Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD
Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD
Eating a balanced meal or snack before exercise is one of the most significant things you can do to ensure you’ll perform well. Whether you’ll be going to a typical training session or competing in a tournament, a meal or snack that contains both food and drinks will give you the energy you need to exercise, prevent you from getting tired too quickly, keep you properly hydrated, and prevent hunger.1 The ideal pre-exercise snack contains easily digested carbohydrates, some protein, and fluid to keep you hydrated.
Your body stores carbohydrates as energy in the form of muscle glycogen. Before exercise you need to top off your muscle glycogen supply by eating carbohydrate-rich foods, such as bread, crackers, fruits, and dairy products. If you don’t eat carbohydrates before exercising, your blood sugar could also get too low, leading to difficulty concentrating, hunger, and lower endurance.1 The exact amount and type of carbohydrates to eat will vary depending on how much time you have before exercise and what you like to eat before a workout. If possible, try to fuel up 1-3 hours ahead of time. You should eat about 3 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of your body weight three hours before an event, 2 grams per kilogram body weight two hours before, or 1 gram per kilogram body weight one hour before.1,2
For example, someone who weighs 150 pounds would need to eat about 200 grams of carbohydrates up to 3 hours before an event. This might look like 1½ cups of oatmeal cooked with 2 cups of skim milk, 1 medium banana, ¼ cup of raisins, 2 slices of toast, and 3 tablespoons of honey. When you have 3-4 hours before an event, your body will have more time to digest and absorb your meal. This would be a good time to eat a meal that also contains fat and fiber, such as a tuna salad sandwich. Two hours before an event, the same person would need about 136 grams of carbohydrates and could get this by consuming 2 pita breads topped with 4 tablespoons of hummus, 1 cup of skim milk, 1 medium pear, and 4 dried figs. While this meal might seem large, it is lower in fat and fiber, so your body will easily absorb the carbohydrates to use as fuel during your activity. One hour before an event, the person would need about 68 grams of carbohydrates and could get this by consuming 1 cup of skim milk, 1 medium apple, 10 Saltine-style crackers, and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter.
The closer you get to the time of your event, the more important it is to consume carbohydrates that will be digested and absorbed quickly. Foods that are high in fiber and fat take longer to digest and will weigh in your stomach if you eat them within an hour of exercising. As a result, you’ll probably feel sluggish and may end up with an upset stomach. If you have an hour or less before you’ll be exercising, choose a piece of fruit, crackers or bread with jam, sports gel, gummies, or a sports drink. Sports drinks, gel, and gummies are also good options if you tend to feel nervous before an event, since they provide a lot of carbohydrates in a small volume of food.3
Just before exercise, common snacks include yogurt with berries, fruit with nut butter, dried fruits, or a sandwich, which contain both protein and carbohydrates to give you energy and provide the building blocks you’ll need for muscle repair.2,4
There isn’t a set recommendation for how much protein to eat before exercise. There isn’t enough scientific evidence to recommend consuming protein before exercise in order to prevent muscle breakdown during exercise, or promote muscle repair afterwards.1 In general, if you don’t have much time before exercise, it’s best to focus on eating carbohydrates rather than protein. If you have more time before exercise, however, including some of protein in your pre-exercise meal will provide your body with some of the building blocks it needs to rebuild muscles after exercise.3 Choose sources of lean protein, such as low fat dairy, hard-boiled eggs, or turkey breast. These foods do not provide large amounts of fat or fiber, so they will be easier to digest.
Drink water regularly to make sure you stay properly hydrated on a day-to-day basis. It’s best to avoid drinks that contain alcohol and caffeine before exercise, since these have diuretic effects and can actually lead to dehydration. Instead, consider drinking about 24 ounces of a diluted sports beverage to provide fluids, electrolytes, and carbohydrates at least two hours before your event. Stop drinking within the hour before your event so you won’t have to use the bathroom during exercise.
Practice Makes Perfect
Just like your physical training prepares you to for competitions, it’s important to train your nutrition by eating a pre-exercise snack before practices each day. This way, you’ll have an idea of the way different foods make you feel and will be able to choose the pre-exercise meal and snack that will work best for you during competitions. If you suddenly change your eating habits on the day of a competition, you could end up with an upset stomach that slows you down. Instead, experiment with different meal and snack options during your training season to learn which foods work best for you, and how long you need to eat before exercising. Building nutrition into your training plan will ensure that you function at your peak when competition day arrives!
- Dunford M, Doyle JA. Nutrition for Sport and Exercise. 3rd ed. Cengage Learning; 2015.
- nslabaugh. Fueling for Performance: How proper timing of meals affects both sport and academic performance. NCAA.org – The Official Site of the NCAA. http://www.ncaa.org/health-and-safety/nutrition-and-performance/fueling-performance-how-proper-timing-meals-affects-both. Published December 18, 2013. Accessed March 29, 2017.
- Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition. Eating Before Exercise. 2013.
- Timing Your Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition. www.eatright.org. http://www.eatright.org/resource/fitness/exercise/exercise-nutrition/timing-your-nutrition. Accessed March 29, 2017.