How to Fuel for Your Workout

Athletes of all sports and abilities commonly ask me what they should eat before, during and after a competitive event:

When should I eat the pre-game meal: 2, 3 or 4 hours beforehand?

How many gels should I take during a marathon?

What's best to eat for recovery after a soccer game?

The same athletes who worry about event-day fueling often neglect their day-to-day training diet. Hence, the real question should be: "What should I eat before, during and after I train?" After all, you can only compete at your best if you can train at your best.

The goal of this article is to remind you to train your intestinal tract as well as your heart, lungs and muscles. To get the most out of each workout, you need to practice your fueling as well as your sports skills. Then, come day of the competition, you know exactly what, when and how much to eat so you can compete with optimal energy and without fear of bonking or intestinal distress. Here are some sports nutrition tips to help you perform faster, stronger and longer.

When and what should I eat before I exercise?

Each person has a different tolerance with pre-exercise food. I often talk to athletes who report they don't eat before exercise because they're afraid the food might cause intestinal problems. Then, they needlessly suffer through major energy problems during their workouts. That's why they need to practice not only what they eat but also when and how much to eat before they exercise. From Day 1, I recommend you start training your intestinal tract by nibbling on a pretzel, a cracker or other fuel that will enhance stamina, endurance, and enjoyment of exercise.

You don't need to wait around for pre-exercise snack to digest. You can grab a small snack just five minutes pre-exercise and the food will get put to good use--as long as you are exercising at a pace that you can maintain for more than half an hour. That is, you might not want to eat much five minutes before a hard track workout, but you could enjoy a banana before you put on your jogging shoes. Research suggests you can eat an energy bar either 15 or 60 minutes before moderate exercise and gain a similar energy boost. (1)

In general, most active people prefer to wait two to four hours after eating a full meal before they head to the gym or prepare for a team practice. The meal will have plenty of time to digest and empty from the stomach, particularly if they don't stuff themselves with high fat foods (cheeseburgers and fries) that take longer to digest than a carb-based pasta-type meal. The rule of thumb is to consume (2):

   Time pre-exercise             Grams carb/lb        Calories/150-lb athlete

     5-60 minutes                      0.5 g/lb                 300 calories

     2 hours                               1.0                        600

     4 hours                               2.0                     1,200

For a 150-lb person, 300 pre-exercise calories translates into:

  • 2 packets of oatmeal or a Dunkin Donuts-size (4 oz.) bagel within the hour before your morning run
  • 4 Fig Newtons and a banana at 4:30 p.m. when you plan to go to the gym after work at 5:30 p.m.