Pre-workout nutrition can cause a lot of confusion. One question that I get asked on a very regular basis is “What should I eat before training?” And the very clear, unambiguous answer is: It depends.
There are 2 important factors that will dictate what and when you eat pre-training. The first factor is your training goal and the second one is your own individual taste and digestive system.We’ll look at the individual aspect today and while we’re doing it we can also have a very basic look at how the body uses fuel for energy.
When you’re training really hard in short, explosive bursts (like sprints, high intensity intervals or lifting close to maximum weight) the body prefers to use creatine phosphate as fuel.For high intensity work lasting between 10 and approximately 90 seconds, the body will then switch to glycogen (stored sugar in the muscles and liver) to fuel the workout.
These fuel sources get transferred into usable energy relatively quickly but don’t last too long. That’s why you can only sprint at top speed for about 10 seconds before the pace starts to drop off.
However when the intensity is much lower (steady jogging, slower cycling or even walking), the body will use oxygen to break down carbohydrate and stored fat as its fuel of choice. This process takes a lot longer and it doesn’t generate as much power. However most people have a LOT of stored energy and therefore it can last a very long time providing we keep the intensity low.
For strength and performance improvements, and also to promote fat loss, high intensity intervals and weight training sessions have been shown to work best. Therefore if you wish to train at this intensity, it is crucial that your sugar (glycogen) and creatine stores are full, and that means eating at some stage before training.
And this is where it can get confusing. Many years ago, I attended a Fat Loss Seminar where World Class Strength & Conditioning Coach Charles Poliquin said that if you don’t feel nauseous after about 20 minutes of your training session, then you’re not training hard enough.
The reasoning behind the statement is that high-intensity work creates a lot of lactic acid which can lead to feelings of nausea. However, this lactic acid is very important because it stimulates the release of Growth Hormone, which in turn encourages muscle growth and fat loss.
But although you’ll need your fuel tank full, it should be obvious that if you’ve had a feed of bacon, spuds and cabbage 20 minutes before doing some High Intensity Interval Training, the chances are that the meal is not going to stay down for too long.
On the other hand if you starve yourself pre-training in order to avoid talking to God on the Big White Phone, then you simply won’t have the energy to complete the session.
Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules that will suit everybody, and this applies to most aspects of nutrition and training. The best bet is to make note of the following options and tweak them according to what works best for you.
Allow enough time to properly digest your food. For most people, one and a half to two hours before training should do the trick.
Include some protein in your meal. Eggs and fish will digest faster than a large beef steak, so they are a better solid protein option. If you’re tight for time, a whey protein shake will do the job.
Avoid High Sugar Foods Before Training. These foods tend to give a fast boost of energy followed by an equally fast slump. For a more prolonged release of energy, go for some vegetables with your protein meal. Where fruit is concerned, it is generally better eaten after your session, but berries are probably the best pre-workout fruit option.
Stay Hydrated. There’s no point eating the best food in the world if you forget to take on board some fluids before and during training. For sessions under 60 minutes, water will do the job – especially when fat loss is the goal. Sports drinks are usually only required for long distance endurance events or when the goal is improved strength or performance.
Experiment. Try some different food and timing options and decide which combination allows you to train at your best. Make note of it and then make it part of your training ritual!