Everyone has different goals for their workout. Cardio enthusiasts are looking to either burn calories to lose weight, improve heart and lung health or reach a lifestyle goal, such as complete a 10 mile hike. On the other hand, strength trainers are looking to increase their lean muscle mass.
A common misperception among the fitness community is that with these different goals, we should approach our pre-workout meal differently. However, what goes unnoticed is the common theme among all these goals: we’re pushing our body to its limits.
The Myth of Fasted Cardio
Fitness buffs will rave how fasting before cardio leads to increased fat burn, as if it’s the secret that keeps them lean. When in reality only extreme gym-goers can work out on an empty stomach! Their secret is their dedication! Their theory is during your exercise, the body will feed from your existing fat stores rather than food, or energy, that would be sitting in your stomach. The research behind this is far from certain. Some studies support that during your workout, it can lead to increased fat loss, while others show there’s no noticeable difference.
So who’s correct here? The answer can be found by asking a different question. If our focus is to maximize our burned calories metric, then we should be asking: How can we optimize our workout to burn more calories the remainder of the day? This is the main point of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. We work our you-know-what off during our workout, depleting our oxygen stores, building lactic acid in our muscles, and increasing our body’s metabolism. Then our body spends the next several hours to pay back its oxygen debt and clear away the lactic acid. This is also known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. High intense cardio or strength training can increase our energy burn by 6-15% due to the EPOC effect. The harder we’re able to push ourselves during the workout, the increased EPOC. It’s recommended during your workout to keep a heart rate in the range of 70%-90% of your max heart rate during your sets or circuits and between 60%-65% during rest of your workout.
Knowing these benefits of cardio, our goal is to no longer focus on the fat burned during the workout, but rather to get the absolute best workout with the time we invest that will increase our fat burn afterwards.
And How Do We Achieve Max Training Performance?
WebMD recommends eating at least 30 minutes prior to a workout. Eating or drinking carbs are best for the most energy. Complex carbs are recommended 2-3 hours prior to working out as they take longer to digest. Simple carbs are recommended 30-60 minutes prior to exercise, which is what we’ll focus on since most of us are exercising shortly after waking up. Further, muscle catabolism can begin when glycogen is used up during intense exercise. Your body converts carbohydrates into energy in the form of glycogen, so sufficient supplementing before-hand is going to be your friend here if you wish to maintain or increase your muscle mass.
To make the most of our early morning hours, we recommend snacks that are already prepared so you can eat fast without disrupting the remainder of your morning fitness preparation. When eating 30-60 minutes before your workout, between 60 and 120 calories are recommended, based on your weight and stomach’s sensitivity to food. Your snack should also contain a majority of carbs, with at least 10 grams of simple carbs. A small amount of protein and fat will help slow digestion of the carbs, eliminating any blood sugar spike early in the workout. However, too many fats and protein (more than 10 grams total) may lead to an upset stomach. ALWAYS drink water prior to your morning workouts. 16 ounces is recommended.
The following make great snack options under 120 calories:
- Homemade energy balls or buy them pre-made on Amazon here
- Plain lowfat yogurt and fruit
- Fruit juice – this covers your water and carb needs
- Clif Bar Minis – crunchy peanut butter is my favorite!
- Luna bar – eat half before the workout and the rest after
- pre-made fruit smoothie
What About Protein Before My Workout?
For some in the bodybuilding community, there’s a notion that a pre-workout protein shake is necessary to avoid muscle catabolism. The idea is that your muscles will look for protein, and if there’s some in your blood, they’ll pull from that, and if not, they grab from your body’s stores in its muscles. This is far from true. As previously discussed, when the body needs energy, your body pulls from its glycogen stores, which are created from carbs, not protein.
Where protein does come into play is maintaining a neutral or ideally positive nitrogen balance in the body, which helps in building muscle mass. The goal with protein should be to consume a steady amount throughout the day as the body can only digest so much at a time. So if it does help you reach your daily protein intake goals by getting some before your workout without feeling bloated during your workout, then by all means, supplement protein prior to your gym session.
For high intensity workouts, it’s encouraged to fuel up on foods or drinks rich in carbohydrates at least 30 minutes prior to working out. Stick to simple carbs that are easy to digest. If your exercises are low to moderate intensity, or shorter than 30 minutes, such as a brief jog, working out on an empty stomach should not affect the performance of your workout, as you should have sufficient energy stores to meet your exercise’s demands. A small amount of fat and protein beforehand should not negatively affect your workout as long as it doesn’t upset your stomach. Remember to stay hydrated so your body can operate at peak performance.