Updated: Jan 17
We all want to get the most out of our workouts, but did you know that what we eat beforehand can make all the difference to our performance, energy, and fatigue levels?
Learn what to eat before a cardio workout to maximise your performance. Plus if you need a meal guide and recipes to go alongside, we have created a sports meal guide for you.
Ensuring that we are adequately fuelled before training gives us the right amount of energy for us to perform at our best and delay our fatigue symptoms. The preferred fuel source is glucose which is released after digesting a well-planned meal or snack, for longer workouts our bodies start to deplete the glycogen stores in our muscles.
In this article, Francesca, will walk you through what and when to eat before your workouts. Often it is not just what to eat, but when we should eat, that ensures we are well-prepared for our fitness goals.
In general, if you are performing a cardio high-intensity session at the gym you should fuel up beforehand. Otherwise, you might experience those unpleasant early fatigue symptoms throughout your training or extreme tiredness immediately after.
It is essential to understand that having the right meal or snack can support your body to perform better and help you through the recovery process after each training session. In particular, fuelling your body with the right amount of nutrients – and calories – can reduce muscle damage and increase your energy and strength.
A balanced plate with the proper amount of carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, and fruit and vegetables is crucial to make sure that you are nourishing your body with the right kind of foods. You should consider the amount, type of food, and when you are going to eat it.
In my previous article, I discussed the role of each macronutrient (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) and the general recommended intake based on the type and level of physical activity, which is summarised below;
The glucose from carbohydrates, which is stored in the liver and within our skeletal muscles, is the main source of energy of your muscles and brain. In general, for short and high-intensity type of exercise glucose and glycogen is the key fuel. The tricky thing is that glycogen stores are limited and, therefore, it is crucial to start training with these stores completely topped up – carb-loading tops up your glycogen stores.
Proteins are crucial for supporting muscles growth, repair and strength maintenance. To perform at your best, whatever your goal, you need strong and well-developed muscles.
Fat is an essential nutrient for our body and our brains. The fat stored in our muscles is the preferred source of energy for low-intensity physical activities, such as jogging or walking.
What should you eat before exercising?
The ideal pre-workout snack or meal should be high in carbohydrate, with some fats and protein – Please note, be aware of eating too much fat too close to your training and/or too much protein as this can slow down the digestion and release of glucose from carbohydrates.
The exact timing of your pre-workout meal/snacks will rely on the time you have available before your training session: it will be directly proportional to the size of your meal – the more time you have, the larger your meal will be.
Ideally, it is recommended to eat at least 2-4 hours before training to avoid any digestion issues. If you have less than 1-2 hours before your workout session or you are an early riser and you feel that you cannot stomach a large breakfast, you should still fuel your body: try to eat a small meal or snack, which is easy to digest, with high carbohydrate content and a little protein.
If you want to perform well, the general advice is to avoid training with an empty stomach - how is your body supposed to work with no fuel in the tank?
In particular, if you are an early bird having a large carbohydrate-based dinner the night before will top up your glycogen store and you will only need a small snack the day after, i.e. before exercising.
Pre-workout snacks or meal ideas depending on your schedule:
Less than 1 hour before training:
- Toast with honey
- Breakfast cereal
1-2 hours before training:
- Dried fruits (such as apricot, mango or dates) with some nuts
- Cereal bar or a small bowl of cereal
- Fruit smoothie (milk, banana, frozen berries, linseeds and some Greek yoghurt)
- Slice of toast with honey or peanut butter
- Hummus on toast
- Yoghurt with fruits
2-4 hours before training:
(this is the case when you are training later in the day - focus on having a large carbohydrate-based meal):
- Porridge with milk (of your choice) and fruit
- Chicken or bean salad wrap
- Large bowl of pasta
- Courgettes omelette with bread
- Ramen bowl
Remember to ensure that you are hydrated before and during your workout.
Top tip - simply check the colour of your urine as it should be a pale straw colour (this means you are well hydrated).
Francesca is our sports nutritionist who used her sports nutrition expertise while she was a ballet dancer for most of her life. Francesca uses this unique insight to provide clients practical, insightful and lifestyle-driven nutritional advice in both Italian and English. She is a registered associate nutritionist with the AfN. Please contact us to request Francesca's expertise.
References for further reading: