The topic surrounding nutrition prior to exercise is one which always seems to raise debate and unanswered questions, causing a level of confusion to the average individual. The aim of this article is to consider what and when to eat before undertaking exercise and to place the information into a user friendly format. Although not covered in this article, the importance of adequate hydration and fluid intake should also be considered in conjunction with your dietary requirements. However this topic will be considered separately, allowing the focus within this article to concentrate solely on the nutrition required to achieve optimal physical performance.
The food selection an individual makes prior to, during and after exercise is of paramount importance for both comfort and performance during the chosen activity. Typical sports related energy foods include bars, drinks, gel substances and other forms of easily accessible carbohydrates which assist in the prevention of hunger whilst also replenishing depleted energy stores which are utilised during exercise.
Pre exercise foods place heavy emphasis on easily accessible carbohydrates. The reason for this is that carbohydrates, stored in the body as glycogen, are the major fuel source for the working muscle. During exercise, depending on the type and intensity, glycogen stores are readily depleted and so the boosting of these stores through carbohydrate intake prior to exercise can assist in maintaining threshold levels of these vitally important stores.
As is the case with all foods, drinks and supplements in relation to physical performance, there are general guidelines which can be followed. However, a process of trial and error is often required by the individual to determine their optimal levels and what feels right. An individual’s requirements depend very much on their needs and preferences, as well as the type of activity undertaken and the time and intensity at which it is performed.
For obvious reasons, exercising on a full stomach is not recommended as it can cause symptoms such as stomach upset, sickness and cramps which are all detrimental to physical performance. To avoid this, any meal eaten should be allowed to fully digest prior to starting exercise. This again varies from individual to individual and the type and amount of food they have consumed, but as a general rule this process will normally take anywhere between 1-4 hours.
Through the process of trial and error, this relatively large time frame can be minimised and narrowed down to determine an individual’s optimum. If for whatever reason there is not the required time frame available, then consideration should be given to a liquid alternative which is more readily digestible.
As previously highlighted, glycogen is the main energy source utilised for most types of physical performance and so a pre exercise meal should consist of foods that are both high in carbohydrates, easy to digest and convert into a usable energy source. These foods will be considered in more detail but include bread, pasta, rice, potato, fruit and selected energy bars and drinks.
Although individual preference will ultimately determine dietary patterns of eating, as a general rule it is recommended that a solid meal be consumed approximately 4 hours before exercise, a high carbohydrate snack be eaten 2-3 hours before exercise and a fluid replacement be consumed approximately 1 hour prior to exercise commencing. Several examples of these will now be considered:
4 hours before physical performance:
2-3 hours before physical performance:
Less than 1 hour prior to physical performance:
The above information is best used as a guideline to assist in determining what works best for you. Although a selection of food products have been listed to provide examples, this is no way an exhaustive list. Please consider our online store for further product information on numerous pre exercise carbohydrate loaded food and drink supplements. It is also worth noting that foods which contain a high proportion of fat and/or fibre can be difficult and timely to digest and consequently can remain in the stomach for extended time periods. This can cause symptoms which are detrimental to physical performance, as highlighted above, and as a result should only be consumed in small quantities in pre exercise meals where required.
Hopefully the information provided within this article will allow you to make some informed decisions regarding your dietary needs prior to exercise and ultimately assist you in making subtle changes where required to bring about greater performance success. Inadequate diet is one of several contributing factors to both plateaus and decrements in physical performance, so it’s worth getting right at an early stage in your training.
It is also worth highlighting, although obvious, that the trial and error process you undertake should be conducted away from important sporting performances. The last thing you want is to experiment on the day of a big event (such as a marathon) and get it wrong, leaving yourself feeling vulnerable and underachieving! So with all this in mind, all that’s left is for you to go and see what works best for you. Be sure to check back for the article ‘What to Eat After Exercise’ and further articles detailing optimal hydration guidelines.
If you’re struggling for inspiration as to what to consume prior to your exercise routine then why not consider a selection of the leading pre exercise supplements available below;