5 Best Foods to Eat Before a Workout

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marek-before-and-after-transformation

The food you eat has a significant impact not only on how you look but also on how you perform.

By eating the right foods, you’ll have more energy, a clearer mind, and you’ll also perform significantly better at the gym.

And to put it simply, there are many correct ways that you can set up your pre-workout meals. Usually, the most common approach is to combine protein and carbs before a workout by eating something like chicken and rice, or scrambled eggs, Ezekiel bread, and veggies, or oatmeal combined with a scoop of protein powder and berries.

But instead of listing out all the healthy proteins, carbs, and fats that you can eat before a workout, you probably already know about, I want to go over 6 exceptional foods and beverages that are proven to have fascinating effects on your performance. 

Red Hot Chili Peppers

And the first food category with some very unique effects is hot peppers. Capsaicin is the compound that makes chili peppers hot.

According to research consuming that capsaicin before a workout increases the number of reps you can do per set.1 I know that might sound crazy, but it’s true.

The researchers had ten trained men do squats on two separate occasions. Both of these times, the participants did four sets using a challenging weight load, and they rested for one and a half minutes between sets.

pre-workout-foods-hot-pepper-study

The only difference was that on one occasion, they took 12 milligrams of capsaicin 45 minutes before starting the workout, and the other time they took a placebo instead. Surprisingly enough, the participants who took capsaicin before their workout were able to complete more reps during their sets than taking the placebo.2

capsaicin-placebo-workout-study

How does capsaicin improve performance? 

And there are three possible explanations for how the capsaicin can improve performance.

The first one is that it might raise your pain threshold. For example, capsaicin is used as a pain reliever for neuropathic conditions, which are usually diseases that affect the nervous system and cause pain. Its ability to increase someone’s pain threshold may explain why the participants reported feeling like they didn’t struggle as much when they took capsaicin instead of the placebo. This heightened pain threshold may have been what allowed them to complete more reps.”3

Another explanation for its ability to increase performance can be traced back to its effect on calcium being released from muscle cells and the boost it provides to your central nervous system.

The Bottom Line…

Now, to actually feel these benefits, you will have to eat quite a bit of chili pepper. So, for many people, a supplement might be a better option.

However, suppose you don’t mind spicy foods. In that case, I recommend going with oleoresin red peppers because they have a high capsaicin content. A study found that there are 60 milligrams of capsaicin in a gram of oleoresin red peppers. Which means you’ll only have to eat a quarter of a gram to feel the benefits.4

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Of course, regular chili peppers and red peppers are still an option. Nevertheless, if you go that route, you’ll have to eat a lot more of them since chili peppers only have 0.1 mg of capsaicin per gram, and red peppers contain about 2.5 milligrams per gram.5

Beetroot

Next, we have beetroot. People often take L-Citrulline before a workout to improve blood flow. Still, very few people know that beetroot works just as well or maybe even better.

beetroots-l-citrulline-before-workout-benefits

Beetroot contains nitrates. And nitrates are natural chemicals that get broken down into nitrites in your body, which can then become nitric oxide. Now nitric oxide is a molecule that stimulates vasodilation, meaning it relaxes your blood vessels’ inner muscles. This leads to an improvement in blood flow. That’s why consuming beetroot before a workout can actually help you get a bigger “pump.” Plus, it can also improve workout performance.

Studies show us that nitrate supplementation improves aerobic endurance, energy output, muscle recovery between sets, and potentially also anaerobic endurance.6

The one problem is that it might be hard to eat enough beetroot to get the required amount of nitrates for it to be effective. But fortunately, there is a solution.

beetroot-juice-before-workouts

You can turn raw beetroots into beetroot juice and drink it. About 500 milliliters of beetroot juice is enough to feel the benefits. And that’s usually the amount that’s used in studies.

Now, if you want to try this, it’s best to drink the beetroot juice two to three hours before your workout because the evidence shows us that blood nitrate levels peak within about two to three hours after having the beetroot.7

Casein

Moving on to the next category—casein.

Several studies show that eating protein alone or with carbs before exercising increases muscle protein synthesis.8

One of these studies found a positive muscle building response after consuming 20 grams of whey protein before a workout.9 According to this study, to reap the benefits of a pre-workout protein shake, you need around 30 grams to do the trick. So it’s very common for weight lifters and bodybuilders to get their pre-workout protein in the form of whey.

study-food-before-workout-casein-vs-whey

Most people believe that since whey digests faster than casein its must be better than casein before a workout.

But that’s not actually true. While whey produces a more significant spike in muscle protein synthesis, it doesn’t enhance this muscle protein synthesis for as long as casein does. So over time, the total increase in muscle protein synthesis between whey and casein tends to be the same. Meaning, in that regard, one isn’t better than the other.

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But with that said, whey is not as good as casein at preventing muscle protein breakdown.10 This makes casein the better pre-workout protein for gaining strength and muscle when compared to whey.

And we can see this being confirmed in a study that looked at the changes in body fat and muscle mass in overweight police officers. They followed a calorie-deficit diet with a high protein intake while also lifting weights throughout the week. They divided the cops into groups. One group had a casein protein product. In contrast, the other group had whey.

overweight-police-study-casein-vs-whey

And after 12 weeks, the casein group gained, on average, almost 9 pounds of lean muscle mass while the whey group gained only 4 and a half pounds.11

The casein group was also able to increase their chest, shoulder, and leg strength by 59 percent throughout the study.

In comparison, the whey protein group only increased their strength by 29 percent, which is a significant difference.12

The researchers believe that this significant difference in body composition and strength is most likely due to improved nitrogen retention and overall anticatabolic effects caused by the casein’s peptide component.13

To put it simply, casein was better at preventing muscle protein breakdown, making it a superior choice pre-workout since your workout will drastically increase muscle protein breakdown. So, maybe consider having some casein before your workout and combining it with something like oatmeal and skim milk.

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Oatmeal

Speaking of oatmeal, it’s actually our next food. And the thing is that current research is mixed on pre-workout carbs.

Some research suggests that they aid performance while others show no benefit.14 And while training clients, I’ve found that individual response is also mixed. Some people benefit from consuming carbs before their workouts, while others don’t. So, feel free to experiment.

However, given that healthy carbs have no real adverse effects on your workouts, they may possibly have some benefits.

oatmeal-calorie-deficit-glycogen-stores-muscle

You may want to try having a carb like oatmeal before your workout, especially if you’re dieting. That’s because a calorie deficit reduces your muscle glycogen stores. So, when you’re dieting, there’ll be less energy available for your muscles to use.

By having pre-workout carbs, you can somewhat replenish that glycogen, which may improve performance.

For example, a 2017 study compared a group of lifters with 28 grams of carbs before and after training to a group of lifters with 28 grams of protein without carbs before and after training. And the group that had the carbs experienced improved muscular endurance even after eight weeks of calorie-restricted dieting.15

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Why are oats a great pre-workout food?

So carbs can help, but you may be wondering why oats, in particular, are an excellent food to eat before workouts?

Well, there are two main reasons.

First, they contain a decent amount of fiber, which slows down the rate at which the carbs get absorbed. As a result, the glycogen gets released into your bloodstream gradually. This prevents mild symptoms of low blood sugar during training that you might experience if you have faster-digesting carbs instead, like fruit juice or honey, for example.

The second reason oatmeal is an especially great pre-workout carb is that it also contains a decent amount of protein, unlike most other carbs.

According to data from the US Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of raw oats has 13.2 grams of protein.16

Coffee

Next is coffee with L-Theanine.

Many people think that pre-workout formulas are super complicated, but the truth is that caffeine happens to be the workhorse that’s responsible for almost all the acute effects of most pre-workout supplements.

So to feel most of these short-term stimulatory effects, you could just drink coffee and save yourself some cash. Especially since most pre-workout supplements use low doses of lesser proven ingredients to piggyback off of the effects of caffeine.

Benefits of L-Theanine

Now to get the absolute most out of your coffee, consider adding L-Theanine to it.

L-Theanine is an amino acid found in tea leaves. And studies show that L-Theanine enhances caffeine’s positive effects while reducing the negative aspects like increased anxiety, increased blood pressure, reduced sleep.17

The general recommended ratio of caffeine to L-Theanine is 1 to 2. So, for every average cup of coffee, add 200 milligrams of L-Theanine. That should be a good ratio for most people.

l-theanine-coffee-dose-workout

Although, if the L-Theanine calms you too much, you can instead do a 1 to 1 ratio, so 100 milligrams of L-Theanine per cup.

Also, an important thing to keep in mind is that caffeine will only enhance performance if you haven’t built up a tolerance yet. That’s why it’s best to limit caffeine intake to once or twice a week if you want to use it to really boost gym performance. If you have it more often than that, it tends to lead to tolerance.

Luckily if you feel that you’ve already built up a tolerance to caffeine, you can abstain from all caffeine sources for two weeks, which should be long enough to reset your tolerance.

How much caffeine is recommended?

Now, you might be wondering how caffeine is so beneficial for your workout performance? Well, it’s proven to help with suppressing fatigue while increasing focus, strength, power, and endurance.18

In studies, researchers generally have participants take between 3 and 6 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight before exercising.

If you weigh 80 kilograms, which is about 175 pounds, that would be between 240 and 480 milligrams of caffeine. Let’s face it, most people aren’t going to stand there measuring the amount of caffeine in their coffee.

caffeine-required-per-kg-bodyweight

The amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee can vary based on how it’s made. But there is about an average of 95 milligrams of caffeine in an 8-ounce regular cup of coffee. That would mean you would need 2 and a half to 5 cups of coffee to reach the clinical amount of caffeine used to study it’s pre-workout effects.

Keep in mind that an 8-ounce cup is much smaller than the mug or cup you probably use for coffee, so don’t go overboard.

Either way, it may seem like a lot, and I’d say that for many people who haven’t built up a tolerance to caffeine, it may definitely be too much and can cause anxiety and jitters.

caffeine-dose-per-8-ounce-cup-workout

So instead, one or two average-sized cups of coffee are generally enough for a regular person who doesn’t have a massive tolerance to caffeine.

Luckily, if you feel that you’ve already built up a tolerance to caffeine, you can abstain from all caffeine sources for two weeks, which should be long enough to reset your tolerance.

Watermelon

Last but not least is watermelon, and I’m not going to spend much time on watermelon because it has many of the same benefits as beetroot and can actually be used as an alternative to beetroots.

Watermelon is even considered by many to be the world’s best source of citrulline, which, as we talked about earlier, is an amino acid that boosts nitric oxide production.

watermelon-alternative-to-beetroot

When you consume citrulline, your body converts it into arginine, which then becomes nitric oxide. That nitric oxide improves blood flow.

Research indicates that citrulline can actually enhance your gym performance in three different ways.

That’s by increasing blood flow to your muscles,19 helping your muscles clear out ammonia, which happens to actually be a marker of muscle fatigue,20 and increasing your energy levels while reducing lactic acid accumulation, which is that burning sensation you feel when fatigue starts setting in.21

Concluding Notes

Those are 6 unique pre-workout foods that you can eat to boost performance and, in turn, get better results.

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References

[1] Lifters that consume capsaicin, the compound that makes chilli peppers hot, before their workout can do more reps per set, according Brazilian sports scientists at Sao Paulo State University.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28682933/

[2] The participants completed more reps during their sets when they had taken capsaicin, as you can see in the following image:
capsaicin-chili-peppers-performance-workout

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28682933/

[3]“Ratings of perceived exertion were lower in the capsaicin condition compared to the placebo condition, which suggests that capsaicin supplementation may have increased the pain threshold thus leading to the greater repetitions performed.”
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28682933/

[4]“60 mg/g in oleoresin red pepper”
https://www.mdpi.com/1420-3049/16/10/8919/pdf#:~:text=Their%20concentrations%20typically%20range%20from,oleoresin%20red%20pepper%20%5B23%5D.&text=In%20another%20study%2C%20cayenne%20pepper,weight%2C%20respectively%20%5B25%5D.

[5]“0.1 mg/g in chili pepper to 2.5 mg/g in red pepper”
https://www.mdpi.com/1420-3049/16/10/8919/pdf#:~:text=Their%20concentrations%20typically%20range%20from,oleoresin%20red%20pepper%20%5B23%5D.&text=In%20another%20study%2C%20cayenne%20pepper,weight%2C%20respectively%20%5B25%5D.

[6] Studies indicate nitrate supplementation improves aerobic endurance, energy output, muscle recovery between bouts of exercise, and potentially also anaerobic endurance.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19661447/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20466802/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23370859/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22709704/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21471821/

[7] Blood nitrate levels peak within two to three hours of consumption.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23075552

[8] Some studies indicate that eating protein (alone or with carbs) prior to exercise increases muscle protein synthesis
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16896166/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11440894/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16988909/

[9] And another study showed a positive anabolic response after participants consumed 20 grams of whey protein before exercise.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16896166/

[10] While casein is decent at reducing protein breakdown, whey isn’t effective in that regard.
https://www.pnas.org/content/94/26/14930

[11] “Lean mass gains in the three groups did not change for diet alone, versus gains of 4 ± 1.4 and 2 ± 0.7 kg in the casein and whey groups, respectively.”
https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/12817

[12] “Mean increase in strength for chest, shoulder and legs was 59 ± 9% for casein and 29 ± 9% for whey, a significant group difference.”
https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/12817

[13] “This significant difference in body composition and strength is likely due to improved nitrogen retention and overall anticatabolic effects caused by the peptide components of the casein hydrolysate.”
https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/12817

[14] Some research suggests that they aid performance while others show no benefit.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10997956/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8771282
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12580676
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9480948/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8472696/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11038410/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18545201/
https://www.nature.com/articles/1600751

[15] A 2017 study found that lifters consuming 28 g of carbs before and after training, compared to a group that consumed 28 g of protein prior to and after training, had improved muscular endurance after eight weeks of calorie-restriction dieting.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28415067/

[16] According to the US Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of raw oats contains 13.2 grams of protein, which is a decent amount
https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/1101825/nutrients

[17] Studies indicate that l-theanine enhances the positive effects of caffeine while reducing the negative aspects of caffeine like anxiety, increased blood pressure, and diminished sleep.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22214254/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15378679/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16930802/

[18] The reason is that it can enhance workout performance by suppressing fatigue while increasing focus, strength, power, and endurance.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17851681/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16937961/
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1388245700004624
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11368507/

[19]Increasing blood flow to muscles.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17662090/

[20]Helping your body clear ammonia. a marker of muscle fatigue. from muscles.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1930358/

[21]Augmenting energy production during exercise while reducing the rate at which lactic acid accumulates.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12145119/

My passion for fitness began when I was 14 years old. I naturally fell in love with training and haven’t stopped since. At 18 years I acquired my first personal training certification from ACE after which I opened my first of 3 transformation studios in 2011. I love to share my knowledge through personal training, my online courses, and youtube channel now with over 3,000,000 subscribers! I can happily say that we've helped over 15,000 people get in great shape over the years. I'm always here for my customers so if you need help don't hesitate to send your questions to support@gravitychallenges.com

Founder // Gravity Transformation, Max Posternak