A pre-workout shake provides easily digested nutrition.

Complex Carbohydrates for a Pre-Workout Shake

by Andrea Boldt

You've been so busy all day with errands, play dates and picking up the house that you didn't have time to eat a full lunch. Before you hit your afternoon workout, fuel up with a pre-workout shake that digests easily, but will keep you steadily fueled for an hour or longer. A shake should include some simple sugars, such as a splash of juice, to provide instant energy, but add complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains and vegetables, too. Complex carbohydrates provide long-lasting fuel so you'll have energy near the middle and end of your workout.

Whole Grains

Whole grains may not be the first ingredient that comes to mind for a pre-workout shake, but you can add cooked or dry oatmeal, wheat germ or even whole-wheat cereal to a shake to make it filling. Your body takes time to digest whole grains, so the energy from these carbs persists throughout your workout. Whole grains are a source of fiber, so don't add too much or you might find your workout interrupted by stomach upset. For a one-serving shake, blend together 1 cup pineapple juice, 1/2 of a banana, 1/2 cup vanilla yogurt, 1/2 cup strawberries and 1 tablespoon of wheat germ. You can also make a filling, pre-workout smoothie with 1/4 cup raw, rolled oats to 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 of a banana and 1/2 cup frozen strawberries.


Waxy Maize and SuperStarch, found in certain pre-workout powdered mixes, provide you with easily absorbed carbohydrates. Unlike simple carbs, such as those found in sports drinks and gels, these corn-derived starches prevent spikes in the hormone insulin, notes Jeff S. Volek, PhD, RD. A small study, published in the journal "Nutrition" in June 2011, confirmed that ingestion of the SuperStarch prior to prolonged cycling also increased the breakdown of fat compared to a pre-workout maltodextrin-based product. The theory is that if you can better access your fat stores, you'll have access to more energy for your entire workout and improve your body composition, but research is still inconclusive on these hypotheses. Superstarches consumed pre-workout may also reduce incidences of digestive distress caused by over consumption of simple sugars pre-workout, but this has not been proven scientifically. If you want to try one of these SuperStarch products, blend a scoop of these starches into almost any shake.

Veggies and Fruits

Fruits and vegetables are natural complex carbohydrates that add sweetness and texture to a pre-workout shake. Frozen berries, bananas, pineapple, papaya, apples, pears and citrus fruits work well. A handful of spinach or kale provides a nutrient boost as well as antioxidants which can diminish inflammation. If you have a high-powered blender, you can add a carrot for vitamin A or a cucumber to up the water content of your shake as well.

Other Ingredients

Ice, milk (cow’s or an alternative), yogurt and a natural sweetener, such as honey, round out any recipe for your shake. You don't need to add extra protein in the form of whey or soy to a pre-workout shake. Save that for afterwards when your muscles need the amino acids for recovery and repair. Protein takes longer to digest than carbs and will not provide you with energy you need to power through your routine. A small amount of protein, from the milk and yogurt, is fine and will provide some amino acids to jump start repair during your workout -- especially if you are lifting weights.

About the Author

Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.

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