What Pre-workout Meal or Snack is Best?
Exploring pre-workout foods and snacks
As soon as I mention pre-workout, I am going to guess most of you were ready to talk about pre-workout supplements. Pre-workout has become a popular supplement product, but generally it is not a supplement our body really needs.
I want to provide you with some pre-workout ‘need to knows’ while also breaking down a couple major myths.
Whenever I mention pre-workout, I am referring to what you are going to consume (either in liquid or solid form) before any activity. The goal of a pre-workout meal or snack is to get in enough energy to support optimal performance during that activity.
If we break down the goal even further, we want to:
- Feel comfortable: We do this by eating foods that are familiar to us so we are not running to the bathroom mid-way through the exercise or bloated and uncomfortable. We want to allow our body enough time to digest and be energized and ready to go.
- Be hydrated: Consume enough liquid, focusing on water, to prevent slow, cramping muscles. How do we know if we have had enough? Look at your urine color. You want urine to be a pale yellow within 1 hour of activity. If your urine is clear, you may be over hydrated (can lead to being heavy and weighted down) and dark yellow is dehydrated.
- Have sustainable energy: We can get quick energy from a high sugar drink but we want our energy to last us for the majority of training or activity. We do this by consuming a carbohydrate plus protein. We do not want to have too much fat in this snack or meal either as that energy may not be available in time as it takes the longest to digest and is the most likely to lead to indigestion/bloating.
To get in this sustainable energy we want the pre-workout meal to be high in carbohydrates, contain some protein and be low in fat. Some examples of a healthy pre-workout meal is whole-wheat pasta with a tomato sauce, chicken and side salad. An example of a pre-workout snack would be a smoothie with Greek yogurt and fruit.
As you can see, it is important to consume something before any workout or activity. The timing of when we consume this pre-workout meal or snack is unfortunately not as straightforward as we would like it to be. Everyone’s metabolic and digestive rates are unique to them making it impossible for us to give a perfect guide that meets everyone’s needs. Everyone also reacts to adrenaline differently and this can either speed up or slow down digestion time.
Here are some general guidelines on the timing but I HIGHLY suggest using this as a starting place and then experiment with foods and timing that will fit your unique needs.
- 3-4 hours for a larger meal such as a pasta dinner or stir-fry
- 2-3 hours for a small meal such as a wrap or sandwich
- 1-2 hours for a large snack such as a yogurt parfait or tuna and crackers
- Less than 1 hour for a small snack such as a piece of fruit or granola bar
Remember, try try try everything first before you get to a game or competition situation.
For all the early morning trainers, it is critical to get something in before you train, even if it is small. There is this idea that you will burn more fat if you work out on an empty stomach but this is not exactly true. We have 3 energy systems in our body; 2 of these systems (our strength and power systems) are fueled almost exclusively and most effectively from carbohydrates. If you have the goal to reduce fat in the body, you are also generally looking to build muscle and strength to help increase metabolic rates. For you to build that muscle, you need carbs fueling your strength and power energy systems.
Carbohydrates are not well stored in the body so we want to help our body out by consuming them to better fuel that muscle. So as you are running out the door to get to that early morning spin class, grab a banana or piece of toast on your way out.
Lastly, I want to break down these pre-workout supplements for you. In general most of these supplements contain:
- Branched Chain Amino-acids (BCAA)
There is research to support the use of caffeine but we want to be careful about how much we are putting into our body and the safety of the source. Supplements are not a regulated industry so safety is not a guarantee, even if it is purchased from a trustworthy store. Look for third-party testing by Informed Choice or NSF for Sport to reduce the safety risk. Food is safe so you are better off getting caffeine from coffee or another food source.
Beta-alanine is generally used for endurance athletes to support the reduction of acid build-up in the body. For most everyday athletes, this supplement is unnecessary.
Eat your BCAA instead by consuming a protein source prior to and after. There are mixed reviews on whether consuming BCAA during training truly increases muscle recovery and for most, the focus should be on an appropriate recovery rather than a pre-workout drink.
This hopefully helps break down some of the confusion around pre-workout meal and snack options and pre-workout supplements. I hope this helps you have more enjoyable and productive workouts!
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