Eating before and after exercise

A common question we both receive with regard to nutrition is what types of food should be consumed before and after exercise.

Whether you are completing a casual training session like boot camp or training for a competition it is important to have an understanding of the benefits and timing of pre and post exercise meals.

Food consumed before exercise is only useful once it has been digested and absorbed. This means you need to time your food intake so that the fuel becomes available during the exercise period. The time required for digestion depends on the type and quantity of food consumed. Generally, foods higher in fat, protein and fibre tend to take longer to digest than other foods, and may increase the risk of stomach discomfort during exercise. Large quantities of foods take longer to digest than smaller quantities. Generally, food is better tolerated during lower intensity activities, or sports where the body is supported (e.g. cycling) than sports such as running where the gut is jostled about during exercise.

A general guide is to have a meal about 3-4 hours before exercise or a lighter snack about 1-2 hours before exercise. You need to experiment to find the timing, amount and make up that best suits your individual needs.

Use the following as a general guide:
• Large meals. Eat these at least three to four hours before exercising.
• Small meals. Eat these two to three hours before exercising.
• Small snacks. Eat these an hour before exercising.

But remember if you eat too much before you exercise it could leave you feeling sluggish and eating too little might not give you the energy required.

Food eaten before exercise should contain carbohydrates. It should also be low in fat and moderate in fibre to make digestion easier and reduce the risk of gastrointestinal discomfort.

Keep in mind the following will be more suitable for when preparing for a competition or long bouts of exercise.

The following foods are suitable to eat 2-3 hours before exercise:
• crumpets with jam or honey + small quantity flavoured milk
• baked potato + cottage cheese filling + glass of milk
• baked beans on toast
• breakfast cereal with milk
• bread roll with cheese/meat filling + banana
• fruit salad with fruit-flavoured yoghurt
• pasta or rice with a sauce based on low-fat ingredients (e.g. tomato, vegetables, lean meat)

The following snacks are suitable to eat 1-2 hours before exercise and suitable before a casual training session like boot camp:
• liquid meal supplement
• milk shake or fruit smoothie
• sports bars (check labels for carbohydrate and protein content)
• breakfast cereal with milk
• cereal bars
• fruit-flavoured yoghurt
• fruit

It is recommended that you avoid dairy products (including butter on bread) unless you have had previous practice at consuming and then training with them in your system.

Do I have to eat before a workout? Will it help me burn more fat if I don’t eat beforehand?
May sound silly but it is a common question I get and the answer is yes you should eat before a workout. Doesn’t have to be a big meal as suggested above but some sugar to get the body energised and out of its fasting state (from a night’s sleep) so you can have an effective workout.

Studies have shown that with or without a meal a certain amount of fat will be burnt however, those that don’t eat anything beforehand their body in addition to fat stores starts using protein stores and with that your muscle mass, which is not what you are going for when you are waking up at 6am to work on toning your body.

I know most of you will simply roll out of bed 15 minutes before a training session but if you try and eat something before you head to training to simply raise your blood sugar levels you will find you really have more energy and endurance to work harder, burn more calories, and improve your muscle tone in the long run. It is something simple that contains carbohydrates and protein and can be as easy as half/full banana, a glass of juice, peanut butter sandwich, muesli bar, a piece of toast with honey or sports drink or (anything under the 1-2hr list above) and you are on your way. If a coffee works for you, give it a try but remember if your exercise involves running, this may not sit well.

Not able to eat in the morning before a workout? My suggestion is simply give it a go, try different foods and you may just find something that sits well with you and gives you more energy throughout your workout. If it just isn’t working for you, that’s ok too, this just means the post exercise meal will be extremely important to ensure your body recovers appropriately.

Post exercise – why should we eat a meal?
Immediately after a workout session/competition, you are encouraged to consume a carbohydrate rich snack that provides 1-1.2g of carbohydrates per kg body weight within your first hour of completing the exercise. The aim of a recovery meal is to restore liver and muscle glycogen concentration and replace fluid and electrolytes lost through sweat. It is important to replenish stores lost to ensure that muscle-damage repair and reconditioning is facilitated. Neglecting to do so can compromise future performance – ever missed a session because you are way too sore??

Some people will finish an event with a good appetite, so most foods are appealing to eat. On the other hand, a fatigued athlete may only feel like eating something that is compact and easy to chew.

Some examples (but not limited to)
• 700-800ml sports drink
• 2 sports gels
• 300ml carbohydrate loader drink
• 2 slices toast/bread with jam or honey or banana topping
• 2 cereal bars
• 1 cup thick vegetable soup + large bread roll
• 115g (1 large or 2 small) cake style muffins, fruit buns or scones
• 300g (large) baked potato with salsa filling
• 100g pancakes (2 stack) + 30g syrup
• Yoghurt and fruit
• Low fat milk
• Peanut butter sandwich

In the lead up to an event
As per our information sheet “Carbs are not the enemy” you will have read about carbohydrate loading and its benefits for endurance events.

As per the Australian Institute of Sport recommendations anyone that is exercising continuously at a moderate to high intensity for 90 minutes or longer is likely to benefit from carbohydrate loading.

Typically, sports such as cycling, marathon running, longer distance triathlon, cross-country skiing and endurance swimming benefit from carbohydrate loading. Shorter-term exercise is unlikely to benefit as the body’s usual carbohydrate stores are adequate.

An athlete participating in a high carbohydrate diet in the lead up to an event might look something like this.

What if I am too nervous to eat?
You will perform better when you are well-fuelled and well hydrated, and the pre-event meal may play an important role in achieving these goals. Athletes need to experiment to find a routine that works, and foods that are safe and familiar. Liquid meal supplements provide an alternative for anyone who has difficulty tolerating solid foods pre-exercise. You may also find that foods such as cereal bars and sports bars can be eaten if you nibble them slowly over the hours leading up to the event.

Don’t forget about hydration – this is just as important!
Pre Event/Training:
Hydration is essential. For an upcoming event, in the days leading to the event you should be aiming to consume at least 1.5-2litres of water a day.

Avoid drinking alcohol the night before an event/training session as alcohol is a diuretic and will dehydrate you and will also prevent you from sleeping well.

You must ensure you begin the event in fluid balance. This requires drinking regularly throughout the day leading up to the event. Have a drink with all meals and snacks. Immediately, before the event commences, consume 200-600 ml of fluid.

During the event/Training:
Studies have shown that regular ingestion of fluids is essential for sporting performance. Hypo-hydration (total body water below normal) impairs the body’s ability to regulate heat resulting in increased body temperature and an elevated heart rate. Perceived exertion is increased causing the athlete to feel more fatigued than usual at a given work rate. Mental function is reduced which can have negative implications for motor control, decision making and concentration. Gastric emptying is slowed, resulting in stomach discomfort. All these effects lead to impairment in exercise performance.

We recommend taking small sips of water throughout training or if in competition at drink stations provided. As a general rule of thumb you should be consuming about 200-300mls of water for every 20mins of exercise. Most athletes can tolerate this but tolerance will vary according to the exercise intensity.

Post evening/Training:
Replace any residual fluid deficit after exercise. You will need to drink 125-150% of any fluid deficit in the 4-6 hours after exercise to account for ongoing sweat and urinary losses. For example if you have lost 1kg of water, need to drink 1500ml of water to replace the loss

When fluid losses are high and/or rapid rehydration is required, sodium replacement may be required. Sports drinks, oral rehydration solutions and salty foods can all contribute to sodium replacement.

Studies have shown that sports drinks are effective after any moderate -high intensity exercise lasting more than 1 hour with the addition of sodium/electorlytes in these drinks reduces further urine loss. These are not appropriate to be sipping throughout boot camp sessions, water is sufficient.
Flavoured drinks, such as sports drinks and low concentration cordial, may encourage more fluid consumption than plain water because of their taste and sodium content.

Surprisingly to some studies have shown that chocolate milk may be as good or better than sports drinks at helping athletes recover from strenuous exercise. Milk is 90% water so it helps you keep hydrated, provides 10 essential nutrients for growth and development, including protein for healthy muscles and calcium for building strong bones.

Protein Shakes/Supplements – should I be consuming them? Does increasing my protein intake assist with my weight loss goal?
In general we consume enough protein by following a varied healthy diet on a daily basis. To give you an idea of the protein we should consume per day please see table here.

At times if a person isn’t able to get the nutrient they require from the diet, after speaking with a nutritionist/dietician a supplement may be required, but not without consultation.

Would I recommend protein shakes? Not when they are so expensive and you can make your own beneficial product at home with cow’s milk and some fresh fruit and vegetables or nuts and seeds. You are much better to have a fruit smoothie or invest in some sustagen if you are keen on adding ‘protein shakes’ to your diet.

Yes protein should assist you to reach your weight loss goal because protein can reduce your appetite and those that need assistance reducing dietary intake, this may be beneficial for. Again, I would chat to a health professional before doing so.

Supplements – effectiveness and safety.
Rather than me re-inventing the wheel check out the following link that runs through the supplements that the AIS classify as effective and safe (and not so much) based on extensive research. Another frequent question I am asked – Click here for more information.

1. Mayo Clinic – Eating and Exercise (5 tips to maxamise your workout)
2. Australian Institute of Sport – Eating before exercise
3. Australian Institute of Sport – Eating post exercise
4. Dairy Australia – Dairy and exercise recovery
5. Australian Institute of Sport – Hydration
6. Australian Institute of Sport – Protein
7. Australian Institute of Sport – AIS Supplement Group Classification System


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