August 12

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Fuelling up before exercise


In one aspect, food is fuel. When it comes to exercise, the food you eat and drink can determine the results you achieve both in and out of the gym. Whether you are training to compete, or just to look or feel better, proper nutrition can help you make sure you arrive at the gym ready to train.

In general, proper sports nutrition will help ensure you are ready to train and get the most out of each exercise session.

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Your pre-exercise meal provides the opportunity to:

  • Fuel your body, brain and muscles for the training session ahead
  • Prevent distraction from unwanted hunger pangs during exercise
  • Alleviate stomach discomfort or potential trips to the bathroom.

Below, I answer some of the most common questions I get about eating before exercise. If you have any more questions that I haven't answered, make sure to get in touch with me. I'm planning to put together a future feature with visitor-submitted questions.

How long should I eat before exercise?

It will come down to a number of variables and factors. For example, the duration of your gym session, the type of exercise you have planned and your training schedule all have an impact. In short, really "it depends" is the best I can do in a broad covering article like this.

Generally, most people will do well to eat their main meal between 2 and 4 hours before their gym session. This should avoid any unwanted stomach discomfort or digestional upset. If you're looking to perform really well then you may want to consider a small snack around an hour before you exercise. This will help top up your energy stores and fuel muscles for training.

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What about fluids, water and drinking?

As a general rule, you want to avoid gulping large amounts of fluid just before you hit the gym. You'll often get more benefit from sipping water in the hours leading up to your exercise session. This ensures you're properly hydrated and your body can use the fluid more effectively. Additionally, you'll find you are less likely to interrupt your training by having to go to the toilet. Furthermore, you'll avoid the discomfort of having a belly full of water and then having to move, jump, lift or train.

What should I eat before I exercise?

We are all different and have different tastes and preferences. Some people find certain foods are easier to digest and sit more comfortably in their stomach than others. In general, you'll want to choose your pre-exercise meal or snack based on the following criteria:

  • A good source of carbohydrate to optimise your muscles' 'fuel tank'
  • Relatively low in fibre. This is particularly important if you tend to have gut issues or intestinal problems. Additionally, if you are competing and often feel nervous or anxious, low-fibre foods will often sit better.
  • You'll want food that is easy to digest. Foods high in fat and/or protein take longer for your body to break down. Not ideal if you want to get the most from your gym training or exercise session.
  • A meal that you're already accustomed too. Again, this is even more important if you are competing in an event. Avoid trying any new foods or meals on the day of the event. Practise with different meals and snacks in the lead up to your event. Notice how your own body responds and how well you perform after each.

Pre-exercise meal and snack ideas to fuel exercise and gym training sessions

People often as me for specific foods they should eat before they exercise. While there is no one "best" meal or snack to have before you hit the gym, here are a few ideas you might like to try.

Slice or two of raisin toast with jam

raisin toast with jam is a good pre-exercise snack

Couple of crumpets with honey and banana

If you want something to eat before exercise, try some crumpets with sliced banana and a drizzle of honey

Small bowl of breakfast cereal and milk with chopped fruit and a pot of yoghurt

A small bowl of cereal with milk and fruit is a good option to eat before you exercise in the gym

Smoothie (like my quick & easy breakfast smoothie recipe that you can whizz up in 2 minutes flat)

try a fruit smoothie as a pre-exercise meal to fuel your muscles in the gym

Small serving of pasta in tomato sauce

pasta and tomato sauce is good fuel for exercising muscles

Tinned fruit with creamed rice

a sweet snack to eat before exercise is creamed rice pudding with tinned fruit

If you really want to perform at your best, then you should also look at your carbohydrate intake in the days leading up to your session. Your performance in your training sessions or competitive event will largely be determined by your preparation. It's not always just about your pre-exercise meal. Consider your sleep quality, recovery duration, mental clarity and stress all important factors.

What should I drink before exercise?

Again, it's difficult to give a "best" fluid without going into a more personalised consultation. Your ideal fluid to consume prior to exercise will depend on your goals, session duration and the amount you expect to lose during the training. For example, your sweat rate and the environment you're in are important to consider.

If your main goal is simply to keep dehydration at bay then water with or without added electrolytes is a good choice. If you're likely to need a source of fuel then you might want to look towards a sports drink. These have additional carbohydrate which your muscles will appreciate. Some contain electrolytes to assist with hydration however it's best to consider commercial sports drinks as a carbohydrate source. They are generally designed to top up your carbohydrate levels

Lastly, if you are plagued with nerves or particular gut problems then liquid meal supplements may be particularly good choices.

Knowing what to eat and drink before you exercise can make a massive difference in how you look, feel and perform. If you need more specific advice and you're really keen to get in better shape, check out my nutrition coaching and custom meal plan options.

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Paul Stokes

About the author

Paul Stokes BSc (Hons) is a Certified Personal Trainer, Accredited Sports Nutritionist, qualified Exercise to Music Instructor, Precision Nutrition coach, Massage Therapist and teaches 8 of the Les Mills Group Exercise programs. He currently works in the Oil & Gas industry as a Wellness Coach, imparting his vast knowledge and experience to improve the quality of life of several hundred offshore workers.

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