The most common question I get from athletes is what should I eat before exercise? Before I answer this question for an athlete, I have to ask when are they working out, how intense will the workout be, and when was the last time they ate. The answers to these questions help me decide whether the athlete will need to eat before working out, the timing of when to eat, and what to eat.
When was the last time the athlete ate?
If an athlete is going to wake up early for a competition or workout and will not have not eaten since the night before or otherwise has gone a while between their last meal and the exercise, they will most likely need a small meal or snack before exercise. The relevance of eating before exercise is dependent on the type and intensity of the exercise. For example, if the plan is to simply do an easy run for 30 minutes in the morning, fueling is less important since your exercise is relatively short in duration and not intense. However, it is always important to remember to hydrate before exercise regardless of the whether eating is necessary.
If the exercise or competition is more intense and/or going to last longer than 60 minutes, it is recommended to eat a small meal or snack beforehand, to provide sufficient energy for optimal performance. Exercising fasting has benefits to enhance long term training adaptations, but also can negatively impact a workout, especially if the workout is intense. Not eating before an intense workout or competition can lead to low blood glucose (sugar) levels, decreased glycogen stores, and muscle protein breakdown. This can result in early fatigue and poor sports performance which can be avoided through adequate pre-performance fueling.
Ideally a meal should be eaten 3-4 hours before exercise for adequate digestion and to foster increased muscle and liver glycogen stores; however, morning exercise makes that difficult, so when less time is available prior to exercise, eating easily digestible food with more carbohydrates and less fat and protein provides the sufficient energy boost without the need for extended digestion.
What to eat before exercise?
Choosing what to eat before exercise all depends on how much time there is between eating and when exercise is planned. If there is less than an hour before exercise or between competitions, it is recommended to eat 15-20 grams of carbohydrate (about 100 calories) that is low fiber, protein, and fat. Foods high in fat, protein and fiber delay digestion and may cause stomach upset.
Some examples of easily digesting carb food choices include:
· 1 small banana
· 1 fig bar
· 2 Tablespoons raisins
· ½ plain small bagel
· 2-3 small dates
For athletes with a nervous stomach and struggle with digesting food before exercise, drinking carbs or eating sports supplements such as sport drinks (not energy drinks), gels, Gu, or chews at the start or during exercise can be helpful. These products are specially formulated for athletes to aid with fueling and hydration without causing stomach distress, if consumed in moderation.
If there is more time to digest before exercise, the amount of food consumed can be increased, and small amounts of protein along with sufficient carbs is ok; however it is recommended to continue eating lower fat before exercise since fat takes longer to digest and may cause digestive issues during exercise.
Try eating the following food choices, containing 30-40 grams of carb, plus a small amount of protein (about 200-300 calories):
· 1 cup oatmeal
· ½ large bagel with small amount of nut butter added
· Scrambled egg wrap
· Yogurt parfait with fruit and low-fat granola
· ½ turkey sandwich with 1 small banana
· Smoothie with fruit and yogurt
Take Home Message
Choosing whether to eat and what to eat before participating in exercise or competition can make a big difference in overall performance. Just remember, if the workout is less than an hour and not intense, you’ll be fine just drinking water. However, if you have an intense workout or competition lasting longer than an hour, sports nutrition will play a critical role on how well you will perform.