Knowing how to fuel your body before training is essential to your success as an athlete. In addition to becoming more familiar with pre-training nutrition, being mindful of adjusting nutrition practices to support your current level of training is important. A few months ago we wrote a post about what to eat to support recovery, “Taking Advantage of Recovery Nutrition to Boost Your Game” and now it is time to focus on what to eat before performance, which I consider essential to help give you what it takes as a competitive athlete to take your training to the next level!
Benefits for Performance:
By now we know that nutrition helps a variety of processes within the body. Adequate nutrition (aka eating enough) helps to fuel overall health. For example, carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for most cells- it’s important to eat enough to help give the body and the brain energy; fats help to provide cell barriers and help provide cushioning to help support cells, and protein plays a role in making enzymes and hormones, repair DNA, helps to build and repair tissue, helps with cell-to-cell communication, and antibodies rely on protein to help support immune health. In addition to the nutrition needed for the body’s day-to-day internal functions, as an athlete, the body also needs enough energy to support physical activity for training and competition.
When it comes to physical activity, the human body is able to produce enough energy to prevent fatigue during activity as long as there is enough energy available. What athletes put into their training will be what they get out of it! An athlete cannot expect to perform their best if they’re on empty. Signs that an athlete may not be eating enough for training include lightheadedness, nausea, not meeting body composition goals, irritability, and a higher risk of injury and soreness. By eating enough, athletes are also able to put more “oomph” into each play, game, recall routines and get closer to meeting personal goals in the gym, weight room, out on the field, and/or on the trail!
The extent to which sources are used for fuel in the body depends on the intensity and duration of training. Most endurance activity is fueled by eating carbohydrates and fat. When discussing pre-training nutrition, there is an emphasis placed on getting enough carbohydrates before training. I like to call carbohydrates our most efficient, easy to digest (for the most part), and easy to tap into- source of energy. Carbohydrates primarily fuel high-intensity activity (such as repeated sprinting, jumps, leaps, and other quick movements), while both fats and carbohydrates help to fuel moderate-intensity exercise (long-duration, moderate activity, examples include marathon running). Protein also helps to provide a little bit of energy especially if we haven’t consumed enough carbohydrates. However, protein is key as part of recovery but can also help contribute to satiety if consuming a moderate amount before training (helping keep your fuel during a workout) and can contribute ~5-10% of total energy during endurance training.,
Let’s Discuss the Science:
When the body breaks carbohydrates down, the body uses it in the form of glucose. Glucose can be used as immediate energy or stored as glycogen in the liver and skeletal muscle. The body’s liver glycogen helps to maintain blood glucose at rest and exercise (by breaking glycogen back down into glucose) while glycogen in skeletal muscle helps fuel muscle fibers during activity. Since the body’s liver and muscle glycogen capacity is limited, these stores can deplete more quickly than we think. For example, liver glycogen can deplete after an overnight fast (~12-15 hours) while muscle glycogen varies in how quickly it depletes depending on training duration and intensity. Generally speaking, glycogen stores can deplete during prolonged physical training, consecutive days of intense training, skipping meals, or through low carb diets. The body depends on these storage sites, as they provide the body with a continuous supply of glucose and energy during training and helps to decrease the risk of fatigue.
Carbohydrate’s role before training is to help boost energy through the body by maintaining glucose levels in the blood. During recovery, carbohydrates are recommended with protein to help restore energy levels and to repair and build muscle. Between training events, consuming enough carbohydrates will be important to restore muscle and liver glycogen and to fill up the tank before the next session.
Putting Knowledge into Practice:
Now that we have a basic knowledge of what role these macronutrients play as a source of energy before and during training. Let’s discuss the timing nutrients appropriately for activity:
- First off, how does an athlete know if they’re eating enough before training? One way is to work with a registered dietitian to personalize nutrition to an athlete’s level of training. Secondly, a great place to start is to refer back to our post, “Take Control of Your Everyday Nutrition Practices By Adding These Key 3 Nutrients” where we explain how athlete’s training plates can help with meal planning.
- How long before training should an athlete eat a meal? It’s important to give the body enough time to break down foods before training. Meals are recommended 3-4 hours before, using suggested athlete training plates; and snacks are recommended within 1-2 hours or as tolerated before training.
- What should meals include? If eaten with enough time to digest, meals before training can include foods higher in fiber from starchy carbs and fruits. Foods higher in fats and fiber take longer to digest since there is reduced blood flow to the digestive tract once training begins. This can cause gastrointestinal discomfort for some. Due to this, the closer we get to training the more it is recommended to consume foods lower in proteins, fats, and fiber. Before an activity, 1-4 g/kg of carbohydrates are recommended 1-4 hours leading up to training. For someone who weighs 160 lbs, this would translate to at least 70 gm of carbs within 4 hours of training. This does not work for everyone, so it will be important to try and see what fueling habits can be tolerated and how to space this out before activity begins! Examples of pre-training meals include:
- Egg & cheese on an English muffin with fruit and a cup of milk
- Overnight oats with dried fruit & yogurt
- Turkey wrap with avocado & baked chips
- Peanut butter & jelly sandwich with a side of hummus and pita chips
- Egg and veggie omelet, 2 pieces of whole-grain toast, with a cup of juice
- Oatmeal with berries and nuts and a tall glass of milk
- Pasta with meat of choice and a side salad
- Brown rice bowl with chickens and veggies
- What should snacks include? Snacks help top off energy stores. The closer we get to training, the more easily digested (simple) carbohydrates are recommended. Examples of pre-training snacks include:
- Fresh, diced, or squeezable fruit or fruit smoothie
- Bread with nut butter, banana & drizzle of honey
- Greek yogurt with granola and fruit
- Juice and toast
- String cheese and crackers
- Cereal and Milk
- A smaller portion of oats and fruit
- Bars: Clif, Nature Valley- just to name a couple!
- For those who cannot tolerate food before training (because they may experience a stomach ache or think it is too early to eat)…it is recommended to try a snack that contains at least 30 gm of carbohydrates (such as a banana or a cup of fruit juice) before training! Something is better than nothing! It is also important to note that these are general recommendations and if something has been working for an athlete and they are able to eat more than the recommendations provided above, then keep following that regimen!
- Can’t forget about hydration! How much Hydration is recommended before training?
- Before Training it is recommended to hydrate with at least 2-3 cups of water 2-3 hours leading up to training. Add a cup of an electrolyte-enhanced beverage (recommend those with carbohydrates) within 2 hours of training if prone to cramping or know extra energy is needed for training. If there are water breaks during training, the goal is to drink 1 cup of water (or 4-8 sips) every 20 minutes and alternate with an electrolyte-enhanced beverage as needed. Monitor hydration by urine color. It should be the color of lemonade & not apple juice!
Nutrition is one ingredient as part of the recipe for maximizing performance. I encourage athletes to use this time to fine-tune nutrition practices and compare plates to what is recommended for an athlete’s current level of training and choose what satisfies them too!