First of lets just make something clear. There’s no massive database of randomised double blind über- controlled studies showing these pre-workout snacks will produce superhuman performances.
So, before my spam folder is filled with undergrad students that have had a quick skim on Pubmed, hold your horses. Save yourself some time because there are only a small handful of studies at best.
What you will find though is evidence that some of the things these foods contain, do something that can ultimately lead to a great workout.
Anecdotally, some of this stuff works a treat too. Dark chocolate covered almonds being one of them. And rightly so, as you’ll soon find out why.
Personally, I’m also a fan of the placebo effect. Believing something works is a powerful thing. Most caffeine-charged pre-workouts rely on this placebo effect and contain little else that’ll give you an edge.
But if it works then it works, even if it’s via a placebo response. Let’s dig in.
We all know dark chocolate has an array of health benefits. That’s old news. What you may not know though, is the ability of dark chocolate to give you a great pump.
The natural caffeine and theobromine act as mild stimulants, while the theobromine also acts as a vasodilator.
There’s an even more interesting substance it contains though, in epicatechin.
Epicatechin is a type of flavonol, and one of the reasons why beetroot juice is great pre-workout too (we’ll get to this later). It can increase nitric oxide production, much in the same way pre-workout nitric oxide supplements may do.
In a British study it was found 40g dark chocolate allowed cyclists to perform better and use less oxygen, than a group having 40g white chocolate (Patel et al. 2015). There’s no reason to think chocolate as a workout snack can’t benefit your higher volume lifting sessions too.
Try having some almonds as a pre-workout snack. Or one step better why not combine with dark chocolate with some dark chocolate covered almonds.
Even better, how about dark chocolate covered and salted almonds!?
In a 2014 study Yi et al. showed an almond-based snack to be far superior to a carbohydrate-heavy snack (a cookie matched for calories).
Almonds allowed the subjects to sustain a higher intensity of exercise for longer. Theoretically this was due to the combination of protein and fat.
During a post-workout period it’s often recommended you keep fats to a minimum in order to maximise the amino acid and insulin response from protein and carbs. However, pre-workout snacks with a little fat could be a good thing, especially to sustain energy for longer duration sessions.
The doctrine of signatures states that a food tends to be good for the organ that it closely resembles. Walnuts for the brain, kidney beans for the kidneys, almonds for your eyes, and clams for your testicles, and so on.
I’m personally not buying, especially when clams are meant to look like testicles. But that having been said pomegranate can do a lot for your blood. Largely as a vasodilator and by enhancing blood flow.
In a 2018 review of research in the British Journal of Nutrition, it was concluded that pomegranate has the potential to confer antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects during and following exercise. It was also shown to improve cardiovascular responses during exercise, to increase endurance and strength performance, and enhance post-exercise recovery.
If you want to benefit from this then try munching on a whole pomegranate, seeds and all, 30-60 minutes before your workout. If you can’t handle the mess, then just buy the 100% squeezed juice.
Okay so partially true that this is thrown in for some unconventional-ism. But bear with me for a second, because these chirpy little guys might just put a spring in your step.
You may be looking forward to summer nights, a blazing BBQ fire and crickets chirping in the background. But what if I told you that crickets and other bugs have been a staple protein source in many cultures throughout history. And they taste pretty good.
Entomophagy – Simply the human use of insects as food, is becoming popular. So much so that you can now buy edible crickets and cricket protein powder in many food stores.
This might not be in your gym bag anytime soon, but if you’re looking for ne workout snacks then there’s a novelty idea in high-protein edible insects to consider.
There’s nothing unconventional about having a cup of Joe or necking a few shots of espresso pre-workout. How you take your caffeine might matter though.
In unprocessed coffee beans there are approximately 1000 different antioxidants, while the roasting process brings out a few hundred more. How they’re roasted and how you brew them changes the antioxidant availability.
Interestingly it’s those antioxidants and polyphenols that might enhance the potency of the caffeine found in coffee.
In 2015, Trexler et al. found that coffee improved 1RM in the leg press to a greater extent than supplemental caffeine. Both caffeine and coffee were equally as effective at improving work capacity though (i.e., the amount of reps you can perform). Interestingly, no benefits were found for the bench press exercise in this study.
Fast forward another year and Richardson et al. (2016) compared a caffeine dose-matched anhydrous caffeine, coffee, or decaffeinated coffee plus anhydrous caffeine during squat and bench press performance.
They concluded the two groups that benefitted the most were the coffee, and the decaffeinated coffee group with added caffeine. In short, the natural polyphenols and phytonutrients in coffee seem to have a complimentary effect when combined with caffeine.
Go for a well brewed cup of coffee, such as a French press (brewed around 4 minutes) or cold brew (brewed 10+ hours), or crunch on some roasted beans. Reason being the antioxidant content is higher versus other brewing methods. Although if you prefer an espresso or drip filter then you’ll still benefit.
Cashews or Pistachios
Whilst almonds make excellent pre-workout snacks due to their protein and fat content, for the best performance you should include a little carbohydrate with them too. Making protein balls with almonds, dates, cocoa and protein powder, for example.
Cashews and pistachios though, don’t have as much of a problem. If you’re strictly low carb Keto then best to avoid them, otherwise they’re a great combination of fats, carbs and a little protein.
All nuts are easily transportable, and by adding a few sprinkles of good quality salt on them also, could help with electrolyte balance. Another great muscle-pump food.
Protein – good. Carbs from rice – good. Sodium – good! There’s nothing magical in sushi apart from the combination of these three components.
There might be some benefits to your thyroid hormones from the seaweed wrap, that’s high in iodine. There are also the positive effects from high omega 3 salmon to think about.
More so though, are the great energy and pump many report from these somewhat unconventional pre-workout snacks.
For the best ratio of pre-workout macronutrients, go for a Rainbow Roll, Salmon and Avocado Roll, or California Roll.
Don’t think you’re going to grow moobs with a little soy sauce either. If you’re that worried go for coconut aminos. The little sodium will do your workout some good.
You know how the jingle goes: “beans-beans they’re good for your heart, the more you eat the more you… get a better workout”. Or something like that.
These aren’t those beans though. You don’t want your workouts fuelled by gas and air. These are jellybeans. The type you can buy from any candy store and are laced with glucose.
If you’re short on time and need a quick hit of energy (<30 minutes) before your workout, then jellybeans are an ideal travel friendly snack.
Rietschier et al. (2011) found that either jellybeans or sun-dried raisins were effective at maintaining blood glucose over 120 minutes of exercise.
Throw a packet of either of these workout snacks in your gym bag for fast energy before your next training session. For best results combine with a fast digesting protein source such as hydrolysed whey protein or EAA’s.
Named “molecule of the year” a few decades ago, nitric oxide (NO) is a cell signalling molecule that plays an important role in blood pressure and the regulation of blood sugar.
Because of this, scientists are quick to look into any foods that might increase NO levels. Largely anything that contains arginine or citrulline.
Watermelon is one of the best places to find citrulline in its natural form, with one cup of watermelon containing about 200-300mg of citrulline.
Either way that means you’ll have to eat at least 10 cups to hit optimal levels!
This is a case where supplementation might be best. But the carbohydrates, hydration and citrulline hit you’ll get from watermelon, could still make the list of useful pre-workout snacks.
Beetroot juice and extracts are popular among the endurance exercise crew. And rightly so. They’re a concentrated source of dietary nitrate and antioxidants, some of which before a heavy lifting workout can be a benefit too.
When we consume nitrate the bacteria in our saliva converts it to nitrite. Nitrite can then be converted to nitric oxide (NO), which we’ve spoken of before.
Interestingly, it’s been shown in separate studies that dietary nitrate intake had a larger impact on blood flow, oxygen partial pressure, and calcium handling in type 2 muscle fibres, than in type 1 (Hernandez 2012., Ferguson et al. 2013,. 2015). This is good news for strength and power athletes.
The only problem with NO is that the life is relatively short once it becomes available for use. Luckily, combining sources of NO like nitrate, with antioxidants help it to live longer. Antioxidants help to ‘soak up’ nearby free radicals, which allows NO to do its job.
Many of the foods we’ve mentioned today that increase NO, also help to keep NO alive due to their antioxidant levels. For this reason, foods in their real form make excellent pre-workout snacks or ingredients.
Bender et al. (2018) showed an increase in isometric force production in the mid-thigh pull (rack pull deadlift) when consuming 140ml beetroot juice versus a placebo. You’re welcome to try eating boiled beets as a pre-workout snack, but 140ml of the juice sounds more realistic and less messy.
Hitting the switch
One thing we haven’t spoken about is the psychological aspect of the pre-workout snack. Most pre-workout supplements largely rely on this alone.
Nutritional science aside, one impactful thing you could do is get in the habit of eating the same or similar snacks before your workouts.
It creates a positive feedback loop – now you’re getting this piece of chocolate before your workout, there’s a positive association with your training.
You’re more motivated for what’s to come, and those simple few squares of chocolate have put you in the right zone to start hitting some PR’s.
If you want to hit that psychological switch then it’s always a bonus if it tastes good, too!