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What and When to Eat Before a Workout?

Fuelling your body with the right nutrients before exercise will give you the energy you need to perform at your best. A pre-workout meal will help delay the onset of fatigue and increase your endurance and performance, as well as keeping hunger at bay.

WHAT SHOULD YOU EAT? Which foods and how much to eat depends on the type, duration and intensity of your workout as well as your personal preference. A good rule of thumb is to include a carbohydrate-rich food with a smaller amount of protein-rich food and healthy fat. This combination of macronutrients will provide sustained energy to help get you through most workouts.

Both protein and fat slow the digestion and absorption of carbohydrate so the closer your meal is to your workout, the less protein or fat you should eat. On the other hand, eating a meal devoid of fat and protein could leave you hungry and lacking in energy.

Avoid too much fibre within 30 minutes of exercise, especially if you are prone to gut issues. Fibre slows stomach emptying, which can make you feel full and uncomfortable. However, moderate amounts of fibre eaten two to four hours or longer before exercise should not pose a problem and according to a study at the University of Sydney, may even be advantageous for endurance as fibre prevents spikes in blood glucose and insulin during exercise.

Pre-exercise meal examples 2–4 hours before exercise:

  • A baked potato with beans, cheese, tuna, hummus or chicken and vegetables

  • Chickpea pilaf (rice dish)

  • One-pot chicken tagine (stew) with couscous

  • Pasta with pomodoro (tomato) sauce, cheese and vegetables

  • Pasta with lentil Bolognese

  • Rice with chicken or lentils and vegetables

  • Chicken or prawn stir-fry with noodles

  • Rice with beans

  • A sandwich/pitta/ roll/bagel/wrap/ burrito filled with chicken, fish, cheese, egg, falafel or peanut butter and salad

Pre-exercise snacks 30 – 60 minutes before exercise:

  • Bananas or any other fresh fruit

  • A handful of dried fruit and nuts or seeds

  • A smoothie

  • Toast with nut butter

  • Fruit and nut bars

  • Oat or granola bars

  • Porridge, muesli or wholegrain cereal with milk

WHEN SHOULD YOU EAT? The size and timing of your pre-exercise meal are inter-related. The closer you are to the start of your training session, the smaller your meal should be, whereas larger meals can be consumed when more time is available before your workout. The American College of Sports Medicine recommend between 1–4 g carbohydrate /kg body weight 1–4 hours before exercise. This translates to 70 – 280 g carbohydrate for a 70 kg athlete.

To maximise the benefits of your workout, try to schedule a pre-exercise meal 2 – 4 hours before exercising. This will give you enough time to digest the food and for your stomach to settle so that you feel comfortable – not too full and not hungry. Eating too much close to your workout may result in gut issues and discomfort during exercise. During exercise, your blood supply is shunted away from your gut to your muscles.

On the other hand, leaving too long a gap means you may feel hungry, light-headed and lacking energy during exercise.

If you have less than two hours before your workout, eat an easy-to-digest snack. In practice, the exact timing of your pre-workout meal will probably depend on practical constraints such as work hours and travel. Try to plan meals as best you can around these commitments. For example, if you want to exercise at 6 o’clock in the evening, either schedule lunch around 2 p.m. (leaving you a four-hour interval before your workout) or around midday and then eat a snack between 4 and 5.30 p.m. (leaving you a 30-minute to two-hour interval).

Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that performance of moderate to high-intensity exercise lasting 35–40 minutes was improved after eating a moderately high carbohydrate, low fat meal 3 hours before exercise

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