“Coach, my stomach hurts!”
I was in the weight room, working with a group of my college-students who were training for the national university weightlifting championships. One of the best lifters on our team was grimacing and clutching his stomach. With a little prodding, I quickly diagnosed the source of his suffering: his pre-workout meal. He told me that right before his workout, he had made himself a snack consisting of… New England-style clam chowder with a glass of chocolate milk! The infusion of all that creamy liquid right before he started to train was just too much. Blech!! It turned my stomach just hearing about this meal. No wonder he wasn’t feeling up to heavy cleans and squats.
Advantages of training in a fed state
Properly fueling your body before you exercise should help, not hinder your workouts. Eating before you train provides fuel that spares energy stores (called glycogen) held within your muscles. The benefit of maintaining glycogen stores is you are able to keep up a better pace with less effort (J Applied Physiol, 2007). Beyond supplementing your muscle’s energy stores, simply sensing food in your mouth has been shown to increase activation of reward centers in your brain, which in turn can increase motivation to work harder (J Str and Condi Res, 2017).
What to eat and when to eat
So- eating (the right things) is good. What are the right things? There is a lot of individual variation in what we can tolerate, but the constant theme is that the best workout fuels are easily digestible. For most, a meal consisting of 40-50g of carbohydrates and 10-20g of protein eaten about 2 hours before your train will provide the fuel you need without causing any discomfort. A good example of this type of pre-workout snack would be a banana and a cup of low-fat yogurt.
Coupling a pre-workout meal 90 minutes or so before you exercise with the free intake of water before and during your workouts to keep you hydrated should keep you feeling fueled and ready for most days. For longer (1hr+) and harder workouts, you can benefit from consuming simple carbohydrates (i.e. sports drinks) before and during the training session, in addition to the pre-workout meal.
Some other examples of pre-workout snacks (consume ~90 min before training)
- Freeze-dried strawberries and P-nuff crunch
- Rice Chex cereal with almond milk
- Clif bars (watch the fat content on some snack bars)
What to avoid
The two macronutrients that take the most time to digest are fat and protein. Fats and proteins are vital fuels that we need to thrive, but they both have slow transit times through the gut, so avoiding high amounts of fat and protein in close proximity to beginning your workouts is a good strategy.
Again, high fat and high protein foods aren’t bad, they just tend to sit heavily in the gut, so are best consumed during times of relaxation. Chocolate milk, by the way, has been found to be very beneficial to recovery when consumed after workouts (Med Sci Sports Exerc., 2012). And New England-style clam chowder is delicious!