Ever wondered exactly what to do before a workout?
You know the questions, “Should I eat before working out?” or “Should I stretch before exercising?” Oh, and if tired, “Should I take a power nap before crushing said workout?”
With so much information and too-good-to-be-true products circulating the internet, it can be difficult to discern, well, anything in the fitness space nowadays! This can create chaos for the folks simply trying to create a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise.
Thankfully, we have no interest in promoting certain pre- and post-workout products. Really, we simply want to relay evidenced-based practice recommendations.
Discover the scientific basis of what not to do before working out along with proper, realistic solutions!
3 Things to Never Do Before a Workout
Before working out do NOT…
- Eat a high-fat meal
- Static stretch
- Take a nap
Read on for detailed explanations of these exercise wrongdoings!
1. Eat a High Fat Meal
While the ketogenic diet craze continues to entice the masses, this very high-fat and extremely low-carb eating style likely will not lend a good workout. In fact, it will probably hinder it.
Healthy fats are abundantly nutritious and contribute to many positive health effects within the body, but they exert little positive benefit for working muscles. Muscles require quick energy to properly sustain a workout. The quickest energy form is carbohydrates, while fat earns last place. Fat boasts numerous functions, but many of them such as keeping us satiated (feeling full) and regulating body temperature are not helpful right before a workout.
Many long endurance athletes have anecdotally described times they consumed eggs, cheese, and bacon before an event… Only to describe the worst race/event they ever had. Despite the notion that fat can better sustain long endurance pursuits, the evidence is meak and evidence suggests sticking with bagels, toast, and pasta for a pre-workout meal.
Instead Do This:
Eating before a workout can be helpful for sustaining energy, keeping blood sugars stable, and controlling hunger post-workout. But eating fat before a workout might need some reconsideration.
While healthy, rethink consuming seeds, nuts, avocado, and some cuts of meat before a workout. Instead, stick to quick digesting carbohydrates and moderate protein (if any). Carbs fill glycogen stores, or carbs stored in muscle, while protein delivers amino acids to help build muscle.
For strength training sessions, eat carbohydrates that digest quickly such as bread, cereal, and granola. Also consider adding in a moderate protein source. As for long endurance pursuits, focus on quick digesting carbs without much fiber.
Fiber is one of the most nutritious aspects of longer-lasting carbs, but not helpful when muscles need fuel and blood flow. Digestion requires similar fuel and blood flow as working muscles, and fiber utilizes an abundance of both. That being said, fiber is a wonderful food substance nearly any other time except a few hours before a workout!
An example pre-workout meal is an english muffin with minimal butter and egg whites atop. Other pre-workout snack ideas include Greek yogurt with berries and a smoothie for on-the-go. As for
2. Static Stretch
Stretching is recommended before and after workouts, but there are many types of stretching one can do. These mostly include static or “holding” stretches and dynamic stretches that involve slow and controlled movement.
A slew of research shows that static stretching before a workout can inhibit the amount of force a muscle can produce and limit peak physical performance. This especially serves true if the exercise requires fast twitch muscles like sprinting or jumping.
A few theories exist as to why static stretching before a workout hinders performance:
- One of the most popular ones states that static stretching simply tires out the muscles. Holding a static stretch is quite similar to holding an isometric exercise such as a plank, so this is plausible!
- Static stretching also activates certain neural pathways and mechanisms that might confuse the body into acting inappropriately, believing it is time to rest and quite literally stretch the muscles rather than prepare them to work forcefully (McMillian).
Instead Do This:
While stretching is not a prudent activity right before a workout, skipping a warm-up practice may be even worse! All muscle groups want to be warmed up via similar movement as the intended exercise to prepare them and the brain for optimal performance. The muscles act similarly to an oven; they need to be stimulated (warmed up/preheated) to perform at full capacity.
Dynamic stretches and movements that similarly mimic the exercise about to take place is sufficient enough. Dedicating even just five minutes towards priming muscles will not only help performance but will also reduce risk of injury.
What might this look like? For a long endurance event like running or cycling, a dynamic warm up might include:
- A mile walk
- Some short sprints
- A couple dynamic movements like skipping or touching toes while walking
For strength based endeavors, a short cardio warm up will still prime and prep muscles. However, something more tailored will reduce risk of injury and lend better performance even moreso.
There are infinite dynamic warm-up routines, so it is best to seek assistance from a qualified professional or develop one tailored for specific goals. But overall, stretching can help treat and prevent sore muscles when done correctly and with intent.
Take a Nap
It may seem counterintuitive, but napping before hitting the gym is not best practice. While a short 20-minute cat nap likely will not hinder performance too much, a longer 45 to 90-minute nap could.
The body undergoes different sleep cycles and stages, even in as little as 45 minutes. Certain hormones are released, muscles repaired, etc. This actually requires a lot of energy, which is why some claim they wake up more tired after taking a nap. Not only this, but if someone suddenly awakens during a deeper stage of sleep, it may take a while to regain full consciousness and performance ability.
Naps and sleep in general are intended to help the body rest and repair. These functions are best facilitated after a workout, not before!
Instead Do This:
Does the afternoon roll around and exercising after work seem like a feat too big for even a giant? Rather than officially taking a nap, allow some time to rest and recuperate by setting intentions for the workout.
Consider journaling about the intentions or saying positive mantras/quotes to revamp the motivation to workout. Many people also find jamming to some music sets the “mood” to crush a workout, and science also backs this!
So instead of shutting eye and potentially entering too deep of a sleep, consider playing some upbeat music to pump up the heart. Take it a step further by eliciting a dance party with said music and using this as a warm up! (Win-win!)
None of the above strategies are new or earth shattering. They are, though, evidence-based and will lead to an effective, results-driven workout.
Using a combination of common sense, experience (positive and negative), and the above proposals will prime the body to move adequately. It can also help prevent injury, optimize range of motion, and support muscle growth.
So now, go ahead and walk, sprint, or strength train your way to a healthy life and abled body!
Armstrong, Brock. Why Pre-Workout Static Stretching Is Actually Dangerous. Quick and Dirty Tips, Get-Fit Guy, 2 Apr. 2020, www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/exercise/why-pre-workout-static-stretching-is-actually-dangerous?page=1.
Lacke, Susan. How to Take a Better Nap. Triathlete, 7 Feb. 2020, www.triathlete.com/training/build-better-nap/.
Mcmillian, Danny J., et al. Dynamic vs. Static-Stretching Warm Up: The Effect on Power and Agility Performance. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 20, no. 3, 2006, p. 492., doi:10.1519/18205.1.