Preachin’. Posted that many months ago. High five, Past KP.
Typically when people hear the term “pre-workout,” they think of the neon-colored drink that people say gives you superhuman strength, endurance of a marathon runner, and the tingles. LOL. Pre-workout supplements typically have four main ingredients: caffeine (for energy), branched chain amino acids/BCAAs (to prevent muscle breakdown), beta-alanine (to promote muscular endurance at high reps – this is what gives the tingles), and sometimes creatine (to promote muscular power at low reps). All of these ingredients can be found in the food that you eat, however they are concentrated in pre-workout supplements for the purpose of exercise performance. Generally speaking, commercial pre-workouts aren’t going to do anything harmful to you. However, I prefer to minimize my supplement intake and get my caffeine from my one true love: coffee. Whether or not you use a pre-workout supplement is your choice, and I recommend that you do your research to find a company that produces a quality product.
The focus of today’s post is not on supplements (we will get to that when I talk about PROTEIN – GAINZ GAINZ GAINZZZZ). The point of today is pre-workout nutrition and why it is important.
One of the biggest myths in the exercise community is that if you train fasted (without eating for 6+ hours, often first thing in the morning), this exercise will accelerate the loss of body fat. While sports nutrition research continues to grow, there is research that indicates that there is no difference in fat loss whether you train in a fasted state or a fed state. Okay. So, it’s not going to make you burn more fat if you train fasted (Trabelsi et al., 2013). Is it going to hurt you to train fasted, though?
Well, we discussed in the last Fit Fuel Series post how carbohydrates are bae. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source during muscular activity – or any type of high-intensity activity (i.e., weight lifting, HIIT, sprints, endurance training, etc). If your carbohydrates are depleted, your body turns to protein and fat as energy fuel.
Low-intensity exercise (working at about 40-55% of your maximum heart rate [220 – age]) is typically fine to complete in a fasted state since the body adapts to utilize fat for energy in this state (although as mentioned above, there is no significant difference in fat loss in fed versus fasted states). Since the majority of fat is stored in adipose tissues, it is not quickly available for fueling the muscles. There is a long process required in order to use fat to fuel the muscles, so fatty acids can really only be used during low- to moderate-intensity exercise.
As exercise intensity increases and in the absence of carbohydrates, however, the proportion of fat burned decreases and the proportion of protein breakdown (MUSCLE breakdown and dietary protein usage) increases (Bernadot, 2012). Muscle proteins are broken down into amino acids, which are then released into the blood. The amino acids are carried to the liver and converted to glucose. Not only do you wastefully burn necessary dietary protein for fuel if your carbohydrate load is low, you also risk breaking down muscle.
Are you starting to see why carbs are the real MVP? In addition to providing energy, by consuming carbohydrates (especially before high-intensity workouts), you are preventing muscle breakdown and the utilization of dietary protein as fuel when it could be used for much greater purposes (i.e., booty gainz).
Additionally, by exercising in a fed state aka eating before your workouts, you may see benefits DURING your workouts that translate to effects AFTER your workouts in your progress.
Have you ever had a workout where you “hit a wall” and mentally couldn’t function despite it being one of your usual favorite activities? Where you feel “gassed,” exhausted, or increasingly fatigued? Welp. I bet it would have helped if you would have had a snack beforehand (Batatinha et al., 2013) You could have knocked out a few more reps, lifted more weight, pedaled faster in that sprint (Willems, Toy, & Cox, 2011), or burned out that booty just a liiiiiiittle more. More efficient and effective workouts = more progress. #gainz
Hopefully you are starting to see why it is important to maintain a steady state of glucose into the bloodstream of the body during high-intensity activity. In an ideal world, complex carbohydrates with slower digestion and glucose absorption time should be eaten throughout the day to prevent rapid spikes in glucose and allow for a slow and sustained release of energy. However, surrounding the exercise window, consuming moderate-glycemic index carbohydrates will provide quicker energy that will fuel your workout, prevent mental fatigue and the feeling of “hitting a wall,” but will also not burn off too quickly where you “crash.”
Like I did when I ate a donut a few weeks ago. Barf.
As a bonus, if you pair your pre-workout carbohydrate with a protein source, you’re also benefiting those muscles. By eating protein before a high-intensity workout, you are flooding your body with amino acids when your muscles are under the most stress. This reduces muscle damage, decreases recovery time, and also promotes muscle building. Eating carbohydrates with your protein stimulates insulin release, which promotes muscle building too! #gainz
Fats before exercise do not have any documented benefit to exercise performance. So maybe peanut butter did not build this booty. Whomp whomp. #notgainz
When it comes down to it, you have to think about your goals. For most people, the goal is to build muscle when resistance training and to burn fat during cardio. If you are completing resistance training to build muscle, then pre-workout snacks are the name of the game. If your goal is to utilize fat for energy during a cardio sesh, carbs may hinder this and maybe don’t eat a banana before steady state cardio. Just eat your normal meals throughout the day and do yo’ thang when it comes to low- to moderate-intensity cardio. Capeesh?
Whether or not fat loss is your goal, pre-workout snacks are extremely important to consider to make sure you get the most out of your high-intensity workouts. It is said all over the nutrition literature that “you cannot out-exercise a bad diet.” This is true. You are not solely working out to burn fat, because as we discussed earlier, the body does not utilize fat for energy during high-intensity workouts. The body primarily uses fat as fuel during REST. With an overall (but safe, conservative, and not overly restrictive!) calorie deficit, you will burn more fat and have better body composition. Your high-intensity workouts will increase your aerobic capacity as well as improve your body composition by maintaining and building muscle.
Depending on when you schedule your workouts, my advice based on what I have read in the research is to make sure you have either eaten some moderate-glycemic index carbohydrates and some protein within an hour of exercise or to eat a normal meal with a good balance of protein and complex carbohydrates 2-4 hours prior to exercise to give your body the proper time to digest and absorb the food you give it. As far as fats go, they’re the show where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. Aka there is no benefit or detriment to eating them before your workout. Treat them how you would normally treat them aka eat a moderate amount of healthy fats throughout your day.
KP’s Pre-Workout Game
I’m a low-intensity cardio person. Incline treadmill is my jam. So if I do cardio in the middle of the day or evening, I typically go about my normal routine. My carbohydrate intake is typically composed of complex carbohydrates and paired with fiber, protein, or fat, all of which slow digestion, so I don’t worry about glucose spikes throughout my day. If I do cardio first thing in the morning after not eating for 8+ hours overnight, I might have a small snack 30-60 minutes that is lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein like:
- Egg white muffin
- 1 scoop protein powder + 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
- Greek yogurt or cottage cheese
However, as I don’t do high-intensity cardio (since I’m on the #gainztrain #choochoo and I need to be able to recover properly and I can’t do that with high-intensity cardio), I don’t need to eat before my low-intensity sessions.
I am a morning lifter. These are some examples of pre-workout snacks that I eat 30-60 minutes prior to my high-intensity workouts. Basically, I eat as soon as I wake up and then let my body digest while I caffeinate myself enough to open my eyeballs. I find these options give me a burst of energies for my high-intensity workouts so I can squat and deadlift and jump and sprint and sometimes do a few unassisted pull-ups in a row:
- Food for Life Baking sprouted toast with peanut butter (although no benefit from fat #sadface) + 1/2 cup fruit
- 1/3 cup oatmeal + 1/2 scoop protein powder + 1/2 cup fruit
- Greek yogurt or cottage cheese + 1/2 cup fruit
- Rx Bar
- Egg white muffin + Food for Life Baking sprouted toast
- 1/2 serving of my protein pancakes + 1 tbsp maple syrup
- 1/2 cup cereal + 1/2 scoop protein powder mixed with 1 cup of unsweetened almond milk
- Protein energy balls – my girl Alex’s recipes for protein bites are bomb and I’ll be posting my version of these soon!
Phew. That was a long one. In case you didn’t make it through the whole post, here’s the #tldr version:
- Carbs are still bae (but fuel according to your goals)
- Pre-workout snacks can improve your performance so your workouts are more effective and efficient while also preventing mental fatigue
- Pre-workout snacks can also prevent muscle breakdown when you’re trying to make #gainz
- Peanut butter indeed does not build the booty (but it is still delicious and I sometimes still have it pre-workout because of the small amount of protein content + DELICIOUSNESS)
- Fasted workouts have no benefit in fat loss when compared to fed workouts
Peace, love, and science (and more on the Fit Fuel Series to come!),
Batatinha, H.A., da Costa, C.E, de Franca, E., Dias, I.R., Ladeira, A.P., Rodrigues, B., de Lira, F.S., Correia, S.C., & Caperuto, E.C. (2013). Carbohydrate use and reduction in number of balance beam falls: Implications for mental and physical fatigue. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(32).
Bernadot, D. (2012). Advanced sports nutrition (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A., Wilborn, C.D., Krieger, J.W., & Sonmez, G.T. (2014). Body composition changes associated with fasted versus non-fasted aerobic exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(54).
Trabelsi, K., Stannard, S.R., Ghlissi, Z., Maughan, R.J., Kallel, C., Jamoussi, K., Zeghal, K.M., & Hakim, A. (2013). Effect of fed- versus fasted state resistance training during Ramadan on body composition and selected metabolic parameters in bodybuilders. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(23).
Willems, M.E.T., Toy, C.D.J., & Cox, A.M. (2011). Effects of pre-exercise ingestion of a carbohydrate-electrolyte gel on cycling performance. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 8(1).