DO YOU HAVE TO EAT BEFORE WORKING OUT? AND IF I DO, THEN WHAT?
Generally speaking, most people associate eating before exercise with nausea, digestive discomfort and just generally an unproductive, sluggish session. For the most part, this is accurate - when we ingest food, blood is in fact diverted to the stomach to aid digestion hence taking away blood flow from where it needs to be; plus, training with a full stomach is incredibly uncomfortable.
Yet, the same sickness-prone clients have also been known to experience dizziness, reduced endurance and overall vigour when training. Surely there is a middle ground here!
Unfortunately, humans are just biological machines - and just as any engine needs fuel, so do your muscles and particularly anaerobic system. Without delving too far into the science of things, one's physical performance is inherently tied to their pre-exertion nutrition. This is why endurance athletes are known to 'carb up', bodybuilders have their pre-workout rice cakes, bagels, and so on, so forth. The relationship between training fasted and output hasn't been investigated for too long, and the majority of studies done have conflicting findings: some report a decrease in performance, some report no change, and some even an increase.
Once again, the truth is entirely individual - while I wouldn't advise a seasoned marathoner go into their race coming out of a 2:5 fasting protocol, this doesn't mean that you're going to faint during your abs class if your last meal was some hours ago. What is 'fasting' in your eyes? When was the last time you ate? A typical definition of 'fasting' is not having ingested any caloric food or beverages for a period of 12 hours and more - quite a broad spectrum here, considering that some practice 'OMAD' (one-meal-a-day-diet) and some can barely last through their 16:8 intermittent fasting window. At the same time, if you have been in a calorie deficit for a while, you may find that without eating, your strength falls through the floor - this is when it's important to consider the circumstances of your fitness journey, and listen to your body. Here are couple of questions to ask yourself when figuring out your pre-workout nutrition:
1. HOW AM I TRAINING AND WHAT IS THE OBJECTIVE OF MY SESSION?
Are you coming to an intensity peak in your bodybuilding programme, or is a quick class? As always, go back to the drawing board - do you have set objectives for the session (not a necessity) or do you just want to get out and burn some calories? If it is the prior, then perhaps your best bet would be to fuel. What, when and how much will depend on the intensity and duration of the session, but it will most likely involve carbohydrate sources with a high glycemic load (i.e. easily digestible / absorbable). More performance-driven athletes might start fuelling their long morning runs the night before with a carb-heavy meal to saturate their glycogen stores, or a bodybuilder may aim to consume a low-volume, high carb meal from one to three hours before their session.
2. DO I HAVE TIME, AND WHAT DO I HAVE ON HAND?
Look, if you're training at 5am and you need to wake up at 3.30am just to be able to smash a banana and let it digest, you will most likely just end up more sluggish and tired. Likewise, if you have left it too late to eat, maybe crushing rice cakes is not an optimal idea. Granted, if you are set on not leaving it to chance and are meticulous enough to pre-plan and ensure the best possible workout, then you most likely will time your food intake and workout for the most optimal outcome. But not all of us are fitness fanatics - evaluate what you have on hand, how much time you have to digest, and whether it needed in the context of the upcoming session.
3. HOW DO I PERFORM WHEN FED VERSUS FASTED?
We're all individuals. Some people feel invigorated and energised when fasting; this could be due to wonderful effects of the fasting-induced 'autophagy' (if you believe in that), or just mental clarity from not having a load of food in your gut to digest - and that's great! If you're able to generate a productive, strong performance during your sessions and feel your best when fasting - by all means, do what you're doing. But as mentioned earlier, if you're deep into a weight loss journey, you might find that your performance is already dipping from a general reduction in calories - this is when it might be a good time to nail your pre-workout nutrition. Try both, and see if there is a difference - you might be surprised; some people go their entire life training fasted but doing one session fuelled changes everything as they double their numbers.
If you're stuck for what exactly to consume pre-workout, here are some ideas:
1. SOLID QUICK CARBS
BANANAS, RICE CAKES, GRAPES, SUGARY CEREAL, CEREAL BAR, JAM, GRANOLA, CREAM OF RICE, WHITE BAKED GOODS.
2. LIQUID QUICK CARBS
HONEY, MAPLE SYRUP, POWDERED CARBOHYDRATE MIX, GLUCOSE DRINKS SUCH AS LUCOZADE
3. NOTHING : If you are still in the fasting camp, no pressure; however, it might be worth considering the following:
HYDRATION (ELECTROLYTE -BASED DRINKS), AMINO ACID DRINKS, CAFFEINATED BEVERAGES
To summarise: as always, the answer is individual - with my clients, I always recommend to do what's optimal for them as individuals, but the chances are that fuelling sensibly probably won't hurt a session.