Fueling for Fitness

There is a lot of buzz surrounding the topic of meals before, during and after workouts.  As I’ve talked about in the past, it is very important to ensure that your body has the fuel it needs to recover properly.  This led us to the theory that there is a window of time surrounding your workouts where nutrition has a heightened importance, however we mainly focused on the timing and composition of the post-workout meal.

Along with all the seemingly infinite fad diets that are in circulation, there are just as many theories about when and what to eat throughout the day.  Is fasted cardio the best solution for weight loss? Should we carb-load before every leg day? If we just eat protein can we gain endless amounts of muscle?

As a brief science overview, in the presence of oxygen our bodies utilize carbohydrates and fat to produce ATP.  ATP is then used as energy by the muscles and other body systems to power our bodies through a workout (or any daily activity for that matter) such as curling a dumbbell, pressing a barbell off of the chest or pulling the body up over a bar.  

While the body does contain some energy reserves, mainly fat in adipose tissue, the most readily available fuel source is going to be the carbohydrates and fats that have not yet been converted and stored as fat.  Muscle protein is also available for backup energy, but this only happens in cases of extreme energy depletion.

Interestingly, some studies suggest that certain hormonal changes during a fasted state may be beneficial to fat loss, while at the same time minimizing muscle protein use for energy.  One study by Nørrelund H, et al. builds upon previous research showing an increase in growth hormone levels while in a fasted state.  They go on to show that growth hormone plays a key role in protein preservation during fasted exercise.

So you may not lose muscle when training in a fasted state, but how does this affect energy levels and performance.  Exercising in a fasted state may be beneficial to fat loss, but if you are unable to perform to the best of your abilities in the gym, you will not be able to stimulate muscle growth either.

This ultimately comes down to individual preference and response to eating.  Some people may feel full and sluggish after eating a large meal before a workout, whereas others will struggle to add weight to their lifts without the added energy supply.

The type of workout is also important here.  For example, if you are going into the gym for heavy strength training, your muscles are going to need the added carbohydrates to fuel your progress.  When lifting in a fasted state, you may have more trouble adding extra pounds onto your lifts.

On the other hand, if you are waking up and headed out for a 30-minute run, this is not as big of a concern.  Refer to my post workout meal tips following any fasted exercise!

In terms of what to eat pre-workout, we know that consuming carbohydrate-rich meals an hour or two before exercise has been shown to boost performance.  In particular, carbohydrates with a lower GI index have been shown to increase fat oxidation (Michael J. Ormsbeem et al.). These are foods such as whole grain bread, apples, quinoa or broccoli.

Eating protein before a workout has also been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis (growth), however, the effects are much greater if the protein is ingested with carbohydrates as well (Tipton KD, et al.).

In terms of fat, there is little research suggesting that focusing on fat before a workout will help muscle growth or fat loss.  If you eat foods high in fat before working out, you may feel more full, bloated and sluggish.

Some food recommendations:

  • Peanut Butter Sandwich
  • Overnight oats with protein and berries
  • Greek yogurt and granola
  • An apple and peanut butter
  • Sweet potatoes and chicken
  • Brown rice and broccoli

In terms of food to avoid, we go back to personal preference.  Steer clear of greasy foods such as pizza or burgers, spicy foods or carbonated beverages.  These can all lead to feeling bloated and their digestion will sap away at your energy. Overly sweet items whether desserts or fruit juices should also be avoided.  While they are a source of carbohydrates, they are high on the glycemic index and are therefore digested quickly, giving you a quick spike of energy followed by a crash.

In summary, the key factor in deciding what and whether or not to eat before working out comes down to your personal fitness goals and the type of training you are therefore looking to do.  If you are looking to gain muscle, your body is going to need fuel to allow yourself to progress in your lifts. If you are looking to lose weight, training in a fasted state may work for you so long as you are still able to maintain enough energy to get through your workout, however, when training in a fasted state having a well rounded post-workout meal is paramount to muscle recovery.

For our easy to follow healthy recipes, click here!

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