By Nancy Clark, MS RD CSSD
Athletes of all sports and abilities commonly ask what they should eat before, during and after a competitive event:
When should I eat the pre-game meal: 2, 3 or 4 hours beforehand?
How many gels should I take during a tournament?
What’s best to eat for recovery after a volleyball match?
The same athletes who worry about event-day fueling often neglect their day-to-day training diet. Hence, the real question should be: “What should I eat before, during and after I train?” After all, you can only compete at your best if you can train at your best.
The goal of this article is to remind you to train your intestinal tract as well as your heart, lungs and muscles. To get the most out of each workout, you need to practice your fueling as well as your sports skills. Then, come day of the competition, you know exactly what, when and how much to eat so you can compete with optimal energy and without fear of bonking or intestinal distress. Here are some sports nutrition tips to help you perform faster, stronger and longer.
When and what should I eat before I exercise?
Each person has a different tolerance with pre-exercise food. I often talk to athletes who report they don’t eat before exercise because they’re afraid the food might cause intestinal problems. Then, they needlessly suffer through major energy problems during their workouts. That’s why they need to practice not only what they eat but also when and how much to eat before they exercise. From Day 1, I recommend you start training your intestinal tract by nibbling on a pretzel, a cracker or other fuel that will enhance stamina, endurance, and enjoyment of exercise.
You don’t need to wait around for pre-exercise snack to digest. You can grab a small snack just five minutes pre-exercise and the food will get put to good use–as long as you are exercising at a pace that you can maintain for more than half an hour. That is, you might not want to eat much five minutes before a hard track workout, but you could enjoy a banana before you put on your jogging shoes. Research suggests you can eat an energy bar either 15 or 60 minutes before moderate exercise and gain a similar energy boost. (1)
In general, most active people prefer to wait two to four hours after eating a full meal before they head to the gym or prepare for a team practice. The meal will have plenty of time to digest and empty from the stomach, particularly if they don’t stuff themselves with high fat foods (cheeseburgers and fries) that take longer to digest than a carb-based pasta-type meal. The rule of thumb is to consume (2):
Time pre-exercise Grams carb/lb Calories/150-lb athlete
5-60 minutes 0.5 g/lb 300 calories
2 hours 1.0 600
4 hours 2.0 1,200
For a 150-lb person, 300 pre-exercise calories translates into:
- 2 packets of oatmeal or a Dunkin Donuts-size (4 oz.) bagel within the hour before your morning run
- 4 Fig Newtons and a banana at 4:30 p.m. when you plan to go to the gym after work at 5:30 p.m.
If you will be meeting your triathlon buddies for a 50-mile bike ride at 10 a.m., you’ll want 600 calories by 8 a.m. That’s a bowl of granola with a banana and milk, or several pancakes. It’s more than many cyclists tend to eat.
When and what should I eat during a long workout?
If you plan to exercise for longer than 90 minutes (be it a long run, row, bike ride or team practice), you should plan to consume not only a pre-exercise snack (to fuel the first 60 to 90 minutes of your workout) but also additional carbs to maintain a normal blood sugar.
Your brain relies on the sugar (glucose) in your blood for fuel. If your blood sugar drops, you’ll bonk–lose focus, lag on energy, yearn for the workout to end, fail to get the most from your effort. Many a coach has learned that planning a mid-workout fueling session pays off in terms of happier athletes and enhanced ability to train harder at the end of a 2+ hour team practice.
While athletes in running sports that jostle the stomach may prefer to drink primarily liquid carbs (i.e., sports drink), cyclists and skiers might prefer a granola bar, dried fruit or a chunk of bagel plus water. The goal is:
- 30-60 g carb (120-240 calories)/hour exercise that lasts 2-3 hours
(Note: the pre-exercise snack will fuel the first hour.)
- 60-90 grams carb (240-360 calories)/hour extended exercise
(Examples: all-day hike, Ironman triathlon, century bike ride)
Some athletes choose the convenience of engineered sports foods (i.e, Sports Beans, Clif Chomps, PowerGels). Others save money by choosing “real” foods (raisins, gummy candy) that cost less and often taste better. Both are equally effective.
When and what should I eat after a long workout?
Rapid refueling is most important for people who do repeated bouts of intense, depleting exercise. You want to rapidly refuel if you are, let’s say, a triathlete who does double workouts and will be exercising within the next six hours. Your muscles are most receptive to refueling within an hour after a hard workout, so the sooner you refuel, the sooner you’ll be ready to roll again.
If you have a full day to recover before your next training session or if you are a fitness exerciser who has done an easy workout and have lower recovery needs, you need not get obsessed with refueling immediately after your workout. Yet, I encourage all athletes to get into the habit of refueling soon after their workout. You will not only feel better and have more energy but also will curb your appetite. If you are trying to lose weight, a post-exercise snack can ward off the cookie monster.
To avoid over-indulging in recovery-calories, plan to back your training into a meal. For example, enjoy breakfast after your morning workout instead of waiting to eat at the office. Plan to eat dinner right after your 5 p.m. workout. Remember: You haven’t finished your training until you’ve refueled.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes in her practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100).
For fueling help, read her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners or soccer players. See www.nancyclarkrd.com and also sportsnutritionworkshop.com.
- Kerr, K. et al. Effects of pre-exercise nutrient timing on glucose responses and intermittent exercise performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 40(5 Supplement): S77
- Joint Position Stand of the American College of Sports medicine, the American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 41(3): 709-731, 2009