What and When to Eat Before Exercise

Strategies to Build and Maintain Energy Reserves

Bagel

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

In This Article

The food you eat before, during, and after a workout can not only affect your performance but your comfort, as well. Eating the right energy foods at the right time—including energy bars, drinks, gels, and other easily digestible carbohydrates—can provide you with the energy resources you need without overtaxing your digestive system.

To perform at your peak, you should stage the foods you eat. That means focusing on quality carbs which your body can convert into glucose for immediate energy, the reserves of which are converted into glycogen for future use. After exercise, you need to replenish your glycogen stores to aid in recovery and be ready for your next workout.

Calculating Your Nutritional Needs

You need to structure your eating plan based on the intensity, duration, and type of workout you intend to do. This is especially important if you are competing in an all-day event, such as a marathon, track meets, or team sporting event. Some activities burn energy rapidly, while others require a slow and steady fuel supply to keeping you going for the long haul.

To this end, it is important to know how much energy you will likely expend during the activity:

  • If a workout is less than 45 minutes, you may only need a snack 30–60 minutes beforehand, water during the workout, and a snack afterward. A good post-workout snack will have a 3:1 carb to protein ratio (such as chocolate milk).
  • For endurance exercises of 1 to 2.5 hours, aim for 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. This will provide ample carbs to supplement your muscle glycogen reserves during exercise.
  • For endurance exercises exceeding 2.5 hours, aim for 60 to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour. If you experience stomach issues, then decrease the carbohydrates consumed per hour.

What to Eat Before Exercise

Eating before exercise is something only the athlete can determine based upon experience, but, as a general guideline:

  • Eat a solid meal 4 hours before exercise.
  • Eat a snack or a high-carb energy drink 1 to 2 hours before exercise.
  • Consume a replacement drink 1 hour after exercise, preferably one with a 3:1 carbs to protein ratio.

Pre- and Post-Exercise Eating Strategy

To prepare for your workout, you need to replenish your glycogen stores upon waking since you will be in a fasted state. You should do so well enough in advance of the activity so that you don't work out on a full stomach. Depending on how much food you eat, allow yourself anywhere from one to four hours to properly digest the pre-exercise meal.

If you have an early morning event, it is best to get up as early as possible to start your eating plan. If you are unable to do so, eat or drink an easily digestible carb source (like a banana) no more than 20 to 30 minutes before the event.

Clearly, the closer you are to the start of the event, the less you should eat. If you fail to fuel up at all, you risk compromising your performance, especially if you haven't conditioned yourself to exercise without a pre-snack or pre-meal.

Within 1-2 hours of completing a long or high-intensity workout, consume high-quality protein sources. Some studies have shown that consuming 25g of protein in this window is beneficial. You will also need to consume 0.5 to 0.6g per kilogram of body weight of rapidly-absorbed carbohydrate (approximately 150 calories for a 160-pound athlete or the equivalent of one medium potato, one cup of pasta or white rice) every 30 minutes for the next 2 to 4 hours. This will replenish your glycogen stores as well as promote muscle protein synthesis.

Which Foods to Eat

Because glucose is the preferred energy source for most exercise, a pre-exercise meal should include foods that are high in carbs and easy to digest, such as pasta, fruit, bread, energy bars, and energy drinks.

The type of carb you choose also matters. If you're attending an endurance event, go with a carb with a low glycemic index (GI). Low-GI carbs don't raise the blood sugar quickly but rather maintain glucose levels at a steady state for a longer period of time. These include such foods as oatmeal and anything whole grain.

If your activity is short but intense, skip the whole grains and go instead for high-GI refined grains that raise the blood sugar quickly and give you a burst of energy off the starting blocks. Here are just some of the foods to consider prior to the start of an event.

3 to 4 Hours Before Exercise

Whole grain cereal
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman
  • Bagels
  • Baked potato
  • Cereal with milk
  • Energy bar
  • Fresh fruit
  • Pasta with tomato sauce
  • Toast with peanut butter, lean meat, or cheese
  • Water
  • Yogurt

2 to 3 Hours Before Exercise

Bagel
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman
  • Bread, bagels, or pasta
  • Fresh fruits
  • Oatmeal
  • Yogurt
  • Water

1 Hour or Less Before Exercise

Grapes
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman
  • Energy gels
  • Fresh fruit, such as apples, peaches, bananas, or grapes
  • Up to 1 to 1/2 cups of a sports drink

What Not to Eat Before Exercise

Foods with a lot of fat or fiber can be difficult to digest and tend to remain in the stomach for a long time. What this means is the blood meant to deliver oxygen to the muscles will instead get diverted to the stomach. If this happens during exercise, you are likely to experience cramping, stomachache, and nausea. As a rule, avoid foods like doughnuts, fries, potato chips, candy bars, or red meat.

While beans, dried fruit, coleslaw, and dairy may fit the bill nutrition-wise, you may want to skip them and other potentially gassy foods prior to exercise if you are prone to bloating.

Before a workout, skip any foods that are difficult to digest (high fiber or high-fat foods) or low in nutrient value, such as fried foods, candy, and caffeine.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Kanter, M. High-Quality Carbohydrates and Physical Performance: Expert Panel Report. Nutr Today. 2018;53(1):35-9. DOI: 10.1097/NT.0000000000000238.