Food is Fuel (Part 1) — What should I eat before exercise?

Vege-Muscle

When it comes to diet and exercise, the common refrain— “food is fuel”— definitely rings true. Optimal nutrition and a well-designed diet that meets your energy requirements and incorporates proper timing of nutrients ensures consistency so that your body can perform at its best. Whether you’re training for a marathon, hitting a gym session, or going for a weekend bike ride, the food you eat and drink:

  1. Enables you to get the most out of your training by providing your body with sufficient energy
  2. Boosts exercise performance and helps sustain quality and intensity
  3. Helps you reach your body composition goals (be it fat loss or muscle gain)
  4. Aids with speeding up your recovery (bye bye, sore muscles)

The pre-workout meal or snack

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 lean muscle mass, and promote recovery.

As a general rule, your choice of pre-workout meal or snack should:

  1. Include a source of carbohydrate to help fuel working muscles
  2. Be low to moderate in fat to ease digestion
  3. Provide adequate amounts of fluid to prevent dehydration
  4. Be easy to digest to avoid GI discomfort
  5. Be well timed (i.e. not 5 minutes before you start) to avoid digestive processes competing with working muscles, and
  6. Include familiar foods that are enjoyable

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.

Important Nutrients

Protein before exercise can help maintain and increase lean 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 thereby allowing you to recover faster and better adapt to an exercise program over time. Protein provides amino acids which boost muscle building, thereby helping you increase muscle size.

Carbohydrate before exercise helps fuel your training and promotes recovery. During the early stages of moderate-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. Carbohdyrate tops up liver and muscle glycogen stores, therefore helping you maintain lean mass. Carbohydrate ingestion (which stimulates the release of insulin) combined with protein, improves protein synthesis and prevents muscle break down.

Fats before exercise do not appear to an advantage or disadvantage to sports performance. However, high fat intakes can produce gastrointestinal symptoms in athletes. They do however help absorb fat-soluble vitamins and are important for overall health.

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 is dependent 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
  • Protein smoothie (protein powder + nut butter + 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
  • Wholegrain 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
Stay tuned for Part 2: What should I eat after exercise?

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