Sports Nutrition Basics - What To Eat Before You Exercise

Sports Nutrition Basics - What To Eat Before You Exercise

Jun 22, 2023Nicole Saliba

One of the most common questions I get as a sports dietitian is: "What should I eat before and after a workout?" When it comes to diet and exercise, the common saying— “food is fuel”— is definitely true. Eating a healthy balanced diet and timing your meals and snacks can help your body perform at its best and recover.. Whether you’re training for a marathon, hitting a gym session, or going for a casual weekend bike ride, the food you eat and drink:

  1. Provides the muscles and body with energy so you can get the most out of your workout
  2. Boosts exercise performance and helps you sustain exercise intensity
  3. Helps you reach your body composition goals whether its fat loss or muscle gain
  4. Helps to start the recovery process (seeya later, sore muscles)

What should you include in a meal or snack before exercising?

What you eat and when you eat it can have a huge impact on your performance and recovery. A pre-workout meal or snack is designed to sustain energy levels, boost exercise performance, hydrate, preserve muscle mass, and promote recovery. As a general rule, your choice of pre-workout meal or snack should:

Include a source of carbohydrate to help fuel working muscles

  1. Be low to moderate in fat so it's easy to digest
  2. Include some fluid to prevent dehydration
  3. Be easy to digest to avoid any gut discomfort so nothing too rich or high in fibre
  4. Be well timed (i.e. not 5 minutes before you start) to avoid digestive processes competing with working muscles. When we eat the blood tends to go towards our digestive system. When we exercise we want a good blood supply to the muscles. 
  5. Include familiar foods that are enjoyable. Trying the new spicy stir-fry from your favourite thai restaurant the night before a fun run is not ideal

How long before exercise should I eat?

Meals should be eaten approximately 2-4 hours prior to exercise or sporting events to ensure plenty of time for food to be emptied from the stomach, digested and absorbed. Lighter snacks can be eaten 1-2 hours in advance to give the body a last minute energy boost. If you are an early morning riser then making sure you have a good meal the night before and maybe a little snack before is ideal. You can exercise on an empty stomach in the morning as long as the session isn’t longer than 60-90mins. 

What nutrients are important for the working muscles during exercise?

Protein before exercise can help maintain and increase lean muscle mass, which is important for maintaining a healthy body composition that supports fat burning and health (i.e. the higher your lean mass, the higher your metabolism or resting metabolic rate). 
Protein can also reduce markers of muscle damage which means you will recover faster and better adapt to an exercise program over time. Protein provides amino acids which are the little building blocks of protein. They help boost muscle building. 

Carbohydrate before exercise helps fuel your training and promotes recovery. Carbohydrates are fuel for your "engine" (muscles). And, the harder your engine is working, the more carbs you need to keep going. During the early stages of medium-intensity exercise, carbohydrates provide 40-50% of energy requirements. Contrary to popular belief, carbohydrates aren’t just important for endurance athletes and marathon runners. Carbohydrates enhance exercise performance during endurance-based activities as well as short-term (~1hr), high-intensity exercise. Eating  carbohydrates ingestion combined with protein, improves muscle building and prevents muscle breakdown.

Fats before exercise do not appear to be an advantage or disadvantage to sports performance. However, high fat intakes can produce gut discomfort in athletes.

What’s an ideal pre-workout meal or snack?

The decision whether or not to have a meal or smaller snack before your exercise session depends on your individual needs. A meal should be a mixture of protein-dense foods, carbohydrate-rich foods, a small amount of fat and an optional serve of salad or vegetables. Some examples of ideal pre-workout meals and snacks include:

  • Natural muesli & greek yoghurt
  • Yoghurt & fruit
  • Activate Foods Banana Bread
  • Porridge or weetbix with milk
  • Protein smoothie (protein powder/high protein yoghurt+ + fruit + fluid)
  • Green smoothie (protein powder + banana + apple + kale + fluid)
  • Whole-wheat crackers + peanut butter + banana
  • Home-made porridge
  • Poached eggs on toast
  • Vegetable omelette + sourdough bread
  • Whole-grain wrap + lean chicken/beef/turkey/salmon/egg + salad
  • Lean beef stir-fry + vegetables + basmati rice
  • Grilled steak + veggies + sweet potato mash
  • Greek yoghurt + fresh fruit + nut/seed mix
  • Homemade muesli bar/high fibre muffin
  • Sushi or rice paper rolls

Take Home Points

  • Your body needs carbs to fuel your working muscles
  • Protein is there to help build and repair muscles
  • Get a combination of the protein and carbs in your body 1 to 4 hours pre-workout and within approximately 60 minutes post-workout.
  • Never try anything new food or drink on the same day as a race or sporting game 

Not sure if you’re getting the most out of your workouts? Book in a session with an Accredited Practising Dietitian from Eatsense here.

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