Have you ever had one of those days where you hit the gym and just felt like crap the whole workout long? Maybe you actually felt so bad that you didn’t even complete your training session. Each and every single rep just felt like a major effort. Even your standard rest periods didn’t feel like they were long enough. It may have even gotten to the point where you just said, “Screw this!” and hit the showers.
There could be any number of reasons for this. Lack of sleep, stressed out by something else, overtraining… the list goes on. Personally, I know when I have a bad day at the gym, I can usually sum it up to one thing… poor pre-workout nutrition.
I’m not a dietician, so I’m not going to get too complex with this concept, but particularly when performing a strength training based workout, it is highly important to have a small meal before you start… especially if you are like a lot of professionals and like to get it out of the way first thing in the morning.
Weight training is what you would call a glycolytic activity. This means that for the most part, it relies on glucose in the blood stream and stored glycogen as an energy source. Using morning training as an example, your blood sugar levels are going to be low when you get out of bed. You probably haven’t eaten anything in the last 10-12 hours and that’s plenty of time for your blood sugar to drop. Because energy is in short demand, you might feel sluggish or fatigue extremely rapidly during your training. When I weight train, I personally prefer to do it a little later on during the day or in the evening. That way my blood sugar is more even, and I’ve even had time to store some glycogen in my muscles and liver. I feel more energetic and stronger than I normally do first thing in the morning.
Morning isn’t the only time that weight training can be difficult due to poor nutritional choices though. I’ve also noticed a sudden drop off in my ability to perform at optimal levels if I haven’t eaten anything for several hours before I train. Some people tend to eat very light during the day or tend to make bad choices in the food department. I remember one specific occasion where I had a donut several hours before hitting the gym and actually almost fainted during my training.
Nowadays I usually try to have a small protein- and carbohydrate-rich meal about 30-45 minutes before hitting the gym to lift weights. I personally try to make reasonably healthy choices and try to avoid going too low carb when I’m going to train. A half a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with some lettuce, tomato and onions (if I don’t plan on getting into a conversation) usually makes me feel great when I hit the gym. If I’m in a rush though, I’ll sometimes have a meal replacement bar or shake. I also try to make personal notes on how each meal makes me feel when I’m training. If I find a pattern of bad performance emerging with a particular before-workout meal, I alter it. I do suggest you avoid pastries. They may give you a quick burst of energy but I usually find that I gas out before I’m able to complete my training.
On the flip side of the coin though, there are times when you might want to think twice about eating anything before working out. In the late '90s, a book known as Body For Life was published and became a smashing success. One of the fitness concepts that it became famous for was the act of performing cardiovascular training on an empty stomach. Recently a number of studies have been performed to test this theory which surprising results. Several of those studies have shown that when performing aerobic activity in a fasted state (Running, jogging, cycling, etc.), the participants were able to burn a significantly greater amount of energy from body fat stores than those who had ingested something before training. I myself have used this method and have found that it works quite well.
Now you may be asking why it’s okay to do your cardio on an empty stomach but not weight training. Simple… different activities require different energy sources. Weight training relies on stored glycogen and circulating glucose in the blood stream. If that’s in short supply you’re gonna be in for a long workout. Cardio is different though. Most standard cardio is aerobic… that means that it relies on oxygen. All you have to do is breath. Unless you’re living in the Himalayas, you’re good to go. All you have to do is breathe.
Now the simple truth of the matter is that everyone is different. Maybe you’ve made a habit of going to the gym first thing in the morning and training on an empty stomach. Some people can get away with it. In my late 20s and early 30s, I used to be able to hit the gym first thing in the morning and perform about 45 minutes of intense weight training and sometimes even follow that with an additional 20 minutes of interval training. Now if I don’t eat something I feel like hell. It could be that when we are younger we have a higher tolerance for things like that. It could be that our bodies simply adapt to nutritional stresses the same way it adapts to any other stress that we place on them. I tend to believe in the latter. 20,000 years ago we probably went hungry a lot, but we still had to hunt our next meal, chase it down and kill it.
Nowadays though, we don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. We’re more results oriented so we can manipulate our diets and nutritional practices to give us the results we want. I know when I eat something before I lift, I feel stronger, I can lift more and I can work harder. That’ll translate to greater results. Nowadays that’s really all that any of us want.