When working out the body uses it carbs and fats from food for fuel. Most easily broken down, carbs are our main source of energy. It is best therefore, to stick to low GI carbs that reduce energy slowly for a longer workout.
The body stores carbohydrate in small amounts in the liver and muscles, as glycogen; it is therefore important to make sure that the glycogen stores of the liver and muscles are optimal before exercise as they are depleted during training. The carbohydrate in your diet will provide most energy during exercise, mainly from starchy snacks that you eat before exercise.
General rules to stick to when choosing what to eat before a workout is most importantly to avoid high fat and overly fibre-filled foods. Though some foods like porridge, are high in fibre but don't overload the stomach, they are great for providing a rich source of energy. Taking a good source of carbs and protein is always best for pre-workout meals.
Ideally before a workout it is best to have a meal around 3 or 4 hours before and then top up your nutrition with a snack around an hour before a workout. So, if you plan to go to the gym at 5.30pm, try to have a meal (lunch) at 1.30pm and then a snack at 4pm.
Pre-workout examples — foods suitable for 3-4 hours before exercise:
- A baked potato with baked beans, cottage cheese, tuna or other topping.
- Rice with vegetables and lean meat; chicken or fish ideally.
- Pasta and sauce; pasta bake is ideal but with whole-wheat pasta and low fat sauce.
- Two slices of toast, peanut butter or cinnamon and a banana.
- Chicken or turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread.
Pre-workout snack ideas — foods suitable for 1-2 hours before exercise:
- One slice of toast with any spread that take your fancy; peanut butter, jam, honey with banana.
- Greek yogurt with fruit and oats.
- Porridge or cereal, even better with a spoonful of peanut butter.
- A veggie or meat omelette, egg white alone or with yolk.
- A fruit smoothie.
- Hummus and whole grain toast or vegetables.
Best foods before a workout:
As an easily digested carbohydrate, bananas are packed with energy and potassium, ideal to sustain your exercise and provide potassium easily lost through sweat. As a fast acting carb, bananas will provide an instant source of energy giving you an energy boost, and when combined with foods such a porridge and bread which release energy slowly, this makes the perfect combination for a long but intense workout. Ideally eaten around 30 minutes before a workout to utilise energy release, bananas are any athlete's best friend for energy!
You dont need to be a scientist to know that whole-grain breads are good carbs, having a low GI index, meaning that energy is released slowly into the blood to provide a more reliable source of energy, keeping you going for longer. We all get that mid point of a workout when we feel tired and exhausted, tempted to cut our workout in half. But if you stock up either by a meal or snack with bread, you can feel more fuelled throughout your exercise for longer. Staying away from white bread, baguettes, bagels and so on is advised, but combining these breads with different foods such as eggs, peanut butter, chicken or any nutritious foods you fancy is beneficial way to provide a variety of nutrients used up when exercising.
Although overloading your food with stodgy, high fibre foods isn't ideal, porridge offers an exception to this rule, relatively high in fibre, but not so much that it would cause gas or bloating if eaten relatively early before a workout. This fibre content can also assist the steady release of energy from carbohydrates, only furthermore assisted by the high vitamin B content. Combined with many nutritious and helpful foods such as almonds, bananas, peanut butter and so on, porridge is a great way to either start the day or serve as a mid-day snack, keeping you fuelled and energised.
Containing double the protein but only half the sugar than regular yogurt, greek yogurt is the ideal way to add a bit of protein and calcium before a workout, whilst satisfying any sweet cravings you may have. Protein is essential to ensure adequate muscle function, and taking in a good source of protein before a workout is ideal to keep your muscles fit and ensure efficient muscle repair after exercise. Although protein is generally very difficult to breakdown for fuel, instead combining it with oats, granola, fruits, honeys and so on, this will provide your body enough sugars and carbs to keep going for a long, intensive workout.
What should you drink?
Not only should you think about your food intake before exercise, but you also need to consider the fluid that you drink. Don't turn up at the gym or go for a run dehydrated, you should be fully hydrated prior to taking any exercise. Dehydration is easy to detect, when you pass water make sure that it is as clear as possible. The darker the color of your urine, the more dehydrated you are. Also, the frequency with which you pass urine can indicate whether you are drinking enough, if you only pass water once or twice a day it’s time to consider drinking more fluid.
When you are exercising for less than an hour; water or a hypotonic drink (a drink providing more water than carbohydrate) is the best to take. This is recommended for people who are at the gym or running for less than an hour.
If you are unsure about whether you have had enough fluid before you exercise, try to keep a ‘drinking diary’. This will help you remember to keep hydrated and maintain your fluid intake throughout the day before you exercise.