Have you ever scarfed down a bowl of high fiber cereal 30 minutes prior to a long run? Skipped breakfast before a four-hour bike ride? Eaten something you’ve never had for breakfast on the morning of a big race? While these no-no’s may seem obvious to some, athletes of all ages and levels have likely made these mistakes and endure the consequences.
Types of food and meal timing are the two most important factors to consider when it comes to optimal fueling before a workout. High fiber cereal is often a healthy breakfast for some—since fiber is filling and the insoluble fiber found in those types of cereals is know to have a laxative effect. But the effects of insoluble fiber can be detrimental for an endurance athlete.
While some foods may hinder performance, others have the nutrients needed to help you fuel and get the most out of your workouts. Meal timing is also important. Some foods are more beneficial hours before activity and others are most beneficial when consumed right before. Your body is primarily dependent on glycogen for energy during activity, so the main goal of fueling properly before working out is to make sure those stores are optimized. Here's why glycogen is essential.
What is glycogen, and what purpose does it serve? Glycogen is the body's main storage form of carbohydrates and is largely created and stored in the muscle and liver cells. When energy is expended, glycogen is converted to glucose that is then used to meet the body's energy needs. Muscle glycogen serves as the primary fuel source for the majority of exercise that we perform. Depending on the intensity of a workout, muscle glycogen stores can be depleted within 1-2 hours. Once depleted, your body can only work at 50% of its maximal capacity, otherwise known as “bonking,” or “hitting the wall". In order to prevent bonking, and to maximize performance, fueling up properly prior to working out is crucial for these two reasons.
1. Improving and maintaining energy levels during workouts: By ensuring your glycogen stores are full (of the proper combination of nutrients), you can significantly improve the ease of a workout. A low carb diet may magnify the difficulty of a workout, as low glycogen stores can cause low energy levels. By eating properly pre-exercise, your workouts will run smoother, improving the quality of your workouts, and ultimately, your performance.
2. Protecting excess muscle breakdown: When working out hard, whether weightlifting or running stadium stairs, you are often breaking down muscle tissue. Knowing what to eat pre-workout can help prevent muscle breakdown, speeding up recovery time and improving muscle repair.
Options for pre-workout fueling
No Pre-workout chow
If you like to workout early in the mornings, or eating before exercise makes your stomach upset, a pre-workout chow down isn’t necessary. However, while you may not need to eat prior to a moderate intensity workout (such as a 20 minute jog), re-think your strategy if you're planning a longer, or higher intensity workout. Consider having a bedtime snack (breakfast before bed anyone?) on the night before a morning workout.
Small snack 30 minutes before workout
Opt for a small (100 to 200 calorie) snack 30 minutes prior to working out. Choose a low fiber, high-glycemic index (GI) carbohydrate with very small amounts of fat.
A small, high-GI carbohydrate is composed of simple sugars. This ensures that the snack is digested prior to exercise, and that the energy is available for fuel. While the full process of digestion actually takes hours, eating a high-GI snack means that food won't linger and bounce around in the stomach while exercising.
Although great for digestive health, fiber is actually digested in the colon, and consuming too much fiber before a workout can cause an upset stomach. And fat actually slows digestion, so it should be avoided right before a workout. Therefore, a high-GI carb with low in fiber and fat that is easy to digest is the best choice this close to a workout.
Try these snack options.
- High-glycemic fruits: banana, mango, papaya, pineapple, and watermelon
- Fruit smoothie: blend any of the above fruits w/ low-fat or nonfat yogurt
- Fruit juice
- Sports drinks
- Energy bars: not all bars are created equal, nor are they equally suitable for this purpose. (Look for >15 grams of carbs, 3-5 grams of protein, and small amounts of fat!)
- Pretzels or rice crackers w/ jam
Small snacks work best for workouts early in the morning, or for shorter workouts (generally less than 45 minutes). If you’ve got a long, intense workout session planned, opt for something higher in carbs and protein (see option #3, the balanced meal) in order to have more sustained energy.
Balanced meal 1-3 hours before workout
A pre-workout meal should account for about 50% of the calories that you expect to burn during your workout. For example, if a 150 lb. male goes for an hour long run at 10 min/mile, he'll burn ~600 calories during your workout. So he should aim for at least 300 calories during his pre-workout meal. If a workout is going to be high intensity, try to get even more than just 50% of the expected calories burned. The larger the meal, the longer before exercising you should eat. (A bigger meal should be 3 hours prior to, and a smaller meal 1 hour prior to your workout.)
Your pre-workout meal should be balanced as follows:50-60% carbohydrates (your body accesses carbs first; this will provide the fuel you need) 25-35% protein (protein can help keep you satiated, keep your blood glucose levels stable, and improve muscle recovery) 15-20% fat (a little bit of fat can be helpful for satiety.
Here are some balanced, pre-workout meal options:
- Fruit, yogurt, & granola
- Cereal (aim for between 3-7 g of fiber; too little fiber will mean that carbs are burned early, and too much may cause an upset stomach) & milk
- Oatmeal (steel-cut oats are best, as they are the least-processed type of oat cereal) with one scoop of mixed-in protein powder
- Whole-wheat waffle with peanut butter (or almond or sunflower seed butter) & jelly
- English muffin with scrambled eggs & vegetables
- Eggs with whole-wheat toast
- Cottage cheese with fruit
- Apple and peanut butter (or other nut butter)
- Healthy breakfast burrito: eggs, quinoa, avocado, & goat cheese Vegetable omelet Fruit shake: blend frozen berries w/ protein powder
Lunch and Dinner
- Peanut butter, banana, & toast
- Arroz con leche: mix ½ cup cooked rice, ½ cup milk, some raisins, & cinnamon – ideal fuel for a long run
- Chicken salad
- Vegetable hummus wrap on a whole wheat tortilla
- Sweet potato topped with grilled chicken, sautéed spinach and pesto
- Pasta with a couple of slices of avocado, & a couple of ounces of turkey or chicken
- Baked potato and chicken breast Fish & wild rice Wrap w/ roast beef & vegetables
Proper hydration is critical for optimal health, as well as maximal athletic performance; water plays a critical role in the functioning of our bodies. Whether gearing up for a routine workout or a long race, remember that proper hydration is essential. Don’t forget to drink that water!
Here are a few tips on pre-workout hydration:
The day before a big workout or race, drink enough water. Adult males should consume 3.7 L/day of total water (from both food and liquid intake), including approximately 3.0 L, or about 13 cups as total beverages, including drinking water. Women should aim for 2.7 L/day of total water, including 2.2 L, or about 9 cups total. Individual water needs vary according to diet, physical activity, as well as climate. If it’s humid, and the sun’s been beating down, be sure to replenish with extra water and electrolytes.
Hydration sources should include water, 100% juice, or skim or nonfat milk. You’re not properly hydrating if you’re replacing water with soda and mostly-sugar fruit juices. Two hours before your workout, drink 2 to 2.5 cups (16 to 20 oz.) of fluid. This ensures that your body has enough time to process the liquid, and that you have a chance to empty your bladder before your workout. Proper hydration will help facilitate the ease and effectiveness of the exercise. And 30 minutes prior to your work-out, drink another 5 to 10 oz. of fluid.
Finding what works best for you is key to a successful fuel up. While an ideal pre-workout meal may include whole grain bread, hummus, and vegetables for some, the very same meal might wreak serious havoc on others. Though our machinery is similar, we’re all very different. Some of us can stomach nearly anything, while others are less impervious to high fiber pre-workout meals. Experiment with different foods and varied timing to find what works best for your body and your workout needs. Remember that InsideTracker can give you ideas for foods that will fuel your workout and help you reach your peak performance. But do all your experimenting while you are training. Never try a new fueling plan before a big event.