The Secret Ingredient to Supercharge your Workout
As a Nutritionist and let’s face it, wellness geek, I love nothing more than a bit of self-experimentation to see what might help optimise my health. Juggling work, mummying and trying my best to keep my healthy habits in check means I need to be more efficient than ever - and that includes in my workouts.
Sometimes my brain and body needs a relaxing yoga class, but when I’m looking to push myself I know it’s best to fuel my body first to help reach the limits and feel those endorphins fly. When it comes to benefits of fasted exercise on overall health, the jury is out (especially for women in reproductive years). This is not to say that it doesn’t work for some people for some of their goals - I know for me personally, when fasting or following a low carbohydrate diet, I find training sessions brutally hard, low in intensity and sometimes totally demotivating. It’s really difficult to put in any serious effort physically and mentally when your body is hungry.
Having tried a few food and drink options with varying results, there’s one ingredient which I kept returning to again and again because I felt a marked difference. Could it really be the key to supercharging me through those sessions? I’m talking MCT oil.
For people doing keto or trying to train while fasting, MCT oil is the queen bee and has cemented itself as the must-have nutraceutical in that niche. But what about those who aren’t in ketosis and choosing to use food alongside exercise - does it make a difference?
Strictly observationally (this was not a robust RCT by any stretch) I noticed on days I took MCT before my workout (sometimes in coffee, sometimes in a smoothie) there was a marked difference in my stamina, endurance and overall motivation to the session. I’d reach the wall and push right through it, with a smile on my face, during a morning spin class. I’d feel unstoppable lifting weights during strength training. Could it really be making a difference?
I dug a little deeper to find out what the science is saying so far;
The Energy Boost
MCTs simply stands for Medium Chain Triglycerides and because of their size, the body is able to digest them more easily and quickly compared to Long Chain Triglycerides (LCTs) such as those found in olive oil.
MCTs bypass the stomach and head straight to the liver to be converted into energy for the body and brain to utilise. Ketones are used efficiently and rapidly, which is why they’re favoured by those looking to optimise their focus and energy levels. They’re also known for helping your brain produce more mitochondria, which are the energy factories in all your cells. This in turn is thought to give your muscles the energy they need, potentially fuelling your workout. (1)
On first look it was thought that the effects of MCT oil and ketone energy would only be put to use for those following a ketogenic diet or in the absence of carbs. However new research suggests MCT oil can impact the brain even when the body is not in ketosis. This may be the reason that some people using MCT oil alongside a small pre-workout snack can still feel a boost (2).
Adding to this, some clinical data also suggests that MCT oil can push the body to promote the burning of stored fat for fuel (instead of glucose), further enhancing metabolic efficiency and freeing up energy reserves (3). In plain speak - giving you a bit of oomph!
The Endurance Factor
There’s nothing quite like getting to the end of a workout knowing you had the energy and power you needed to feel strong and see it through to the very last second. Struggling through a workout and checking your watch every few minutes isn’t fun and let's face it, you’re less likely to want to repeat it. Not ideal for those consistent healthy habits.
Nutrition and food timings have a big part to play in your endurance. It makes all the difference when you need to dig deep and you rely on energy reserves when working out. As part of your fuel, studies show that MCT may improve your stamina and help you to exercise for longer (4).
Results from these studies show that the athletes taking part could perform for longer in high intensity workouts. Other animal studies show increased endurance when administered MCTs in contrast to LCTs (long chain triglycerides) (5).
How about those who choose to exercise in a fasted state?
Fasted workouts have been the hot topic of science and health trends for some time, with research revealing a host of benefits—from improved blood sugar balance and optimised insulin sensitivity to enhanced energy utilisation.
Whether you choose to have a fasted workout will totally depend on you as an individual. What are your goals? Are you stressed? Did you sleep well? How are your hormones performing? What stage of life are you in?
If you tick the boxes then the key is to maintain a healthy balance between pushing the body and dramatically depleting energy stores, which can cause harm in the long term.
To aid this, MCT oil before a workout does not produce a spike in insulin (i.e. not consumed with protein or carbohydrates of course) and should not break your fast. It therefore could be a great way to supply some energy during a workout while effectively staying in a fasted state.
Remember to Recover
Refuelling after any workout is a very important stage of the recovery process in order to build lean tissue and replenishing glycogen stores. This is even more crucial when the workout was performed in a fasted state. The optimal time appears to be within 30 minutes after training; think a protein + collagen smoothie, eggs on avocado toast or greek yogurt and berries.
As for MCT oil, some advocates swear by taking it post workout, not before, to improve recovery even further. It is thought that MCT oil may benefit those looking to build muscle by stabilising the insulin spike created by a post-workout meal, and in turn improving muscle composition - however there is little research to prove this theory yet.
Whens and Hows
If you choose MCT oil pre workout it is best to take it at least 45 minutes to an hour before for optimal energy levels and performance. This allows the body to process the MCTs ready for you to use.
It is also recommended to experiment a little with your MCT tolerance to work out how much you can take. Go low and slow to begin with to ensure you don’t experience any digestive upset. Not ideal halfway through an intense HIIT class..
For people looking to gain mass, it is recommended adding MCT oil to a pre-workout smoothie containing some easy to digest protein, some fast-acting carbs (such as banana) about 60-90 minutes before working out.