Your gym time is precious. Every minute of exercise counts towards achieving your goals—but what you do before you get there is actually just as important, if not more so.
How you prep for a workout can make the difference between it being a success or a struggle—and if you’re going to put in the effort to schedule regular sweat sessions, you don’t want to sabotage yourself before even lacing up your sneakers. Here are some of the pre-workout faux pas that could throw a wrench in your fitness plan, plus how to create new habits that will serve your body better.
1. Forgetting To Eat
Ever rolled out of bed to hit the gym before breakfast, or pushed dinner back to nine o’clock to squeeze in that spin class? It’s tempting to prioritize gym time over meal time, especially when your schedule is nuts—but passing up food before working out is a mistake. You don’t have to sit down for a full meal, but you should at least have a protein-rich snack before getting after it. “Part of the benefit of working out is building muscle,” explains Amy Gorin, R.D.N., owner of Gorin Nutrition.
“Eating a small amount of protein before doing a hard workout session will help support muscle growth by making amino acids available to your body so that it utilizes the protein in what you eat instead of breaking down protein in your muscles.” Gorin’s go-to snacks: a smoothie made with one cup of low-fat milk and three quarters of a cup of frozen fruit, or an English muffin topped with two tablespoons of hummus.
2. Skipping The Warm-Up
When you’re crunched for time, it’s easy to write off your warm-up and jump straight into the meat of your workout. You’ll warm up as you move anyway, right? Well, not quite. “You must warm up before a workout,” says celebrity trainer and Flywheel instructor Lacey Stone. Otherwise, you risk putting too much stress on your muscles too quickly. “There’s a reason why professional athletes take 10 or more minutes to warm up before a sporting event: If they didn’t they would most definitely get injured,” she says. “The same holds true for the average gym-goer.”
In fact, warming up is probably even more important for the average gym-goer, considering most of us spend so much of our time sitting, which causes tightness and stiffness. A good warm-up loosens up your joints and increases blood flow to your muscles, so your body is prepared to take on the stress of exercise.
Your goal: Spend at least five to 10 minutes warming up before jumping into your workouts. “Jump rope, walk, or jog on the treadmill—you want to get blood flowing to the working muscles in the body,” says Joe Holder, celebrity trainer, Nike coach, and member of The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council. “Then go joint by joint, rotating through your complete range of motion with control to get some ‘air’ into the area. Then, finish with dynamic moves like walking leg swings, squats, and lunges, to get your body used to what it will be doing during the workout.”
3. OD-ing On Fatty Foods
Take note, keto dieters! “Fat takes longer than the other macronutrients to digest, so consuming a high-fat meal right before a workout could lead to GI distress and feelings of excess fullness, which can be uncomfortable while exercising,” says Alyssa Cohen, R.D., founder of Fuel My Fit. That’s not to say healthy fats aren’t an important part of your diet (they help reduce inflammation and fight belly fat and cravings!)—they’re just not ideal before exercise. Stick to easily digestible carbohydrates paired with some protein and small amounts of fat—like a banana, oatmeal, or a slice of toast with a tablespoon or two of nut butter—before getting your sweat on.
4. Running On Empty
Sleep is important for your health for so many reasons, and the way that it affects your workouts is a big one. “Working out when you’re tired leads to a higher risk of injury, especially during high-intensity workouts,” says Christi Marraccini, C.P.T., head coach at Tone House in New York City. It’s during sleep that your muscles actually recover, so if you’re not getting enough of it, they’ll never quite get back to 100 percent between workouts. And if you continue to put physical stress on your body without giving it that chance to recover, eventually you’re going to crash.
“Resting can sometimes be more beneficial than working out, so don’t be afraid to skip the gym or opt for something lower-intensity,” she says. Most experts recommend one to two rest days (which can include light activity, like walking or yoga) a week, anyway. And, of course, make sure you’re banking enough hours in bed. The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, but every body is different. “If you find yourself feeling tired most mornings, consider when you go to sleep each night and try to make small, manageable adjustments to increase your sleeping hours,” says Cohen.
5. Not Hydrating Enough
Water helps regulate your body temp and lubricates your joints so you can move with ease. It also helps transport nutrients to your muscles, which can maximize your performance. So if you’re dehydrated before you even start sweating, you’re already at a disadvantage. “Even if you’re doing a low-to-moderate-intensity workout that’s less than an hour long, you’ll want to drink water before exercising,” says Gorin.
If you’re going harder or longer than that, you may also want to consider adding electrolytes—or at least sodium—to your drink. These minerals, which include sodium, potassium, and magnesium, “are important nutrients that help balance the amount of water in your body and ensure that your heart and muscles are working properly,” says Gorin. The harder you work out (and the more you sweat), the more electrolytes you lose—so it’s important to keep those levels up if you want to perform and feel your best.
6. Not Mentally Prepping Yourself
Some days, exercise can feel like just another thing to cross off your endless to-do list—and just getting out the door or to the gym is a feat on its own. But “you need to ground yourself before your workout and mentally prepare yourself for what you’re going to do,” says Holder. “We often rush through our days without being present—but when you have to do something physically intensive, not being present not only means you won’t get the most out of your exertion, but it can also increase your chances of injury.”
Mentally preparing yourself might mean taking five minutes for some meditation or breath work, setting an intention for your workout, or blasting your favorite workout song to pump yourself up. “Take the time to become immersed in the workout before you actually begin it,” says Holder. The more in-the-moment you are while you sweat, the better your gains.
7. Going Overboard On Caffeine
Everyone’s seen that person at the gym pounding away on the treadmill with venti Starbucks stashed in the cup-holder. Don’t be that person. “While caffeine can give a helpful boost to your workout, overdoing it can trigger abdominal discomfort and even diarrhea,” says Cohen. “People react to caffeine differently, and increasing your intake too quickly or consuming more than usual could be detrimental if you’re unsure of how you’ll react.”
If you can’t imagine hitting the gym without your caffeine fix, you do you! Just make sure you increase your intake slowly. Cohen recommends upping your amount by 25 to 50 milligrams at a time to assess your tolerance before grabbing the heavy dumbbells.