Pre-Exercise Food


Some athletes know they have to exercise on an empty stomach or else suffer abdominal distress. Others simply hesitate to eat before they exercise because their coach warned them about that years ago. Confusion abounds regarding what, if anything, to eat before a workout or competitive event. The purpose of this article is to share some of what is known about pre-exercise food and to encourage experimenting with eating patterns to determine what foods/fluids, if any, work best. Athletes may discover they can achieve performance benefits with an appropriate pre-exercise energizer, as opposed to habitually exercising on an empty stomach.

Q. I generally train at 8:00 a.m. Should I eat breakfast beforehand?

Although skipping breakfast is a common practice among athletes who exercise in the morning, research suggests that performance will be better if some carbohydrates are eaten within 4 hours pre-exercise. During the night, the sugar supply (liver glycogen) that maintains normal blood sugar levels is depleted. By starting a workout with low blood sugar, fatigue will likely set in earlier than if something was eaten, such as a slice of toast, piece of fruit or glass of juice.

How much should be eaten? The answer varies from person to person, ranging from one or two crackers to a bowl of cereal or a pancake breakfast. Any food is likely better than no food. Research has shown good results with 0.5 grams carbohydrate (2 calories) per pound body weight one hour before moderately hard exercise. (For a 150 lb person this is the equivalent of 75 grams (300 calories) of CHO, the amount in 2 cans of soft drink.) In a cycling study (90 minutes moderately hard cycling followed by an intense time-trial), the athletes improved 12.5% when fed about 300 calories compared to the same workout with no food and only pre-exercise water. When fueled, they completed the time-trial in 41.5 minutes as compared to 47 minutes unfueled. They showed the same performance improvements whether they had 0.5 grams CHO/lb or 1.0 gram CHO/lb one hour before exercise. Eating twice the amount of carbohydrates provided no additional benefits (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 54, 866).

In another study, cyclists had 1,200 carbohydrate-calories (that's a big pancake breakfast!) four hours pre-exercise and cycled 15% stronger during the last 45 minutes (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 21, 598). Pre-exercise carbohydrates supplied fuel for the end of the workout when glycogen stores were low.

Although these studies were done with cyclists who tend to report fewer GI complaints than athletes in running sports that jostle the stomach, the benefits are worth noting. …

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