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Pre-Workout

Sports scientists love to talk about ‘windows of opportunity’, which are the specific periods of time where you can alter your nutrition, training, recovery and other factors to maximise your performance or gains from the workout. There are four fundamental windows of opportunity; the pre-workout period, the intra-workout period, the post-workout period and the rest of your day.

In terms of the pre-workout period, this extends from anywhere between 10 minutes to almost 4 hours prior to a workout where you can potentially alter factors to obtain a better workout or to promote improved results. Here are some of top tips for making the most out of this pre-workout period.

Tip 1 - Grab a Coffee

The past 10 years or so has seen a dramatic rise in the use of caffeine and other stimulants in order to benefit performance prior to a workout. Just take a look at the range and prevalence of pre-workout supplements in the market today. While countless studies have been amassed, results have been baffling with evidence both for and against its use as an ergogenic aid in terms of resistance based exercise.

In terms of aerobic based training, caffeine ingestion prior to exercise has consistently been shown to result in improved performance including enhanced endurance capacity, increase power performance and a lowered rating or perceived exertion. Studies looking at caffeine’s effects on weight training or resistance exercise haven’t been as clear but may be able to increase exercises performed to failure and reduce the feelings of difficulty of the exercise as well as muscle pain1.

At the very least, caffeine definitely has the ability to improve focus, attention and wakefulness, 3 factors which are crucial whether you’re doing cardio, weights or playing a sport.

Here are some top tips for using caffeine as a training aid:

  • For an untrained individual – your body is quite reactive and will gain results at a dramatic rate regardless. In fact, caffeine consumption prior to exercise may put you at risk of overtraining.
  • For a trained individual – consuming 2.5-7mg/kg of bodyweight of caffeine has been shown to be able to offer ergogenic benefits. Anything over 9mg/kg of bodyweight of caffeine increases the appearance of adverse symptoms and also puts you at risk of failing tests by many sporting associations2.
  • A lower dose of 3mg/kg of bodyweight is ideal for those who are untrained or those who don’t consume caffeine regularly.
  • A dose of 5-7mg/kg of bodyweight is seen as the ideal dose for trained populations.
  • It is best to consume the caffeine 1 hour prior to exercise in one go and there should be at least 6-15 hours separating your last ingestion of caffeine for the most pronounced effects.

Tip 2 - Avoid Fructose Before a Run

Fructose is a lot like that quiet kid in class; you’re not sure about him, but if you get to know him, he’s actually pretty cool. Fructose, one of the three simple sugars that we eat (the others being glucose and galactose) is by no means the ‘devil’ of sugars as much as the media portrays it to be3. While high fructose corn syrup is a culprit for metabolic changes leading to metabolic syndrome, obesity and diabetes, moderate consumption of fructose is considered a part of a healthy diet.

Consuming fructose before exercise however may alter your substrate utilisation or in layman’s terms, the fuel that you use or burn during exercise. A recent study4 examined three different meals consumed before a bout of moderate intensity aerobic exercise. One was a low GI (glycaemic index) meal without fructose, one was a low GI meal with fructose and one was a high GI meal without fructose.

The study was able to show that both the high GI and low GI with fructose meals resulted in higher use of carbohydrates as a fuel over fat. On the other hand, the low GI meal without the glucose led to higher rates of fat burning and lower rates of carbohydrate oxidation, a potential benefit for endurance trainers aiming at reducing fatigue and producing occasional bursts of high intensity activity.

Here are some main points regarding fructose use and exercise:

  • Prior to exercise, consider a low GI meal without fructose if you were aiming for fat/weight loss.
  • Foods generally high in fructose include dried fruits, honey, salad dressings, soft drinks and sauces.
  • Fructose isn’t all bad however, it can help lower the GI of an everyday meal, helping to promote more sustained blood sugar levels throughout the day.

Tip 3 - A Spoonful of Fat

While a ‘spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down’, a spoonful of fat can help reduce your chances of getting sick in the first place. Consuming fat prior to your workouts has two main benefits.

  • It can help alter your fuel oxidation similar to consumption of carbohydrates. Consuming fat prior to a workout can increase the overall amount of lipid oxidation during exercise5.
  • In addition, if this fat came from a source rich in omega 3 fatty acids, it can also help alleviate post-exercise increases in inflammatory markers which can potentially help improve recovery time6,7, important since frequency of exercise is often seen as the limiting factor between average gains and high gains.

Here are some top tips for using fat as a training aid:

  • A spoonful or two of flaxseed oil, also known as linseed oil added to a protein shake can help you get an adequate amount of fat to kickstart fat metabolism without altering the taste.
  • Avoid using sources of fat high in saturated fat levels such as palm oil.
  • Fat can also lower the GI of a meal, which can further help to alter your fuel use to burn more fat as mentioned in the previous point.
  • Generally high fat diets are not recommended as they are highly calorie dense and regardless of the type of fat can cause adverse changes in lipid levels.

Tip 4 - Eggplant Juice

Aside from having countless names (eggplant, aubergine, melonge, guinea squash), eggplants are also very close relatives to tobacco. In fact, 9kg of eggplant contains the same amount of nicotine as cigarette. They also contain high levels of anthocyanins, special compounds found in dark coloured plants, fruits and vegetables which have strong antioxidative and anti-inflammatory potential.

Other foods high in anthocyanins include berries and black soybeans. One study8 in fact examining the use of blueberries prior to a long bout of intense exercise was able to show a reduction in the amount of oxidative stress and anti-inflammatory markers. As the immune system is often depressed after intense exercise, perhaps consuming some berries or an eggplant can help improve your immunity so that you can recover faster after a hard gym session.

Here are some top tips for using anthocyanins as a training aid:

  • Eat plenty of fruits and veges with vivid and dark purple, black and red colours.
  • To avoid destroying these pigments, eat as close to the natural state of the food as possible, ie less cooking or heating.
  • Chewing more thoroughly and/or juicing will help release the pigments and the anthocyanins, but make sure you include the pulp.

Tip 5 - Sprint For Strength

Many people tend to warm up before starting their exercise session. Warm ups have the benefit of increasing blood flow circulation, body temperature and joint flexibility which can help reduce the risk of muscular strains and sprains. While there are different forms of warm ups from dynamic stretching to some light cardiovascular work, the general consensus is to have a short (~10 mins) and light-moderate intensity warm up.

While increased volume of cardiovascular exercise can limit strength performance, a short sprint prior to a resistance session may be able to actually increase strength performance. A recent study9 was able to show that a short 40 second cycle sprint improved bench press strength without affecting lower leg strength.

So why not shave minutes from your warm up routine and attain greater gains by incorporating a sprint or two into your session.

Here are some top tips for using sprints as a training aid:

  • Even though the sprints are considered a warm up, make sure you have a minute or two of low intensity cycling before attacking the sprint. This will help avoid potential injuries.
  • As sprinting is tough on the respiratory system, ensure you get your breath back before attempting heavy lifts.
  • Upper body sprints using the arms such as on an arm crank ergometer has not been shown as being beneficial for lower leg strength.

Get Prepared

The pre-workout period is an amazing period of time to manipulate in order to offer you plenty of ergogenic and recovery potential. So before working out, think about what you can do so you can reap the full potential out of your workout.

1. Michael J. Duncan, Michelle Stanley, Natalie Parkhouse, Kathryn Cook & Mike Smith (2011): Acute caffeine ingestion enhances strength performance and reduces perceived exertion and muscle pain perception during resistance exercise, European Journal of Sport Science, DOI:10.1080/17461391.2011.635811
2. Kreider RB et al. ‘ISSN exercise & sport nutrition review: research & recommendations.’ J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010; 7: 7.
3. See article on Carbohydrate Myths – http://www.mrsupplement.com.au/carbohydrate-myths
4. Sun FH, Wong SH, Huang YJ, Chen YJ, Tsang KF. ‘Substrate utilization during brisk walking is affected by glycemic index and fructose content of a pre-exercise meal.’ Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Nov 12. [Epub ahead of print]
5. Burke L. M., and B. Kiens. "Fat adaptation" for athletic performance - the nail in the coffin? Journal of Applied Physiology 100: 7-8, 2006.
6. Tartibian B, Maleki BH, Abbasi A. ‘Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation attenuates inflammatory markers after eccentric exercise in untrained men.’ Clin J Sport Med. 2011 Mar;21(2):131-7.
7. Jouris KB et al. ‘The effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on the inflammatory response to eccentric strength exercise.’ Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2011) 10, 432 – 438
8. McAnulty LS, Nieman DC, Dumke CL, Shooter LA, Henson DA, Utter AC, Milne G, McAnulty SR. ‘Effect of blueberry ingestion on natural killer cell counts, oxidative stress, and inflammation prior to and after 2.5 h of running.’ Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2011 Dec;36(6):976-84. Epub 2011 Nov 23.
9. Crewther BT, Cook CJ, Lowe TE, Weatherby RP, Gill N. ‘The effects of short-cycle sprints on power, strength, and salivary hormones in elite rugby players.’ J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jan;25(1):32-9.
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