If you think downing your pre-workout beverage is the best way to maximize your workout and stimulate muscle growth, you're only half right. That's because the foods you consume during the previous 24 hours, and especially the meal immediately beforehand, provide your body with both carbs and protein so that you can not only go, go, go during your workout, but also grow, grow, grow afterward. Skimping on either before hitting the gym can lead to subpar performance.
What's more, some pre-workout food choices are far superior to others. My hunch is that you want to know what those foods are, so check out these top 10 foods to maximize your exercise performance and recovery!
Foods To Help You Go, Go, Go
It's no secret that carbs are your muscles' primary energy source. But while it may seem that any carb will get the job done, this couldn't be further from the truth. Choosing the right type of carb and portion size may well be the necessary key to finally hitting a new PR.
1. Rice Cakes
Your day won't always go as planned. Heck, it usually won't go as planned. Sometimes that means having to push your workout back an hour or two, disrupting your meal timing. Should you push your workout back even farther and eat a larger pre-workout meal? Or should you suck it up and strive to finish your workout, despite running on an empty tank? The former may not be feasible, whereas the latter will certainly lead to a half-assed session.
The solution is to opt for a quick-digesting snack instead. This will allow you to hit your workout hard as soon as possible without the accompanying GI distress a larger meal would bring. To ensure he's fully fueled before a big workout, Dymatize athlete Mike Hildebrandt has settled on his go-to pre-workout choice: rice cakes.
"Rice cakes are very easy for the body to digest," says Hildebrandt, an NPC physique competitor. "They provide readily available energy and enable me to give 110 percent. Plus, they taste great!" For even more energy, Mike loves to top his rice cakes with honey, another fast-acting carb that fits the bill.
2. Jasmine Rice
Jasmine rice is an excellent pre-workout fuel source, because it's a fast-digesting option that packs a mighty calorie-per-bite ratio (more than 200 calories per cup cooked). Choosing jasmine rice will allow you to consume some serious carbs in a short time without feeling as if you just left the local Chinese buffet when heading into your workout. That's because it has fewer grams of fiber per serving than traditional brown rice. Less fiber means faster digestion.
This is especially helpful for those seeking to gain weight. It might be tempting to skimp on pre-workout carbs because of the total volume of food necessary, which could make you feel overly full or sluggish. However, doing so might cause you to have a subpar workout and undereating for your goal—both of which are counterproductive for your mass-gain goals.
By sticking with fast-digesting jasmine rice, you'll supply your muscles and brain with the fuel necessary to dominate your workout start to finish. Even more, you'll be able to focus on the weights rather than on your stomach. This is the sole reason Hildebrandt chooses jasmine rice pre-workout. "I can get away with a cup 45-60 minutes before a workout and don't feel any interference with digestion while lifting," he says.
3. Dried Fruit
If you're in need of a quick burst of energy, look no further than a handful of dried fruit. Fruit is an excellent source of sugar, and there's no better time for a quick hit of sugar than right around a workout. That's because it will be efficiently utilized as fuel during training.
Dried fruit offers a highly concentrated form of sugar, meaning you can eat very little volume and still receive an instantaneous fuel boost. That's why it's a staple in Dymatize athlete Alicia Ziegler's day. She enjoys many varieties—appropriately portioned, of course—but especially goji berries and blueberries, because of their antioxidant properties.
4. Sweet Potatoes
This sweet spud shouldn't be banished to special occasions alongside pricey steak dinners. The sweet potato is a complex carb that can provide that extra boost you need, and that energy will last well into your workout. Plus, they're rich in potassium! This electrolyte plays a role in optimizing muscle contraction and hydration.
There are several varieties of sweet potatoes, and you can't go wrong with any of them. Ziegler is a fan of the Japanese purple sweet potato, whereas Hildebrandt prefers the traditional sweet potato or yam, a starchier spud with even more energy per bite. Consider a baked or mashed option as part of your next pre-gym snack!
Some workouts demand more fuel than others. Hello, leg day! When this is the case, a simple snack won't suffice. Instead, you need to seek out a source of long-lasting energy so you can not only crush your squats, but your deads, presses, and lunges that follow. Enter oats.
Oats are a complex carbohydrate rich in fiber. This perfect pairing provides a steady release of energy rather than a quick spike, which will allow you to continue training hard well into your workout. Opt for old-fashioned or steel-cut oats. They're less processed, meaning they retain more complexity and fiber than the quick oats you're probably accustomed to.
Ziegler likes to create a "power bowl" for her pre-workout meal on days when she follows up her demanding resistance training with a HIIT circuit. As you may have guessed, oats are the main component of this bowl, alongside a variety of seeds, berries, and dark chocolate chips. Yum.
Foods To Help You Grow, Grow, Grow
Protein has long been hailed as the critical post-workout nutrient, but recent research suggests that taking protein before your workout is just as, if not more, important. A protein-rich pre-workout meal provides a steady stream of amino acids to your muscles for hours to come.
Chances are, this elevated blood amino-acid concentration will still be present during your lifting. This will help to mitigate muscle damage and spare your hard-earned muscle from significant breakdown.
Now that you know how to fuel your energy, it's important to complete the pre-workout pair in order to grow.
1. Whey Isolate
After all these years, whey protein still remains a top choice for your pre-workout meal. The fast-digesting nature of whey isolate provides a quick boost in blood amino-acid levels—faster than any whole-food source.
The partial digestion of hydrolyzed whey isolates in Dymatize Iso 100 are a favorite of both Hildebrandt and Ziegler because of their rapid absorption.
2. Egg Whites
All other protein sources are compared to eggs when evaluated for quality, making it the gold standard. That's because eggs are rich in amino acids. However, if your pre-workout meal leaves you with little time before training, you may want to consider holding the yolks and saving them for later.
Too much fat pre-workout can slow digestion and leave you feeling bloated and uncomfortable during training. Egg whites on their own also make a great last-minute option because each protein-packed bite requires little chewing and can be digested more quickly.
3. Lean Ground Meats
Choking down one chicken breast after another is appealing for only so long. But a thick cut of steak just isn't a good pre-workout option because of its slow rate of digestion.
Instead, consider the more affordable, easily digested ground-meat option. Ground meats—whether beef, chicken, or turkey—are quicker to chew and swallow compared to their intact counterparts. This streamlined digestion process means less risk of stomach discomfort for you when eating just before a workout.
Be sure to look for cuts that are 90/10 protein-to-fat or leaner. This will keep digestion swift. A high-fat cut such as traditional 80/20 will slow digestion and increase your risk of seeing that burger again during your workout.
4. Lean Deli Meat
Deli meat has a bad reputation because of its high sodium content. But if you've never been told by your physician to watch your sodium intake, you have little reason to be concerned. Lean deli meat such as chicken and turkey breast, ham, and roast beef makes a great component of any pre-workout meal, because it's easily digested. Avoid fattier meats such as pepperoni, salami, or bologna.
The sodium content of deli meat will work for rather than against you. Choosing a salty food will help to stimulate thirst, which may help to ensure you're well-hydrated before your training session. This is crucial to support hard training and to reduce the risk of fatigue, muscle cramps, and dizziness.
Consider a quick sandwich on your favorite bread or tortilla next time you're in a pre-workout pickle! If you're not in such a rush, consider whole-grain bread instead, to further slow down digestion for steady energy that will last well into your workout.
5. Beans and Lentils
For a plant-based protein, nothing beats good-for-the-heart beans. That's because they provide double the benefits. This starchy carb is not only a good source of fiber, but also a solid source of protein.
However, on their own, beans aren't a top notch source of protein, because they're missing a few key amino acids. But by simply pairing them with your favorite grain, such as bread or rice, you can complement the beans to provide your body with all nine essential amino acids. Together, you'll have created a one-two punch of pre-workout fuel.