Have you ever gone to the gym and after a few exercises just started to feel lightheaded and nauseous?
I’ve seen this a lot.
Usually it’s someone who hasn’t been to the gym in a while, and is working with a personal trainer. They are motivated, but just got off of work and didn’t have much time to eat anything. So they push themselves harder than they can, and run out of gas. Then they faint.
Oftentimes this is hypoglycemia, where your blood sugar level is below the normal threshold. The simple fix during the moment is fast-acting carbohydrates like orange juice.
But how can we make sure we eat quality foods ahead of working out so we have both enough energy to exercise as well as maximize the benefits of our hard work in the gym?
You’re in luck because we’re about to go through a list of 10 options. Now make sure to allow for adequate digestion time before you go to the gym. Some people can eat and then work out right afterwards, but most people require time to digest their food. For me, I find it’s about an hour.
Alright, without further ado, let’s dig into 10 foods that can supercharge your workout.
1. Whole Grains
Carbohydrates provide glycogen, a key source of energy during activity. Glycogen is used for short intense exercise and is fast-acting.
Without sufficient carbohydrates, you run out of glucose and glycogen stores and end up “hitting the wall”. Like I mentioned earlier, this could result in light headedness, nausea, and fainting.
Alright, so we need carbs ahead of our exercise. That much we know. But there are good carbs and bad carbs. While simple carbs are important in the event of hypoglycemia, in general, we want to take in complex whole grains ahead of our workouts.
Whole grains provide lasting energy and provide better weight maintenance. The higher fiber content improves satiety and fights many diseases, all while providing you with a slow, consistent release of glucose and glycogen.
We also want to avoid refined carbs. Refined carbs like white breads and sweets can increase the risk of disease, diabetes, and a whole slew of other issues.
Salmon is packed with high quality protein, which, while generally not used as energy during your workout, helps support and repair muscle growth.
Salmon also comes packing a heavy dose of omega-3 fatty acids, which have an effect on metabolism and help promote weight loss. This is partly due to the hormone leptin. Leptin controls your metabolism and the amount of fat you burn. Therefore, adding omega-3s to your diet may increase your metabolism through the increased levels of leptin.
As I mentioned before, the main source of energy during exercise is carbohydrates, but you’ll need proteins to help repair and grow tissue that has been broken down during the workout. So it helps to consume protein both before and after exercise to ensure adequate consumption over time. Simply packing in protein only after your workout isn’t good enough because your body can only absorb so much protein at once.
Bananas are pre-workout beauties.
You may recall I mentioned a study done at Appalachian State University comparing the effects of eating bananas vs. pre-workout drinks during a 75 kilometer cycling performance. Bananas matched the performance of pre-workout drinks while also reducing post-exercising inflammation, oxidative stress, and improving immune function.
If you’re looking for a healthy, cheap, tasty pre-workout treat that will give you loads of energy while also providing fiber, potassium, and vitamins – bananas are the way to go.
One of my favorite attributes of bananas is that they are very easy to blend into a smoothie. A simple orange juice plus banana smoothie tastes great and only takes seconds to make.
4. Hemp Seeds
I know what you’re thinking, but despite hemp protein coming from cannabis, it doesn’t contain THC like marijuana. Hemp seeds are actually a superfood that has been recently gaining more popularity.
Unlike many plant-based foods, hemp seeds contain a complete amino acid profile. Usually you would have to consume animal-based foods to get complete proteins. And unlike animal-based foods, hemp seeds are very low in fat. Not to mention having zero cholesterol and saturated fat, something meats can’t boast.
Hemp seeds are full of nutrients such as iron, magnesium, and zinc, as well as packed with fiber and omega-3s.
5. Green Tea
It’s established that caffeine improves metabolism and exercise performance. For example, just one of the many studies done on this, The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that caffeine is effective at improving aerobic performance in athletes.
That said, green tea is more than just caffeine. WebMD mentioned that green tea allows for additional metabolism and fat oxidation beyond what can be explained just by caffeine. This was analyzed in a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition comparing regular caffeine, green tea extract, and a placebo.
Green tea is also a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, as well as being protective to joint cartilage, which can only be a good things when you’re putting your joints under pressure during a workout.
Don’t worry it doesn’t have to be hot green tea. You can get some pretty tasty ice-blended matcha green teas too. Just skip the whipped cream though okay.
As I mentioned earlier, carbs pre-workout are a necessity. But again, you do want high quality carbohydrates. And a pre-workout food discussion without mentioning oats just wouldn’t be right.
A study posted in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that food rich in oat bran raised energy levels in the body in the form of glycogen stores more than regular “chow”. The conclusion was that carbohydrates with soluble fiber, like oatmeal, resulted in a longer time to exhaustion.
One thing to keep in mind is to choose high quality oats like steel cut oats. While it isn’t as easy as instant oat meal, it is still fairly easy to make. The whole oats contain more nutrients and are a better form of carbohydrate than instant oat meal, sustaining energy for longer.
If you’re concerned about the time issue, a simple fix here would be to simply prepare overnight oats to save you time in the morning!
7. Coconut Water
No question about it, you want to be hydrated before, during, and after your workout.
Going into your workout without proper hydration is going to lead to dehydration early in your exercise routine. As soon as you start moving, your body is going to try to cool itself through sweating. If you start feeling dizzy or light headed, stop and hydrate.
If you push on with inadequate hydration you put yourself at risk for some serious issues, which in the worst of cases could be seizures, or even death. Okay, that’s extreme, but it can happen.
Coconut water is the perfect hydrating drink. It’s full of electrolytes including sodium, potassium, and magnesium. But unlike sports drinks that contain electrolytes, it doesn’t come packed with sugar.
One thing I’ve noticed with coconut water is that it makes me feel a little bloated if I drink it near my workout sessions. So it isn’t something I personally consume during a workout. But everyone is different, and maybe it works for you. Instead I like drinking my coconut water through the day ahead of my workout – even a small amount each day can help replenish those electrolytes.
While I had previously mentioned almonds as one of the healthiest foods, this post would be incomplete without a mention of almonds as an excellent pre-workout fuel.
This crunchy snack was studied by the Center for Sports Nutrition in Beijing, and posted in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. The study compared cycling performance over 10 weeks in athletes who consumed almonds versus similarly caloric rich cookies. The researchers measured for carbohydrate and fat oxidation, energy expenditure, and oxygen use.
Almonds ended up improving athletic performance more than the cookies, as well as reducing oxidative stress and inflammation.
Remember my discussion around the warrior grain (though technically a seed) and how Incan warriors would consume quinoa to prepare for battle?
Well, clearly it is also an excellent pre-workout snack. Not that I’m comparing lifting weights and running around outside to throwing and dodging spears.
Since it is a whole grain, quinoa provides slow lasting energy, so it can take the place of your oats. Not only that, but it is a complete protein as well, containing all the essential amino acids. As I mentioned with hemp seeds, this isn’t too common for plant-based foods.
Top it off with a high amount of minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper, iron, and zinc, and you have a wholesome pre-workout snack that will set your mind and body right ahead of your workout.
Quinoa can be prepared on the spot and eaten hot, or you can cook it up and throw it in the refrigerator. It’s pretty good cold too. Although you may consider mixing it with some tuna and spinach to make it less boring.
Have you ever heard of DOMS?
DOMS stands for delayed onset of muscle soreness. If you’ve ever worked out really hard and had muscle soreness hit way harder after the first day instead of on the first day, you’ve had DOMS before.
The good news is blueberries, packed with antioxidants, have been shown to help reduce DOMS and provide faster recovery from hard training. A study posted in the Journal of The International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that eating blueberries before and after a workout helps speed up recovery in muscles.
Whatever you choose to eat, remember that everyone’s digestive system is different. Some people can’t eat anywhere near their workout without experiencing discomfort. I’m usually fine so long as the snack is something that isn’t too heavy.
My go-to is usually a blueberry banana smoothie with some oats blended into the mix!
Do you have any favorite pre-workout snacks?