Pre-workout nutrition is one of those areas where people like to get bogged down in the little things. They are obsessed with what to eat, when to eat it and how much of it to eat. Instead of just going to the gym or getting out into the world and getting active and lifting something heavy, they spend weeks reading blogs and watching videos in search of the one pre-workout meal that will do them all. They end up avoiding the gym altogether because they don’t know what the “perfect” pre-workout meal is, or if they should eat anything at all.
Even if you figure out what to eat before a workout, you may be overdoing it. you know the guy This is the guy who travels with a suitcase full of powders, pills and packaged groceries. He’s so tied into the pre-workout ritual that he can’t skip a day—even on vacation. If he’s not getting his 40.5 grams of waxy maize, 30.2 grams of whey isolate, and his pre-workout superfood blend, he can’t work in the gym. It crumbles without the perfect, most optimal pre-workout nutrition.
Do not be so. Let me tell you what you need to do so that you no longer fret about what to eat before a workout. Let’s simplify things.
General rules for pre-workout meals
What you eat depends on what type of training you’re doing, what your goals are and what type of diet you’re already following, but there are general rules that apply to all.
Keep things light. No heavy meals. If you eat a meal that’s too large, you may have trouble digesting it, or some of the energy that would otherwise go to your muscles is diverted to your gut. Eat foods that you know are easy to digest. No surprises. Salt your meals. Sodium is a tremendous boon to exercise performance, especially if you’re on the low-carb side of things. Powders are fine. While whole foods are usually ideal, protein and carbohydrate powders can be very helpful and beneficial for a quick pre-workout diet. Add 15-20 g of collagen and 50-100 mg of vitamin C. This is a great way to improve connective tissue health when taken before a workout. Protein and carbohydrates are more important, dietary fat less important before training. If all goes well, you will eat the fat on your body. Oh, and you don’t have to eat anything. You can fast (which I usually do). It’s just that this article is designed to help people who are interested in pre-workout nutrition.
What to eat before high-intensity interval training
Because sprints and intervals in running, biking, and rowing burn tons of glycogen, most conventional sources recommend plenty of pre-workout carbohydrates—about 1 ounce per pound of bodyweight in the hours leading up to your workout. These are not “wrong”. If you’re a serious, high-performance athlete training for competition or peak performance, you should eat a good amount of carbohydrates before your workouts. This maximizes power output and optimizes subsequent training adjustments. You’ll also burn your muscle glycogen, increase insulin sensitivity and open up a lot of room for breakdown of dietary carbs.
If you train hard enough and intense enough, you can even eat a large carb pre-workout meal and still be in ketosis after one session.
Unless you have a specific goal and absolutely need to avoid all carbs, I would recommend anyone planning to eat a meal before a HIIT session, 15-30 grams of fast-acting carbs along with 30 grams of protein, half of which is collagen, 45 minutes before training. If you want to eat a little more carbohydrates, eat 40-60 grams two hours before in addition to the 15-30 grams 45 minutes before.
Again, you don’t have to eat anything before sprints or HIIT. But if you eat out, this is what I recommend.
What to eat before low-level aerobic workouts
The kind of low-level aerobic exercise I recommend in Primal Endurance — where your heart rate never tops 180 minus your age, where you can breathe through your nose and have a simple conversation where it feels light enough, well above it you had to maintain it for an hour – doesn’t require a lot of pre-workout nutrition.
If you’re metabolically flexible or fat-adapted, I recommend fasting prior to these workouts to really boost fat burning and mitochondrial biogenesis. Food is not necessary at all.
If you’re more carb dependent, you can probably still fast, but you can also eat 15-20 grams of easily digestible carbs and 20 grams of protein. That could be a scoop of whey isolate protein powder, some collagen peptides, and a small potato or apple. It could be some eggs with a banana.
What to eat before strength training
Because strength training can be a very glycogen-intensive activity, you can treat it similar to HIIT or sprints, only with a heavier focus on protein. When eating before a lifting session, aim for 30-40 grams of protein (half from collagen), either from whey isolate or from actual food plus collagen. Eat 15-30 grams of easily digestible carbohydrates such as bananas, rice, potatoes, dates or other fruits. You could even drink some coconut water.
Certain foods that may be helpful before a workout
There are certain foods with unique ergogenic effects. to include in your pre-workout meals.
Beetroot: Improves endothelial function, increases the “pump”, promotes blood circulation. Higher carbohydrates. Pomegranates: A pomegranate extract has been shown to improve circulation and increase blood vessel diameter when taken 30 minutes before a workout. Higher carbs, especially if you eat the seeds or sip the juice. Coffee: Provides caffeine, which has been shown to improve exercise performance. Zero calories (unless you add milk and sugar). Coconut Water with Extra Salt and Black Molasses: This is my “electrolyte energy drink” that provides potassium, carbohydrates, sodium and magnesium. It’s a great way to add some digestible carbs to your pre-workout meal, along with excellent hydration.
What I eat before training
I usually fast before training. It just works for me.
In fact, except for very rare occasions, I either go to training on an empty stomach or take 20 grams of collagen beforehand. Since collagen doesn’t directly contribute to muscle protein synthesis or affect mTOR or autophagy or fat burning, I think these are pretty much equivalent. The only thing that changes between fasting and pre-workout collagen is the collagen plus 50-100mg of vitamin C which helps me strengthen my connective tissues.
Anything that resembles lower-level “cardio” like walking, hiking, standup paddling, and biking are all done super fast.
Before heavy weightlifting or sprinting sessions, I drink 20 grams of collagen peptides with some vitamin C. That’s not supposed to “fire” me. The collagen provides the raw material that my connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, cartilage) needs to adapt to the training load, and the vitamin C helps the collagen get to where it is supposed to – into the connective tissue. This drink is not high in calories, nor does it provoke a tremendous insulin response that negates the benefits of fasting. Technically, I’m breaking the fast because I’m consuming calories, but I retain most of the benefits.
I prefer collagen on heavier or more intense days because at my age I’m most concerned with maintaining the integrity of my joints. Having intact and strong ligaments, tendons and cartilage allows me to play and stay active as I get older. It’s not big muscles that are easy to maintain once you have them. It’s the connective tissue.
If you’re trying to decide whether or not to eat pre-workout, I’ve already explained the potential benefits of fasting. In summary, fasting training can:
Improve insulin sensitivity. Improve a biomarker known to correlate with muscle hypertrophy. Improve muscle mass retention in endurance athletes. Improve performance without the calories
Keep in mind that if your main concern is to gain mass, fasting training is not optimal. It’s great for lean mass maintenance, fat burning and even strength and muscle building provided you eat enough calories when you eat, but for pure muscle hypertrophy and weight gain and absolute performance it’s better when you eat.
It’s probably wise to try both pre-workout meals and pre-workout fasting to see what works best for you.
However, there’s nothing wrong with eating proper meals before a workout or taking protein/carbohydrate supplements, nor is there anything wrong with fasting. All that matters is what works for you – what helps you stay consistent in your workout, what gets you the best results, what makes the workout most enjoyable.
Use this article as a guide, but don’t let it decide for you. What do you eat before your workout?
About the author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather of the primal food and lifestyle movement, and New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, in which he explains how he combines the keto diet with a primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of numerous other books, including The Primal Blueprint, which in 2009 is credited with accelerating the growth of the Primal/Paleo movement and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark founded Primal Kitchen, a real food company that sells Primal/ Paleo, Keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen clips.
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