Neglecting pre-workout nutrition is the sport equivalent of driving on an empty gas tank while wishing for the best.
You must begin with the end in mind.
What is it exactly that you want energy, biochemistry and mindset wise during your workout?
Your goal will determine your priorities and dictate what to eat pre-workout.
If hypertrophy is paramount, your cellular energy gauge must be high since it modulates mTOR activity. If you are doing a neural workout for strength, then brain function will take precedence over energy status. Neurotransmitter dominance also accounts for your choice. Earth types typically do better on carbs than their Yang counterparts.
Keep in mind that pre workout nutritional strategies will often represent trade-offs. There is no black and white answer but are a few rules to bear in mind when making a decision.
#1 You want low Insulin
Picture insulin and cortisol as balanced on a see-saw. If one is elevated the other is depressed. Hence my typical advise against carbs consumption pre-workout as carbs raise insulin and lower cortisol to some capacity.
Cortisol is conditionally bad. And it so happens that higher cortisol DURING the workout correlates with greater gains. In fact, studies from Norway and Finland show that cortisol production is directly proportional with the amount of strength and muscle mass gains.
Of course, you can get too much of a good thing. And you never want cortisol to fly off the charts. The cortisol to testosterone ratio predicts recovery and progress. Hence extreme volume workouts may justify using carbs intra and even pre-workout.
While you don’t seek insulin spikes, neither do you want low blood sugar. A bout of hypoglycemia is a nasty reason to end a workout. Fortunately blood sugar levels are easy to maintain and slow digesting greens or a simple meal of meat and nuts fit the task.
If you are worried about performance keep in mind that during exercise the body runs primarily on stored glycogen. And these levels depend on your post workout nutrition.
#2 You want a slightly acidic pH
Quite counter intuitively being slightly acidic correlates with better gains. Pre workout is not the time to down your green shake neither is it to go crazy on antioxidants supplements. Simply because anabolism is triggered by a host of inflammatory processes. An untimely suppression will nip your gains in the bud.
#3 You want focus and drive
Every state of mind and emotion is mirrored by a chemical.
During most training sessions focus and drive are the name of the game. This means you want high acetylcholine and high dopamine. The best foods to achieve this state are red meat and nuts. Red meat will provide the tyroxine and phenylalanine. Fish and white meat constitute poor choices pre workout. Eggs, even though they are high in acetylcholine supporting nutrients, digest rather quickly and may not be your best pick.
Bear in mind that higher carb meals can downsize your IQ by as much as 20%. In such condition even counting reps might prove a challenge for some… So unless, you are chasing the pump with left-brain workouts such as giant set circuits, you want to gather all your wits. Note that exogenous ketones or MCT which coconut oil conveniently provides will give your brain a very welcome edge when comes training time.
#4 You want a flawless digestion
I prefer solid food before training and therefore suggest leaving enough time to digest—at least 45 minutes but up to 2 hours in some cases. Trial and error will be your guide. But, as a rule of thumb the more carbohydrate tolerant, the lengthier the delay. Leg day will, quite obviously, benefit from a longer digestion time.
#5 You want optimal cellular hydration
Exercise performance is impaired as early as dehydration causes a 2% drop in body weight. Additional losses, 5% of body weight or more, can decrease work capacity by as much as 30%.
You might think that it’s easily fixed. But, wait Sherlock. Water on its own does little by way of hydration. You actually need sodium and other electrolytes to achieve proper hydration. Plus consuming electrolytes during training is actually known to increase performance.
Adequate sodium intake is critical for the athlete desirous to build mass. If sodium has been vilified in health circles and the accepted advise was to limit consumption to less than1.5 grams per day. Flash forwards, take a U-turn and now 4 to 6 grams a day are touted for optimal health. This is especially true for athletes since sodiumrequirements go up with protein consumption. As a side note, you can remedy the headaches that occur concurrently to the onset of a high protein/low carb diet by upping sodium intake. You will remember that salt should have a color.
Zooming further into the cell, intracellular hydration commands hypertrophy. A pumped up cell is a cell primed for growth. Conversely, a shriveled up cell is in no position to grow. There is, basically, no room for the transcription machinery to operate. Extracellular hydration, namely, water retention, edema, is different and does nothing for anabolism. Intracellular hydration depends on electrolyte balance but also on concentration of amino acids in the cells. For instance high concentration of glutamine will attract water, bump up cell volume and increase anabolism.
Of course if you workout first thing in the day, the meat and nuts breakfast ticks all the cases.
The meat and nuts combo provide a slow rise in blood sugar, which will remain stable for an extended period of time. As you know if you’ve spent any length of time on the site, I am a firm believer in eating grass fed meats such as beef, yak and buffalo over conventionally raised beef.
Lab analysis shows that grass-fed meats are higher in these vital nutrients:
- Omega 3s
- CLA, an anti-inflammatory fat that actually mitigates cortisol, hence being a strong anti-catabolic agent.
On top of this, they are devoid of the pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics found in conventionally raised meats.
The best sources of fats to build muscle are: organic cow’s butter, goat butter, olive oil, macadamia butter, cashew butter, peanut butter, almond butter, pecan butter, Brazil nut butter, macadamia oil, coconut oil, MCT oil, fish oil.
Quantities will vary depending on your tolerance to carbs. Interestingly some new study indicates that some people can only handle 20g of fibrous carbs/day.
*Optional* I refer you to the above paragraph to determine is it justified
The fruits listed below do not spike insulin, hence they are good choices pre workout:
- Orange family (tangerine, mandarine)
Tips for dealing with the whiners
#1 I don’t have time to eat in the morning before workout
“I only wake up 30 minutes before training” Then the best strategy is, well, to wake up earlier, eat breakfast, wait a while to digest and then hit the gym.
Plus cooking the meat and nuts breakfast is a breeze. It takes 6 minutestop.
If for whatever reason you don’t want to cook meat in the morning, simply cook the night before. Plan ahead. Be proactive. Or watch other go getters achieve your dreams.
If you screwed up and have nothing fixed before you leave home, opt for dried meat and nuts
#2 I can’t do the meat and nuts, I’m allergic to nuts
Substitute leafy greens and good fats for the nuts, low glycemic fruits such as berries can also be good substitutes (if you deserve your carbs).
#3 I’m emotionally attached to traditional breakfast
You can have a pancake like preparation with coconut flour – see this delicious coconut flour pancake recipe.
#4 I can’t stomach eating meat before my workout
Start slow. A few bites. And builds up from there. Stan Efferding is a big (literally and figuratively) advocate of this method. Take heart Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will your habits.