I’d like to set the record straight regarding pre-workout nutrition. This is a tricky topic that requires a short biological and science overview, so bear with me.
A growing body of research indicates that nature selects underfed species for extended life-span and vice versa – it shortens the life expectancy of overfed species. Humans are no exception. The human body evolved to thrive under nutritional stress.
It is hard to accept the harsh reality of this phenomenon, when so many people are overfed (and overweight) and everything around seems so routinely normal. Regardless, you need to be aware of the life-extending benefits of underfeeding and fasting versus the life-shortening risk associated with overfeeding and lack of fasting. But there is more to it than that.
The Surprising Benefits of Extreme Energy Depletion
Recent research at the University of Southern California reveals that extreme intermittent fasting induces even stronger rejuvenating effects on cells and tissues than those coming from mild fasting or underfeeding; apparently due to one factor – extreme energy depletion.
Energy depletion is indeed a critical biological factor. It is one of the key reasons why calorie restriction and intermittent fasting extend animals’ life span. It also explains why exercise is so essential to your health.
According to the researchers, “cycles of extreme dietary interventions (intermittent fasting) represent powerful means to modulate key regulators of cellular protection and tissue regeneration…”
Under conditions of energy depletion, organisms seem supercharged for survival. Science has been recognizing that as a fact. Nonetheless, it is the level of energy depletion that apparently determines how far organisms can manage to adapt, improve and better survive.
What does it mean to you? This means that you can literally transform your body to better survive and resist age-related deterioration by depleting your energy reserves.
Why Intermittent Fasting and Exercise Produce Such Great Results
What you need is to deplete your glycogen stores and signal your body that it’s under energy deficit. To grant maximum depletion of energy, you have to apply both nutritional and physical stress. Meaning: you need to intermittently fast and you need to exercise while fasting (intermittent fasting means one main meal per day).
Your body will perceive the energy deficit as a life threat that must be dealt with and it will compensate accordingly. This is how that works: as you intermittently fast and exercise, your glycogen stores are depleted in a rate which is substantially more rapid than fasting alone.
A short intense 30 minutes drill of exercise while intermittently fasting, for instance, can potentially yield an energy depleting impact equivalent to that of a whole day fast.
Though this hasn’t been tested yet, empirical evidence indicates that exercise while fasting is notably more effective than fasting alone (or exercise alone) in depleting glycogen.
The reason: intense exercise while fasting depletes glycogen faster than the body can replenish; whereas fasting alone allows the body some replenishment by converting fat and protein into glycogen.
Depletion of glycogen is not an easy process. It requires discipline and tolerance of hardship. Your body will try to hold on to its energy reserves and you’ll certainly feel that resistance.
Once you reach a point of physical paralysis (as you exercise while fasting), when the burn and fatigue take over your muscle and you become lightheaded, that’s when you know that your glycogen reserves are practically gone.
Pushing Your Body Into Survival Mode Triggers Massive Metabolic Transformation
It is the utter depletion of glycogen stores in your muscle and liver which triggers your stress response to swiftly kick in and put your body in a survival mode. It is that extreme energy deficit which turns on metabolic pathways to compensate your body with robust improvements in energy utilization efficiency, repair activities, and resistance to stress.
Under such condition, your body switches from carbohydrate to fat fueling; and energy is shifted from storage to expenditure. It is now known that that shift towards fatty acid oxidation creates an ideal metabolic environment for stem cells regeneration and tissue repair. And while fat oxidation increases and fat synthesis is inhibited, your body goes through massive transformation.
The result: decreased body fat, reduced inflammation, increased insulin sensitivity, enhanced repair, and improved immune functions. This is what happens to your body when you intermittently fast and exercise. But all that can be utterly jeopardized by wrong pre-workout nutrition.
Wrong Pre-Workout Nutrition
Unfortunately most pre-workout meals – shakes, bars, and drinks are plain wrong and counter-effective. What makes them wrong is the fuel. High glycemic fuels in particular. Pre-workout meals that are high glycemic or loaded with simple carbs shatter your ability to deplete energy. Carb loading prior to exercise will inhibit fat burning and abolish the impact of your exercise even if it enhances short-term performance.
Wrong fuel will compromise your capacity to lean down, utilize energy, sensitize your insulin, and rejuvenate. So what is the right pre-workout nutrition? How can you nourish your muscle prior to training and boost energy without jeopardizing your chance to burn fat and improve?
Right Pre-Workout Nutrition
Certain nutrients have shown to mimic the effects of fasting and exercise. They belong to a group called stress-activated food nutrients or SAF nutrients. These dietary compounds are produced by live food species in response to stress. They serve to protect organisms, plants, bacteria, and animals from stressors such as starvation, radiation, heat shock, infection, and predation.
Once ingested, SAF nutrients demonstrated the capacity to increase animal and human survivability. Some of these nutrients have shown to mimic the anti-obesity, anti-diabetic, and anti-aging effects of exercise and fasting on the body. The point is, food rich in those exercise mimicking nutrients is ideal for pre-workout. Not only that it can prevent setbacks with the fat burning and healing impact of exercise, it may actually enhance that impact.
Note that some of the most potent SAF nutrients are no longer part of our diet. These hard-to-find nutrients occur in barks, roots, pits, and peels, which we don’t normally eat. However, some foods within our reach contain high levels of exercise mimicking SAF nutrients such as phenols, caffeine, theobromine, catechins, and immune proteins and thus can potentially yield powerful synergy with physical training.
Notable among them are non-GMO coffee, cocoa, and green tea. Whey protein from pasture-raised grass-fed cows is another viable option. However, it can only be used in small servings as to not disrupt glycogen depletion. Pasture-raised grass-fed cows are nutritionally stressed, periodically underfed animals, and therefore yield superior “stress activated” milk exceptionally rich in SAF nutrients such as immune proteins anti-inflammatory lactokins. (That’s unlike grain-fed cows which are constantly overfed.)
All of the above dietary sources can be useful for pre-workout. They contain nutrients that trigger the same pathways and cellular factors activated by fasting and exercise, as they promote unique exercise complementary effects which include:
- Increased fat burning
- Inhibition of fat gain
- Increased insulin sensitivity
- Decreased inflammation
Coffee, cocoa, green tea, and pasture raised grass-fed whey can be useful for pre-workout nourishment. They can be applied alone or in combination. However, they cannot be incorporated along with sugar or any glycemic ingredients which will negate their benefits and turn them counter-effective.
Ori Hofmekler is the author of The Warrior Diet, The Anti-Estrogenic Diet, Maximum Muscle Minimum Fat, and Unlock Your Muscle Gene
*Image of “young man” via Shutterstock