It's impossible to out-train a bad diet, and in the same way it's impossible to have a great workout from poor pre-workout nutrition.
If you ever wonder, ‘should I eat before my workout?' - The majority of the time, the answer will be, ‘yes!'
Remember that getting the results you want relies 80% on your nutrition and 20% on exercise, and a well-chosen nutrition strategy enhances both performance and recovery.
Due to our unique microbiome, everyone will have a slightly different experience of which foods work best for them, so it's important to pay attention to how we feel and take note of what we've eaten.
The time of day we workout can also influence our food choices, as will the intensity of our exercise. That said, there some pre-workout nutrition choices that will stop anyone from getting the most out of their workouts. Here are 10 common pre-workout meal mistakes that we can all avoid.
1. Lifting weights on an empty stomach
There are very good reasons why many experienced gym-goers prefer to do their cardio sessions in the morning, then weight training later in the day. First of all, the lower energy levels we experience with low blood sugar make it very difficult to feel strong and motivated to lift heavy things.
Even though training in a fasted state means we might burn a little more fat during the workout, our cortisol will be much higher - causing our bodies to turn to muscle tissue for fuel and defeating the purpose of lifting weights!
We must focus on fuelling up before weight training if we want to improve our strength, body composition and wellbeing.
2. Having no carbs (unless you are strictly ketogenic)
Just as protein is really important after a workout, a carbohydrate-rich whole foods meal before a workout ensures that the body has what it needs to rise to the challenge and reap the benefits.
Apart from those training in a ketogenic state, glucose is the primary fuel for all the cells in the body. Eating carbs before a workout triggers the insulin response the body needs for our cells to take up the glucose and use it for energy.
Pre-workout carbs also replenish glycogen stores, providing our muscles with the much-needed extra energy. Cutting carbs before a workout will cause the body to break down muscle tissue for energy, while including carbs give us the energy to push through a hard workout, leading to better results in less time.
3. Relying on pre-workout supplements
Pre-workout drinks are marketed as magical beverages that will amp us up for a better, more effective workout - and this is partially true. However, the marketing will never reveal all the negative side-effects.
In addition to a whole lot of fake energy, pre-workout supplements can cause a jittery feeling, headaches and nausea, as well as an increased heart rate. There are plenty of natural alternatives to get that helpful energy boost before a workout!
4. Getting lit on coffee or energy drinks
While coffee is relatively natural and safe compared to pre-workout supplements, it can wreak havoc on an empty stomach and your adrenal glands. If you do enjoy a pre-workout coffee, just be sure to have some actual food as well!
Caffeine is a stimulant, which activates the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system, which increases our heart rate among other things. Starting your workout with a lower resting heart rate is the key to long-term health and fitness, and is a great thing to track and work towards improving.
It's always best to get natural energy from phytonutrients, rather than from stimulants!
5. Eating something big before cardio
As cardio workouts tend to involve a lot of fast-paced movement, the last thing we need is the feeling of our very recent meal sloshing around inside us.
Eat something small, light and full of nutrients (like fruit!) before cardio to have all of the energy without any of the added weight.
If you love smoothies before a workout, keep it on the smaller side with a thicker, more nutrient-dense consistency. Save the big one for post-workout!
6. Getting to the gym hungry
Although we don't want to turn up for a workout in a food coma, we also don't want to be starving. A grumbling stomach can be a huge distraction, and with our minds on food, we'll be unable to focus on doing a great workout.
Find that sweet spot where you're not full, but you can definitely get through your workout fully focused and free from food fantasies.
7. Relying on quick & easy processed snacks
Store-bought protein bars and other processed ‘sports snacks' are pretty similar to pre-workout supplements - they are advertised to give you the energy you need to live an active lifestyle, but in reality, are probably doing more harm than good.
If they aren't laden with sugar, then they'll be full of artificial sweeteners and other chemical additives.
If you do need something quick and easy, always read the ingredients instead of the advertising, and opt for the snack bars that are made from whole foods.
8. Getting on a sugar high or eating fast food
Junk food feels very heavy in the stomach and can cause low energy, a spike in blood sugar, indigestion, heartburn and other gastrointestinal issues… But it's ok to eat sugar and fast food before a workout because you're going to train hard and burn it all off, right? Wrong!
Working out is part of a healthy lifestyle, not a means to get away with poor food choices. Don't forget - reaching your goals is 80% nutrition, meaning it's impossible to out-train a bad diet.
9. Over-fuelling (or under-fuelling)
If you're doing a 30-minute session, you don't need to eat as if you're training for a 90+ minute workout. You don’t want to be fueling yourself up with much more then what you will be burning off.
So, if your goal happens to be fat loss, taking in enough calories to fuel a 2-hour workout but only training for 30 minutes is going to seriously hinder your progress.
Remember, always focus on healthy calories and not dead calories from soft drinks or junk food!
10. Too early or too late
Even if you just eat something small, eating immediately before exercise is never a good idea. Give yourself at least 20 minutes (but less than an hour) between finishing your meal and starting your workout.
If you have lunch at 1pm and head to the gym at 4pm, then your lunch does not qualify as a pre-workout meal. Even if you're not yet hungry, it's important to provide your body with the fuel it needs to improve through exercise.
While there are certainly benefits to the occasional fasted cardio session, our food choices have the power to lay the foundation for consistently great workouts.
When we plan our pre-workout meals well, our muscles and minds are correctly fueled, we perform at our best, and we reach our goals much sooner.
Here’s some pre-workout meal inspiration: