, they may increase your risk of insulin resistance, diabetes and metabolic syndrome, according to a 2016 review featured in the European Journal of Nutrition.
High-fat foods, especially processed products, are not the best choice before hitting the gym. Dietary fat slows digestion and may cause nausea during exercise. However, you may eat a handful of nuts or a few slices of avocado as part of your pre-workout meal. These foods are loaded with healthy fats, protein and fiber and support physical performance.
Fuel Your Morning With Oats
Touted as the best performance breakfast, oatmeal is a favorite choice for athletes worldwide. Enjoy it plain, add a scoop of protein powder or mix it with berries, walnuts, almonds or raw cocoa for extra flavor. Sprinkle pumpkin or sunflower seeds all over to get a crunchy texture.
Oats are a powerhouse of nutrition. One serving of dry rolled oats provides 7 grams of protein, 32 grams of carbs, 5 grams of fiber, 3.5 grams of fat and 190 calories. Berries, almonds, banana slices and other toppings will boost its nutritional value.
The health benefits of oats go beyond greater energy. According to a 2016 randomized control trial published in the journal Nutrients, swapping cereals with 50 to 100 grams of oats may accelerate weight loss, reduce blood lipids and improve glycemic control. These grains have been shown to decrease postprandial blood sugar levels due to their high levels of beta-glucan, a soluble fiber that slows down sugar absorption into the bloodstream.
Treat Yourself With Vegetable Frittata
Vegetable frittata, spinach omelet or any other combination of eggs and veggies will provide energy for workout performance. An extra large egg delivers 7 grams of protein, 0.4 grams of carbs, 5.6 grams of fat and 80.1 calories. It also provides 3 percent of the DV of calcium, 11 percent of the DV of phosphorus and 25 percent of the DV of selenium. Calcium keeps your bones strong, while selenium supports thyroid function and balances certain hormones.
To make a frittata, you'll need eggs, cheese and chopped greens in a bowl. Use zucchinis, kale, spinach, bell peppers, oregano, basil, scallions and other healthy ingredients. Sauté the veggies in a skillet pan, pour in the eggs and cheese, cook for two or three minutes and then bake for another 15 minutes or so. Add tuna, chicken breast and other high-protein foods if desired.
This is a great combo for your pre-workout meal. You'll get plenty of protein along with fiber and slow digesting carbs. If you're trying to cut back on fats, skip the cheese. Consider replacing it with nutritional yeast, which boasts 14 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber per ounce.
Pair Chicken and Wild Rice
Wild rice is an excellent source of fiber and complex carbs, while chicken boasts large amounts of quality protein. There are 166 calories, 35 grams of carbs, 3 grams of fiber, 6.5 grams of protein and only 0.6 grams of fat in one cup of cooked wild rice. You'll also get 11 percent of the DV of niacin, 11 percent of the DV of folate, 23 percent of the DV of manganese and 15 percent of the DV of zinc.
With 25 grams of protein, 2.9 grams of fat and 126 calories per ounce, grilled chicken breast might be the best thing to eat before a workout. If you serve it with one cup of wild rice, you'll get more than 31.5 grams of protein in a single meal.
Read more: 20 Best Muscle Building Foods
In 2015, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a research article that discusses the role of protein in weight loss and maintenance. Researchers state that high-protein diets may increase energy expenditure and improve appetite control. Furthermore, this nutrient suppresses the hunger hormone ghrelin levels, leading to greater satiety. Eating at least 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal may boost cardiovascular health and make it easier to maintain a healthy body weight.
Be Creative in the Kitchen
Pre-workout nutrition is anything but boring. From apples and peanut butter to salmon with sweet potatoes, there are endless food combinations you can experiment with. If you have a favorite food to eat before a workout — one that's not too healthy — seek better alternatives.
Let's say you love protein bars. These snacks, though, are often packed with sugar and low-quality protein. It's not uncommon to see high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated palm oil, agave syrup, glucose, sucralose and other unhealthy ingredients on the label. Why not make your own protein bars to get a filling, nutritious pre-workout meal?
Read more: 5 Ways to Make Your Own Energy Bars
Mix a scoop or two of whey, pea or hemp protein powder with peanut or almond butter, stevia, pumpkin seeds, nuts, extra dark chocolate, vanilla and other natural ingredients. These will last for days in the fridge and make a quick snack when hunger strikes. Depending on the ingredients, homemade protein bars can even replace a meal. Enjoy them at home, in the car, on your way to the gym or after exercise.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: A Randomised Trial of Pre-Exercise Meal Composition on Performance and Muscle Damage in Well-Trained Basketball Players
- University of Rochester Medical Center: Creatine Kinase (Blood)
- ACE Fitness: Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition for Strength Training
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar
- Springer Link: A Review of Recent Evidence Relating to Sugars, Insulin Resistance and Diabetes
- Outside Online: Oatmeal Is Still the World's Best Performance Breakfast
- MDPI: Short- and Long-Term Effects of Wholegrain Oat Intake on Weight Management and Glucolipid Metabolism in Overweight Type-2 Diabetics
- SELFNutritionData: Eggs
- NCBI: Selenium and Thyroid Disease - From Pathophysiology to Treatment
- SELFNutritionData: Nutritional Yeast Flakes
- SELFNutritionData: Cooked Wild Rice
- Nutritionix: Grilled Chicken Breast
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: The Role of Protein in Weight Loss and Maintenance
- Prevention: 10 Gross Ingredients Lurking In Your Energy Bars
- Cooking Light: We Compared the Nutrition of Every Type of Oatmeal—Here’s What We Found
- The Kitchn: The Easiest Cheese and Vegetable Frittata
- My Recipes: Vegetable Frittata
- Eat Right: Timing Your Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition
- Irish Examiner: 5 perfect pre-workout meals, as study says breakfast before exercise helps burn carbs
- Legion Athletics: Everything You Need to Know About Pre-Workout Nutrition