What to Eat before Exercise

Part One- Eating before exercise  

This is the first of a 3-part series to give you some ideas of what to eat before, during and after exercise.  Today’s topic is “What should an athlete eat before working out?”  This is a common question I hear and definitely a good one.   Let's first look at why eating before training is a good idea.

Eating before exercise has been shown to reduce fatigue.  Endurance exercise fatigue is related to low blood sugar and low levels of carbohydrate in the muscle (glycogen).    Research has shown that carbohydrate can be used as an energy source within 5-10 minutes after consuming.  We know this because we have given athletes a radioactive labeled carbohydrate food and monitored gas exchange afterwards (no athletes were harmed in this research). 

The most benefits are seen in activity lasting over 60-90 minutes.  Keep the food choices low in fiber and fat to avoid any unwanted stomach activity (due to jostling of the stomach).  However, if you are cycling or swimming, that might not be a big deal.   

Math- based on body weight.  To convert lbs to kilograms, divide your weight in lbs by 2.2

4 hours before: 

3 grams/kg-  (Ex: 150 lb ÷ 2.2 = 68 kg)     3 grams x 68 kg= 204 carbohydrate grams


Choose one of the following:

2 Scrambled eggs with white toast/jam and banana

1 bagel with low-fat cream cheese, jelly and banana

3 oz grilled chicken breast with small baked potato + 2 tsp margarine, roll and water

2 cups plain pasta with ¾ cup marinara sauce + 2 oz chicken and 1 plain roll

1 can of a low-fat sport shake with no more than 25 grams protein, 1 sports bar, 1 banana, water

2-3 hours before:

2 grams/kg  (Ex: 150 lb ÷ 2.2 = 68 kg)     2 grams x 68 kg= 136 carbohydrate grams


Choose one of the following:

½ of turkey sandwich on white bread with baked chips

½ bagel with honey and 1 banana

2 pancakes with syrup and berries

32 fluid oz of a sports drink such as Gatorade, Powerade, etc.

1 smoothie with berries, banana, whey protein

1 sports energy bar, 1 cup sports drink, 1 cup water

Less than 1 hour:

.5 – 1 gram/kg   (Ex: 150 lb ÷ 2.2 = 68 kg)     .5 - 1 grams x 68 kg= 34 – 68 carbohydrate grams

Choose one of the following:

Honeystinger waffle

Applesauce packet

1 small baked potato

Half of a sports energy bar such as PowerBar

½ plain bagel or English muffin

Crackers such as saltines or Melba toast

Small box of cereal such as Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies or Total

8-12 ounces of a sports drink such as Gatorade, Powerade, etc.

If weight is a concern and you are trying to lose weight you can reduce the amount of food you eat before (again, there is the science and the art of this).  You may, however; find that your hunger after exercise will be reduced and the intensity of exercise might increase which would promote more calorie burning. 

Next article will be on what to eat during exercise!  

References:  Williams, M.  Nutrition for Health, Fitness and Sport, Krause’s Food and Nutrition Therapy, 12th edition