It doesn’t matter if you are an Olympic athlete or someone who just goes out for a recreational jog, everyone wants to get the most out of their workout and feel the best they can while doing it. What you eat before your workout can play a big part in this, especially if accompanied by a pre-workout stretch or mobility session.
The groundwork for a great session starts sometime before your workout begins, usually between two and four hours prior. A meal which has a low glycemic index (slow releasing carbohydrates) to drip feed energy into the body and create a minimal insulin response is the ideal option (6, 7).
So what are the best foods to eat before exercise?
Over the period of 1-4 hours the aim should be to consume 1-4g of carbohydrate per kg of body weight (1) depending on the length and intensity of the workout (for a 100kg individual that would be between 100 – 400g of carbohydrate). This meal may also include some protein (20 – 30g) but it is not always essential to do so (5), for example porridge the morning of a marathon or a pasta with chicken and vegetables at lunch before running home from work (Table 1 below) would be suitable.
When you start a workout your body starts the process of turning its stored energy (liver / muscle glycogen) into available energy (blood glucose). In some cases this can take up to 30 minutes (5). During this initial 30 minutes most people experience a feeling of lethargy or exercise is harder than expected, some athletes will refer to it as “getting into the session”.
The pre workout snack is aimed at bridging this gap between available energy (blood glucose) and the bodies energy stores (liver / muscle glycogen) which will take over at around 30 minutes into the session. This pre workout snack should be a medium to high glycemic index food (medium to fast release of energy) and between 30 – 90g of carbohydrate, again depending on intensity and duration of the workout (3).
The longer the workout and the higher the intensity the larger the portion size should be. Training sessions lasting less than 60 minutes may require only a small amount of carbohydrate (4) due to the body having a store of up to 90 minutes (based on a workout at 75% max effort) of carbohydrate with a healthy balanced diet (5).
Finally dehydration can have a significant effect on performance, with as little as 2% fluid loss in aerobic activity and 3-4% in strength and power causing a consistent impairment to performance (4). In people who are less trained this impairment can occur earlier.
The American College of Sports Medicine makes the following general recommendations
These are on the amount and composition of fluid that should be ingested in preparation for, during, and after exercise or athletic competition (2):
1. It is recommended that individuals drink adequate fluids during the 24-hr period before an event, especially during the period that includes the meal prior to exercise, to promote proper hydration before exercise or competition.
2. It is recommended that individuals drink about 500 ml (about 17 ounces) of fluid about 2 h before exercise to promote adequate hydration and allow time for excretion of excess ingested water.
This information about the best foods to eat before exercise should kelp you maximise the effects and beenfits of your workouts and physical activity.
1. Burke, L. M., Hawley, J. A., Wong, S. H., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2011). Carbohydrates for training and competition. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(sup1), S17-S27.
2. Convertino, V. A., Armstrong, L. E., Coyle, E. F., Mack, G. W., Sawka, M. N., Senay Jr, L. C., & Sherman, W. M. (1996). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Exercise and fluid replacement. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 28(1), i-vii.
3. Jeukendrup, A. E. (2011). Nutrition for endurance sports: Marathon, triathlon, and road cycling. Journal of sports sciences, 29(sup1), S91-S99.
4. Maughan, R. J. (2013). The Encyclopaedia of Sports Medicine: An IOC Medical Commission Publication, Sports Nutrition (Vol. 19). John Wiley & Sons.
5. McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I., & Katch, V. L. (2001). Exercise physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and human performance. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
6. Thomas, D. E., Brotherhood, J. R., & Brand, J. C. (1991). Carbohydrate feeding before exercise: effect of glycemic index. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 12(02), 180-186.
7. Wu, C., & Williams, C. (2006). A low glycemic index meal before exercise improves endurance running capacity in men. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 16(5), 510.