It's important to chow down before warming up and needing to eat food to fuel a workout is a great excuse to devour your favourite snack before hitting the gym. As David Wiener, nutrition and training specialist at fitness app Freeletics, points out: "If you exercise on an empty stomach, your body won't have enough energy to perform at its best."
But – and this is an important but – what you eat is also crucial. Sadly, as much as we'd love to load up on Pringles and pepperoni pizza, there are certain foods that should be avoided before a workout. Why? According to the expert, if you opt for certain snacks, it’s likely "all your energy will go towards digesting that food", he explains, instead of powering your exercise.
So, it's well worth planning ahead when you need a pick-me-up before a training session. Here are 11 types of food and drink that Wiener advises avoiding pre-workout, plus his snack swap recommendations:
1. Fibre-filled foods
In general, foods rich in fibre like wholegrain bread, whole-wheat pasta and oats are good for you and can help to keep you feeling fuller for longer and regulate the digestive system. However, before a workout these foods should be a no-go, says Wiener, as they take longer for the body to digest and can lead to gastrointestinal distress. "This distress can result in bloating, nausea, gas and stomach cramps which could hinder a workout, meaning you should avoid them before working out."
Instead, he recommends opting for "vegetables which are easier to digest, such as asparagus and potatoes."
2. Energy drinks
"A lot of gym-goers assume they will need an energy drink before their workout to be able to get through their session. However, energy drinks can be filled with unnecessary sugars and caffeine which will spike your blood sugar levels, make you jittery and raise your blood pressure," according to the pro. "All of these reactions are counterproductive to a good workout, and makes your body work even harder to burn the sugar you just consumed, rather than burning body fat."
He adds: "Instead, opt for more natural ways to boost energy levels, which could be as simple as having enough sleep. If you feel too tired to workout, it's your body's way of telling you to rest, and prevent injury."
"Although healthy fats are an important part of our overall diet, eating high fat meals or snacks like nuts before exercising can compromise your workout," says Wiener. "This is because fat is a nutrient which slows digestion, and the more fat in a meal or snack, the longer it takes for that meal or snack to be digested."
Pre-training, the purpose of nutrition is to prime the body, and for that to happen the food needs to be fully digested and ready to use as fuel, he explains. "If you do want to include fat in your pre-workout, make sure you allow 1½ to 2 hours before exercising." Alternatively, Wiener suggests saving your healthy snack for after your workout.
4. Cruciferous vegetables
"Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower are important vegetables to include in your diet, but they will wreak havoc on you while you exercise," says Wiener. This is because these vegetables are high in raffinose, an indigestibnle carbohydrate that can trigger abdominal bloating and excessive gas. Instead, the expert recommends enjoying spinach, lettuce and carrots ahead of your workout.
5. Refined sugar
"Inadequate amounts of sugars and carbohydrates in your system before a workout can lead to lethargy and fatigue, especially when you're exercising," says Wiener. "But you must pay attention to the source of sugar, and as always do your best to avoid refined sugar found in many manufactured products."
Instead, his tip is to opt for glucose which is found in carbohydrate rich foods or fructose (think: fruits and vegetables), as your body uses these types of sugar far more effectively and efficiently.
6. Ready meals
Wiener claims: "Ready meals and processed foods in general should be avoided before a workout, and if you're trying to lose weight, avoided altogether. These sort of ready meals contain a lot of artificial ingredients which lengthen the shelf life of the product, but this also means they have minimal nutritional value and won't give you enough fuel for the workout ahead."
The alternative? "Opt for meals you have made yourself at home, where you know exactly what you're putting on the plate," he says. "I would recommend making meals for the week ahead, so you always have something you can eat, and not make excuses for ready meals."
"Milk, cheese and yoghurt should always be consumed after a training session. This is because their high fat content can cause you to feel lethargic and will increase your stomach's acid content during a workout," the pro shares. "Eating dairy before a workout can also lead you to feel extra gassy. Some people also find dairy particularly hard to digest, and if this is the case, consuming dairy prior to exercise can lead to stomach upsets and bloating."
8. Fried foods
Wiener advises: "If you're eating fried food before a workout, you may be consuming too many saturated fats which are difficult to digest. Again, this can lead to being too bloated to workout, and experiencing severe cramping which doesn't let you move properly."
Furthermore, he says, greasy, fried food can have an emotional impact on your workout too. "These kinds of foods will make you feel terrible and impact your attitude to your workout. Going into a workout with a healthy, happy stomach and mind is what will help you excel."
9. Fizzy drinks
"It's well known that fizzy drinks are nutritionally void and more often that not laden with sugar, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that they're a poor choice for your pre-workout drink," says Wiener.
"Their high sugar content and carbonation can make you feel bloated, and lead not only to a sugar crash, but also cause stomach cramps and nausea during your workout," explains the pro. As you've probably heard before, you should opt for water instead. Remember, it's important to keep hydrated before, during, and after your workout.
10. Spicy foods
"While spicy foods may satisfy your taste buds, they should be avoided before exercise for a couple of reasons," the expert warns. "Firstly, spicy food can result in indigestion or heartburn which can leave you in pain and having to abandon a workout. Secondly, spicy foods can lead to increased cramping which again could force you to halt a workout, or affect the amount of effort you're able to put in."
If you're looking for something with a punch, you can always opt for strong flavours, such as garlic, turmeric, and pepper, when choosing your pre-workout fuel, Wiener adds.
"Avocados should be avoided pre-workout due to their high fat content (even though avocados are filled with good, mono-saturated fat). In addition, avocados are rich in fibre, and this combination takes the body longer to digest which could result in stomach cramps," says Wiener.
So, what should we eat if we're hungry before a work out?
"Nutrition is important when it comes to exercising. It’s important for refuelling our bodies and can aid in recovery," explains Olly Banks, personal trainer at Fitness First.
"Before exercising, it’s important to pick something that has both carbohydrates and protein in it within two hours of your workout. The carbohydrates are fuel for your working muscles while the protein helps to build and repair.
"However, it's important to find a snack and time that's right for you and your body."
Some examples Banks suggests are:
● Banana with peanut butter, or other fruit
● Protein bars
Here's one more reminder that it's important to fuel up properly before you hit the gym - the above foods just don't happen to be the best options.
As Wiener puts it: "Whilst there are various different foods that you should try to avoid before working out, not eating anything whatsoever is just as bad. Before a workout, you should never be hungry, as this can really impact your workout, both mentally and physically. It's important to nutritionally prepare yourself before exercising to be strong, efficient and hit your fitness goals.
"Opt for eating no less than 60-90 minutes before your workout too, to find the best balance between eating too early or too late."
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