As a regular runner, I have good and bad running days. On the whole, good – I feel full of energy, maintain a good pace and finish satisfied. Occasionally, I have days where my energy just never kicks in, I struggle to maintain even an average speed and I run half my usual distance.
I wondered if this was a result of my erratic pre-exercise eating: sometimes, I’ll run soon after a meal; other times, I’ll grab a sugary snack or just run on an empty stomach. As I am now training for a race, I asked nutritionist and author of sports nutrition books Anita Bean about the best times, and foods, to eat before training.
When should I eat before a run?
The ideal time for a pre-exercise meal is two to four hours before your workout – early enough for food to be digested, yet late enough that this energy won’t be used up before you exercise.
Any longer means you may feel hungry and light-headed during training, and be low on energy. Any sooner could make you feel uncomfortable, ‘heavy’ or nauseous, and lacking energy as the blood supply diverts to the digestive organs instead of the muscles.
In reality, timing will depend on constraints such as work hours, travel and session times. Try to plan meals as best you can around these commitments.
For example, if you train at 8 o’clock, plan to eat between 4 and 6 o’clock. If you want to train earlier, eat a smaller meal, which is easier to digest. You should feel comfortable; neither full nor hungry.
How much should I eat before I exercise?
The size of your meal depends on your size; workout length and intensity; and the timing of your meal. The heavier you are and the longer your workout, the larger the pre-exercise meal should be. The closer you eat to your workout, the smaller the meal.
If you eat four hours before your workout, you can probably consume 600 to 800 calories; if two hours before, 300 to 400 calories.
Some athletes can eat closer to training, especially when there is little recovery time from a previous session. In this case, liquid meals (ie. meal replacement drinks and milk shakes) are a good option.
What should I eat?
Around 60 to 80 per cent of the calories in your pre-exercise meal or snack should come from carbohydrates. This will raise blood sugar, top up muscle and liver glycogen levels, and increase endurance and performance.
Eating carbohydrate-rich foods that are more slowly digested and absorbed (low GI) will help maintain blood sugar levels, increase endurance and delay fatigue. Good options include pasta, wholegrain bread, porridge, beans, lentils and brown rice.
Include a little protein in your meal (chicken, fish, cheese, egg, milk, yoghurt, beans, lentils or nuts) to help lower the meal’s overall GI, reduce muscle breakdown during exercise, and improve performance. Avoid too much fat (ie. fried foods, sausages, burgers and chips) as it delays digestion and may make you feel uncomfortable.
Suitable pre-workout meals include:
• Jacket potato with a little cheese, tuna or baked beans plus salad
• Pasta with tomato-based sauce or pesto, a little cheese, plus vegetables
• Rice, pasta or noodles with chicken, fish or beans, plus vegetables
• Porridge with milk, honey and raisins
• Wholemeal sandwich/roll/ wrap with tuna/ cheese/ chicken/ peanut butter, and salad
What if I don’t have time for a meal?
Have a snack 30 minutes before training with a drink of water.
Suitable snacks include:
• One or two bananas
• A handful of dried fruit and a few nuts
• One or two cereal or granola bars (oat-based)
• A pot of fruit yoghurt and some fresh fruit
• One or two slices of bread or toast with honey
When I run first thing in the morning I don’t eat before….
Try to have a light snack before to help you train longer and harder, ie. a cereal bar, slice of toast, small bowl of cereal, couple of mini-pancakes or a banana. Always have a drink before training – preferably water – to replace the fluid lost in the night.
Alternatively, have a larger supper the night before and a light snack or fluids prior to your morning session.
I often have a sugary snack before exercise hoping for an energy boost – is this a good idea?
Sugar-rich foods and drinks raise blood sugar levels, which triggers the release of insulin to remove sugar from the bloodstream. Raised levels just before exercise creates the potential for a rebound drop in blood glucose levels (hyopglycaemia) during exercise. This can cause light-headedness, nausea, and early fatigue.
Avoid this by consuming only small amounts of sugar before exercise – less than 25g generally produces a moderate increase in blood sugar – or opting for a food or drink with a lower GI. If you need an energy boost, choose foods such as bananas, dried fruit, and cereal bars, which are less likely to cause rapid increases in blood sugar and insulin levels.
For more information about Anita Bean, Click here