What to Eat Before Exercise

Energy, Food and Exercise

The food an athlete eats before, during and after a workout is important for both comfort and performance during exercise. Energy foods including bars, drinks, gels and other easily digestible carbohydrates can help prevent the distracting symptoms of hunger during exercise and keep you from depleting your energy too quickly.

The major source of fuel for active muscles is carbohydrate which gets stored in the muscles as glycogen in the days before exercise. It takes time to completely fill glycogen stores, and what you eat after exercisecan help or hinder this process. Eating the right foods at the right time after a workout is essential for recovery and being ready for the next workout.

What you eat before exercise often depends upon your unique needs and preferences, but should be designed according to the intensity, length and type of workout you plan to do.

When to Eat Before Exercise

Exercising on a full stomach is not ideal. Food that remains in your stomach during an event may cause stomach upset, nausea, and cramping. To make sure you have enough energy, yet reduce stomach discomfort, you should allow a meal to fully digest before the start of the event. This generally takes 1 to 4 hours, depending upon what and how much you’ve eaten. Everyone is a bit different, and you should experiment prior to workouts to determine what works best for you.

If you have an early morning race or workout, it’s  best to get up early enough to eat your pre-exercise meal. If not, you should try to eat or drink something easily digestible about 20 to 30 minutes before the event. The closer you are to the time of your event, the less you should eat. You can have a liquid meal closer to your event than a solid meal because your stomach digests liquids faster.

What to Eat Before Exercise

Because glucose is the preferred energy source for most exercise, a  pre-exercise meal should include foods that are high in carbohydrates and easy to digest. This include foods such as pasta, fruits, breads, energy bars and drinks.

Sports Nutrition Planning for All-day Events

Planning your nutrition and knowing what and when you will eat and drink is essential if you are competing in an all-day event, such as track meets or other tournaments. Consider the time of your event, the amount of your meal and the energy required. Also, be aware of the amount of fluid you consume. You should plan ahead and prepare meals and snacks that you have tried before and know will sit well with you. Do not experiment with something new on the event day.

Suggested Foods for Exercise

Eating before exercise is something only the athlete can determine based upon experience, but some general guidelines include eating a solid meal 4 hours before exercise, a snack or a high carbohydrate energy drink 2 to 3 hours before exercise, and fluid replacement 1 hour before exercise.

1 hour or less before competition

  • fresh fruit such as apples, watermelon, peaches, grapes, or oranges and/or
  • Energy gels
  • up to 1 1/2 cups of a sports drink.

2 to 3 hours before competition

  • fresh fruits
  • bread, bagels, pasta
  • yogurt
  • water

3 to 4 hours before competition

  • fresh fruit
  • bread, bagels
  • pasta with tomato sauce
  • baked potatoes
  • energy bar
  • cereal with milk
  • yogurt
  • toast/bread with a bit of peanut butter, lean meat, or cheese
  • water

Glucose (Sugar) and Exercise Performance

If you are an endurance athlete, evidence suggests that eating some sugar (glucose) 35 to 40 minutes before an event may provide energy when your other energy stores have dropped to low levels. However, you should experiment with such strategies before competition because some people do not perform well after a blood glucose spike.

 

 

Caffeine and Performance

Caffeine acts as a stimulant on the central nervous system. It had been thought to boost endurance by stimulating a greater use of fat for energy, and thereby reserving glycogen in the muscles. Research, however, doesn’t seem to support that theory. When caffeine improves endurance, it does so by acting as a stimulant.

Caffeine can have serious side effects for some people. Those who are very sensitive to its effects may experience nausea, muscle tremors, and headaches. Too much caffeine is a diuretic, and can result in dehydration, which decreases performance.

Foods to Avoid Before Exercise

Foods with a lot of fat or fiber can be very difficult and slow to digest and remain in the stomach a long time. They also will pull blood into the stomach to aid in digestion, which can cause cramping and discomfort. Meats, doughnuts, fries, potato chips, and candy bars should be avoided in a pre-exercise meal.

Keep in mind that everyone is a bit different and what works for you may not work for you teammate or training partner. Factor in individual preferences and favorite foods, and an eating plan is a highly individualize thing.

Sources:

The Position Statement from the Dietitians of Canada, the American Dietetic Association, and the American College of Sports Medicine, Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research in the Winter of 2000, 61(4):176-192.

>Res, P., Ding, Z., Witzman, M.O., Sprague, R.C. and J. L. Ivy. The effect of carbohydrate-protein supplementation on endurance performance during exercise of varying intensity. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.

DK, Carr C, Carlson MG, Maron DJ, Borel MJ, Flakoll PJ. Post exercise protein intake enhances whole-body and leg protein accretion in human. Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise. 2002 May; 34(5): 828-37.