How to Choose Pre-training Snacks That Support My Workouts?

How to Choose Pre-training Snacks That Support My Workouts?

Contributed by Eve Persak, Nutrition Advisor, MS RD CNSC CSSD

Your training session starts in about an hour. Your stomach is growling and you’ve no idea what to eat.  Should you shush your system, skip snacking and scoot off to the gym? Some research suggests this can boost fat burning and weight loss efforts. Other studies disagree. However, most experts agree that you need to fuel your body properly – more so if you’re planning on a high intensity or long workout - to ensure that your blood sugar level’s not rock bottom.

The question that naturally follows is – what should I eat? Certain foods can provide a much-needed energy boost or play havoc on your system when consumed before physical activity. Don't just go with your gut – which could ironically wreak havoc on your actual gut – and jeopardise your training session.

Keep in mind these dos and don’ts to ensure you’re comfortable, satisfied and on track with your training:

Think small

When we start exercising, blood flows toward the periphery of the body to ensure that the arm and leg muscles receive more oxygen and nutrients. When we eat, blood flow moves to the core of the body to aid digestion and absorb the nutrients from our food. When our body is asked to exercise and break down a meal simultaneously, we experience a circulatory tug of war with neither the midsection nor the extremities getting the resources they need. Our limbs feel sluggish and training suffers.  Our digestion becomes laboured, and often cramping, nausea, and bloating arise. To prevent discomfort, try to keep portions petite pre-training - just enough to tide you over – and save the celebratory feast for after gym.  

Reach for the right carbs

To eat or not to eat – that’s always the question when it comes to carbohydrates. The answer is a resounding yes! Of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates are the quickest to digest. They are also the easiest for the body to convert to usable energy for working muscles. Because of those reasons, carbohydrates are preferred over proteins and fats as a pre-workout food option. But not all carbohydrates are created equal. While fibre-rich foods are favoured most of the time as they stabilise blood sugar levels and keep you feeling full, it’s not advisable to take too much fibre prior to a workout. Fibre slows the delivery of energy to the muscles, and can even cause cramping and indigestion. So, veer away from roughage with excess skins, seeds, or leaves – such as fresh salads, corn, beans, seeded grapes, passionfruit, or chia, before you hit the gym. Instead, stick with simpler carbohydrates and starches including bananas, toast, rice crackers, oat porridge and sweet potato.

Don’t drink your fruits

Fresh whole fruit in small or single portions – such as an apple, a banana, a pear or a cup of sliced watermelon - can serve as the ideal pre-training snack. The simple, natural sugars are quickly broken down and absorbed, and these sit light on the stomach. But be careful with fruit juices. It often takes four to five servings of fruit to yield just one small 150ml glass of juice. And when you start exercising, the concentrated load of fructose – the natural sugar found in all fruits – can upset the digestive system, resulting in gas, cramping and watery stools.

Perk up

Caffeine is a well-known ergogenic aid. As a stimulant, when consumed before or during exercise, alertness and performance get a scientifically proven boost. The athlete – and his or her muscles – feels less fatigued. In fact, many products - powders, beverages, or gels - marketed for endurance or strength athletes are coffee or chocolate flavoured and intentionally include modest amounts of caffeine for this reason. Now, it’s important to remember that a little is helpful, but a lot is not. Too much caffeine can overstimulate and irritate the GI tract.  So, enjoy a small cup of coffee or add a sprinkle of dark cacao powder to your cup of oats.

Forgo excess oil and fats

Dietary fats enhance flavour and impart a desirable palatial smoothness to any dish. They are also very energetically dense, so just a small portion can provide a concentrated calorie dose, which is valuable for athletes who burn and need extra calories each day. Unfortunately, among the macronutrients, fats require the greatest amount of time to be digested in the stomach, before moving along into the small intestine. Therefore, consuming foods high in fat – those prepared with creams, butter, oils, sauces and dressings, for example – prior to exercising might not be your best move.  The contents of your stomach are likely to slosh and jostle – causing indigestion, heartburn, cramping and bloating. Save your rich or savoury recipes for meals scheduled later in the day, long after your workout is done.