What to eat before training

Pre-workout nutrition is one of those areas where people like to get lost in the details. They are obsessed with what to eat, when to eat it and how much 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, looking for one pre-workout meal to rule them all. They end up avoiding the gym altogether because they can’t think of the “perfect” pre-workout meal or if they should eat anything at all.

Even when you figure out what to eat before your workout, you can go too far. You know what kind of guy he is. This is the guy who travels with a suitcase full of powders, pills and packaged food. He’s so devoted to his pre-workout ritual that he can’t skip a day—even on vacation. If he doesn’t get his 40.5 grams of waxy corn, 30.2 grams of whey isolate and pre-workout superfood mix, he can’t hit the gym. It falls apart without the perfect, most optimal pre-workout nutrition.

Don’t be like that. Let me tell you what you need to do to stop thinking about what to eat before your workout. Let’s simplify things.

General rules for meals before training

What you eat will depend on what type of exercise you do, what your goals are, and what diet you already follow, but there are general rules that apply to everyone.

  • Keep things light. No heavy meals. If you eat too big a meal, you may have trouble digesting it, or some of the energy that would otherwise go to your muscles will be diverted to your intestines.
  • Eat foods that you know are easy to digest. No surprises.
  • Add salt to your dishes. Sodium is a huge boon for exercise performance, especially if you’re on the low-carb side.
  • Powders are fine. While whole foods are usually ideal, for quick pre-workout nutrition, protein and carbohydrate powders can be very useful and beneficial.
  • Include 15-20g of collagen and 50-100mg of vitamin C. This is a great way to improve connective tissue health if taken before a workout.
  • Proteins and carbohydrates are more important and fats in the diet less important before training. If all goes well, you will eat the fat on your body.
  • Oh, and you don’t know have eat anything. Your can quickly (that’s what I usually do). It’s just that this article is intended to help people who are interested in pre-workout nutrition.

What to eat before high intensity interval training

Because running, cycling, and rowing sprints and intervals burn a ton of glycogen, most conventional sources recommend adequate pre-workout carbohydrates—about 4 grams per pound of body weight in the hours leading up to a workout. This is not “wrong”. If you are a serious high-intensity athlete training to compete or perform at very high levels, you should eat a good amount of carbohydrates before training. That want maximize force output and optimize subsequent training adjustments. Plus, you’re burning muscle glycogen, increasing insulin sensitivity and opening up a ton of room for the distribution of carbohydrates from food.

If you train hard and intensely enough, you can even eat a large carb-rich meal before your workout and still achieve post-workout ketosis.

Unless you are aiming for a specific goal and absolutely must avoid all carbs, I would recommend that anyone who wants to eat a meal before a HIIT session have 15-30 grams of fast-digesting carbohydrates along with 30 grams of protein, half of which is collagen, 45 minutes before training. If you want to go a little higher carb, go for it 40-60 grams two hours before with 15-30 45 minutes before.

Again: you don’t need to eat before sprinting or HIIT. But if you eat, this is what I recommend.

What to eat before low level aerobic exercise

The kind of low-level aerobic training I recommend at Primal Endurance—where your heart rate never goes above 180 minus your age, where you can breathe through your nose and talk easily, where it’s easy enough to sustain more than an hour if you had to—doesn’t require much nutrition before training.

If you are metabolically flexible or fat adapted, I recommend fasting before these workouts to really stimulate fat burning and mitochondrial biogenesis. No need for food at all.

If you’re more carb dependent, you can still probably get away with fasting, but you can also eat 15-20 grams of easily digestible carbohydrates and 20 grams of protein. This could be a scoop of whey isolate powder, some collagen peptides and a small potato or apple. It can be a few eggs with a banana.

What to eat before strength training

Since lifting can be a glycogen-intensive activity, you can treat it similar to HIIT or sprints, only with a stronger focus on protein. If you are going to eat before lifting, aim for 30-40 grams of protein (half from collagen)either from whey isolate or real food plus collagen. Eat 15-30 grams of easily digestible carbohydrates, such as bananas, rice, potatoes, dates or other fruits. You can even drink some coconut water.

Specific foods that can be useful before training

There are specific foods with a unique ergogenic effect. which you should consider including in your pre-workout meals.

  • beets: Improves the function of the endothelium, increases the “pump”, increases blood flow. More carbohydrates.
  • Pomegranate: Pomegranate extract has been shown to improve blood flow and increase the diameter of blood vessels when taken 30 minutes before training. More carbs, especially if you eat seeds or sip juice.
  • Coffee: Provides caffeine that has been shown to improve exercise performance. Zero calories (unless you add milk and sugar).
  • Coconut water with extra salt and black belt molasses: This is my favorite “electrolyte energy drink”, which provides potassium, carbohydrates, sodium and magnesium. It’s a good way to add digestible carbohydrates to your pre-workout meal with excellent hydration.

What do I eat before training?

I usually fast before training. It just works for me.

In fact, except on very rare occasions, I either go to training on an empty stomach or take 20 grams of collagen beforehand. Since collagen does not directly contribute to muscle protein synthesis or affect mTOR or autophagy or fat burning, I consider them to be fairly equivalent. The only thing that changes between fasting and pre-workout collagen is the collagen plus 50-100mg of vitamin C to help strengthen my connective tissue.

Anything that resembles low-level “cardio,” such as walking, hiking, stand-up rowing, and cycling, are all done on an empty stomach.

Before weight training or sprinting, I’ll drink 20 grams of collagen peptides with some vitamin C. This doesn’t “fuel” me. Collagen provides the raw material that my connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, cartilage) needs to adapt to the stress during training, and vitamin C helps the collagen go where it should – in the connective tissue. This drink does not contain many calories, nor does it cause a strong insulin response that cancels out the benefits of fasting. I’m technically breaking the fast because I’m burning calories, but retaining most of the benefits.

I prefer collagen on harder or more intense days because at my age I am most interested in maintaining the integrity of my joints. Having intact and durable ligaments, tendons and cartilage is what allows me to play and stay active as I age. They are not big muscles that are easy to maintain once you have them. It is connective tissue.

If you’re trying to decide whether or not you should eat before exercising, I’ve already explained the potential benefits of exercising on an empty stomach. In short, fasting exercise can:

  • Increase insulin sensitivity
  • Increase a biomarker known to correlate with muscle hypertrophy
  • Improve lean mass retention in endurance athletes
  • Improve the ability to work without calories
  • Help you burn more fat and potentially lose more inches around your waist

Keep in mind that fasting training is not optimal if your primary goal is to gain mass. It’s great for maintaining lean mass, burning fat, and even gaining strength and muscle provided you’re taking in enough calories while eating, but for pure muscle hypertrophy and weight gain and absolute performance, you’re better off eating.

It’s probably wise to try both pre-workout meals and pre-workout fasting to see what works best for you.

However, there is nothing wrong with eating real meals or taking protein/carb supplements before training, nor is there anything wrong with fasting. All that matters is what works for you – what helps you stay consistent with your workout, what gets you the best results, what makes your workout the most enjoyable.

Use this article as a guide, but don’t let it decide for you. What do you eat before training?

about the author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, the godfather of the Primal i food and lifestyle movement The New York Times bestseller author Keto reset diet. His latest book is Keto for life, where he talks about how he combines the keto diet with the Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of numerous other books including Primal draftwho is credited with fueling the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating people about why food is a key component to achieving and maintaining optimal health, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real food company that creates Primal /paleo, keto and Whole30 friendly kitchen staples.

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