The key is paying attention to how your eating strategies affect your own workouts and, if necessary, tweaking them to see whether that makes you feel any better.
“The main problem I see with preworkout nutrition is people trying to follow generic recommendations without paying attention to how their body responds,” Andrews says. “A piece of fruit might be the right choice for you, but can leave someone else feeling weak and sluggish. You might find that a protein smoothie leaves you feeling crampy and bloated during a workout, but it’s the perfect choice for your workout partner.”
Still, there are some guidelines you can look to: Most people benefit from eating a full meal about two hours before training, says Andrews, and may supplement with a small snack about an hour before exercise.
If three or more hours pass since your last meal or snack, your blood sugar will drop, which can make you feel sluggish, low-energy, and unmotivated, says Andrews. Feeling hungry can also derail your desire to train, and the intensity at which you can do so, says Alex Harrison, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., a sports performance coach for Renaissance Periodization.
But if you eat too close to your workout—like a meal within a half hour of start time—you may end up experiencing GI distress because your gut is still working hard to digest the meal, says Andrews. (This can be a bigger problem with workouts like HIIT or running, which tend to jostle the stomach more than lighter-intensity workouts do.)
Most likely, you’ll need to do some experimentation based on these tenets (and maybe even loop in a registered dietitian, if your budget allows), Andrews suggests. The main strategy here is to track what you eat, at what time, and how you feel during each workout to pinpoint what works and what doesn’t.
5. Tweak your warm-up to finish strong.
When you think of a warm-up, stretching probably comes to mind. But static stretches—think the gym-class staple of bending over to touch your toes—and ballistic stretches (which involve bouncing up and down) actually aren’t the best choice, says Harrison. That’s because you’re trying to stretch a “cold” muscle, which doesn’t prime your muscles for the necessary movement of your workout, and may even increase your injury risk because your muscles aren’t really ready for more intense activity.
Instead, think about warming up by performing the specific movements you’ll be doing in the workout, he says, since those will be the muscles working and the range of motion you’ll be using.
If you’re doing strength training, Harrison suggests starting with about five minutes of light cardio to get your blood flowing, whether it’s brisk walking or a few sets of dynamic moves like jumping jacks. Then you can continue with light, movement-specific warm-up sets using much less weight than you will for your actual workout. So if you’re starting with a 20-pound goblet squats, you might want to work your way through a set first of bodyweight squats, and then maybe holding a 10-pound weight.
“In general, the heavier the weight is, the more warm-up sets you need,” he says. “If you’re sore or stiff from previous training, add a rep or two to each warm-up set, or an additional set, and take a little longer rest between sets.”
If you’re doing cardio instead of strength that day, you still want to focus on doing a warm-up specific to your range of motion—check out this five-minute warm-up before a run, for example. For a workout that’s more of a circuit-training focus, you can still get dynamic by blending these together, Harrison suggests, like doing jumping jacks and then lunges and arm circles.
“In general, just keep in mind that your prep is part of your workout,” says Thomas. “Getting in the right mind-set, having a plan, knowing the preworkout food that seems to be right for you, it’s all essential. Your workout doesn’t start as soon as you begin moving—it starts when you begin getting ready.”