Whether you are a weekend warrior, a parent fueling your child for rep sports or an elite athlete, you have likely been faced with the challenge of what to eat before exercise. If you have a sensitive stomach, you may find it hard to eat anything in the few hours before exercise. In contrast, you may know someone who seems to have a “gut of steel’. I’ve heard stories from many defiant athletes bragging they can eat almost anything and never feel any ill effects before exercise. This may be true; however I recommend everyone start with a few simple guidelines and then customize to see what works best for you. With the right balance and timing of foods, you’ll probably notice yourself feeling more energy, more endurance, less stomach upset and faster recovery from sticking with these simple guidelines:
1. Be aware that what you eat right before exercise is NOT the main fuel for your workout. Your workout fuel is coming from the foods you ate 24-48hrs earlier, which is stored in your muscle. That is why you can have a very long, hard workout even after a very light snack. I remember one of my athletes preparing for a big workout. He thought it was important to have a big breakfast right before his workout with eggs, pancakes, ham and toast. He thought this would give him lots of energy… however it did just the opposite. He felt sluggish, overfull and tired. After we worked together on his eating plan, he started preparing for his big workout by eating balanced frequent meals and snacks in the 2 days prior. The morning of his big workout, his muscles were already fueled up. All he needed was a light breakfast of oatmeal and fruit a few hours before he began. The purpose of the pre-exercise snack is mainly to keep your blood sugars stable so that you don’t get hungry or mentally tired during your workout.
2. Aim for a snack or small meal 2-3 hours before you start to exercise. This allows time for the food to empty out of your stomach while still maintaining your energy level. WHAT you eat is just as important as WHEN you eat. Carbohydrates (bread, cereals, fruit) combined with protein (dairy, meats, nuts) are excellent pre-exercise fuel sources. The carbohydrate raises blood sugars and the protein helps to keep your sugar level stable. Avoid the sugary carbohydrates such as candy, sugary cereals and pop since these will only give you a quick boost in energy, leaving you feeling tired when you start your workout. If you get hungry in the hour before exercise, stick with mainly carbohydrates since they digest quickly.
For example, if you are exercising after work or school and you had lunch at noon, consider having a carbohydrate/protein snack around 3:00 to give you the boost you need for a workout at 5:30pm. You can try yogourt and fruit, apple and low fat cheese, half a sandwich, peanut butter and crackers or even a handful of trail mix. All of these snacks are relatively easy to digest and will keep you satisfied for 2-3 hours. If you find you are hungry before your workout begins, stick with a small amount of carbohydrate since it is quick to digest, such as a banana, a granola bar or even some sport drink if your workout will be intense. Fluids are just as important as food before a workout. Aim to consume at least 500ml (2 cups) of water in the hour before you exercise.
3. Avoid high fat and high protein foods in the 1-2 hours before exercise. A high fat or high protein snack will take longer to digest, leaving you feeling sluggish and tired. Watch out for high fat favourites like fries, chips and even commercial muffins. Your best snack will be one that is lower in fat and has some carbohydrate for quick energy and some protein to help keep your blood sugar stable for the full 2-3 hours before you exercise. Watch out for high protein sports bars. Read the food label on your favourite sports bar. Anything higher than 10g of protein may feel more like a brick in your stomach than a fuel source! Sports bars like Cliff bars, Luna bars and Vector bars are better balanced for pre-exercise with 8-10g of protein and 30-60grams of carbs. Experiment and see what works best for you.
4. Listen to your body. What works for one person might not work for you. Take note of what you are eating and drinking and write down how your body is responding. If you are noticing common symptoms such as stomach upset, heartburn or even diarrhea, see if you can notice any patterns of food or drink. You may need to try cutting out caffeine 2-3 hours before you exercise. If you are a morning exerciser and prefer to roll out of bed and into your running shoes, it’s ok to hold off on breakfast until you are done. The early morning is one exception to the 2-3 hour rule of pre-exercise eating. A glass of water, a small glass of juice or some fruit, may be all you need to get started. Remember that your workout fuel is already stored in your muscle from the day before. The best guideline for eating before any type of exercise is to find out what works for you. With some trial and error you’ll discover the foods and timing that suits your body and workout routine.