Not sure when to eat to improve your strength workouts? We asked PTs to explain the what, when and why of pre-workout food.
We all know that eating directly before swimming isn’t advisable. It’s been a pretty die-hard rule since we were kids. But does that rule apply to other forms of training? In particular, does food before strength training help or hinder?
Like so much of the information about strength training out there, there’s contradictory guidance about the effects of eating before working out. Some sources swear by training fasted, whilst others advise carb-loading for a more effective sweaty session.
So we put the subject of pre-workout eating to three expert trainers, who are debunking myths about how best to fuel up around your strength training session.
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“Everyone’s very different with this,” reminds coach Tess Glynn-Jones. “If you eat before you train, that should involve carbs and protein, something like chicken, rice and vegetables. Or a great little meal you can have before you train is overnight oats – just soak some oats for carbs in some milk, or almond or coconut milk, and then you top it with some Greek yoghurt to get your protein in as well.”
For personal trainer Alice Miller, “It largely depends on the time of day that you train. I always prefer to have carbohydrates; that’s a great source of energy to fuel weight training sessions. If I’m training in the morning, I’ll have something light as I’m probably still fueled from the night before. I just grab a banana for fast carbohydrates.
“If you’re training at lunchtime, you might not haven’t eaten much that day, so a carbohydrate-rich snack is good, something that gives you energy straight away. My favourite food for that is mango, but some of my colleagues have things like rice cakes and jam.”
PT Caroline Bragg adds that she likes opting for eggs on toast, as “a low GI meal will release a lot slower. If I’m just grabbing a snack, I like something that’s quick to digest like a banana. After training, we want to up the protein, which helps repair the muscles. We need to make sure our nutrition is right and that we’re replenishing properly. I think lots of people don’t do that. And I always have a coffee before training!”
Should you eat breakfast before training?
“If that works for you, then great.,” says Glynn-Jones. “It might be worth experimenting, having some food before you train and seeing if it gives you that bit of extra energy to help you push you through. Even if you just had a banana en route to the gym, that’s going give you those fast carbs to help you during your session. But training fasted is not a bad thing. It’s quite controversial – some people love it; some people hate it. But it’s just about having a play. As long as you’re not starving yourself and you’re not feeling weaker by training fasted, you’re cool.”
Miller agrees: “Fasted is okay if that’s what you’re used to. If you’re happy to train without food and you don’t feel tired or lethargic when you go to a training session, you don’t need to. It all comes down to how your body works and if you’re used to eating.”
For Bragg, fasted training depends on lots of different factors. “It works for some people, but I would say it depends on many variables, like your quality of sleep and where you are in your menstrual cycle. I would always say for weight training it’s best to have something, even if it’s just half a banana. I don’t disagree with fasted training, but it does depend on your blood sugar levels and it’s really about what works for you.”
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How long before training should you eat?
“You don’t want to eat too much too close to training,” says Glynn-Jones. “Eat a meal about 90 minutes beforehand. When it comes to having a snack, it could be around 30-45 minutes before, as long as it involves fast carbs, where the sugar will get into your bloodstream quickly. Things like fruit or an energy drink like Lucozade would be good to have before you train.”
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).