Should you eat before a workout? Will carbs improve performance? Will not eating improve fat loss?
The pre-workout snack/meal has become a source of confusion for many runners, so today we’re going to clear things up and give you some ideas for what to eat and when!
Let’s start with the reported reasons not to eat within 2 hours of exercise:
- Blood is diverted from digestion to the legs, a full stomach can lead to cramps
- Eating the wrong foods can lead to runner’s trots as the stomach is shaken with each footfall
- Simple sugars can spike blood sugar leading to a crash mid-workout
- Allowing the body to use stored fat and carbohydrates for fuel
Rebutted with reasons to eat before a workout:
- Sustained energy for a better workout
- Enhanced workout recovery
- Increased performance
- It’s been many hours since your last meal and you’re hungry
- Increases food calories burned so less are stored as fat
Both seem to make great points, so what should you do? After a lot of research, I came to two conclusions which seem to mimic what I say to nearly every runner on most topics:
A. You have to experiment to find out what works for you
B. Look at the quality and timing of your food alongside the goal of the run
In other words, there is no perfect answer.
But if you’ve been heading out for runs on an empty stomach to lose body fat, not seeing results and not seeing progress then it’s time to realize that method isn’t working! If you’ve been loading up prior to every long run, bonking mid-way through or having digestive issues…again stop torturing yourself by trying to follow a rule and test out other options.
Keys to a Good Pre-Workout Snack
In all nutrition there are basically 3 nutrients we talk about over and over because they are the easiest to grasp and generally easiest to control for the effects we want.
A key nutrient for runners is the beloved carb! While our daily diet should include largely complex carbs in the form of fruits, vegetables and whole grains (if they work for you) those aren’t always the best choice prior to a workout due to the high fiber content. This doesn’t mean you can hop on the junk food wagon because that will lead to inflammation.
“What complex carbohydrates make up for in sustained energy release, they lose in digestibility and efficient transfer from food to energy. I suggest consuming an easily digestible form of carbohydrate before each workout as a means of raising blood sugar.” Thrive Fitness by Brendan Brazier
Below you’ll find examples of pre-workout snacks and meals, which will help to provide ideas on when to stick with simple carbs or go for complex.
Protein can help to slow the rate at which carbohydrates are released in to the blood stream, providing a long term source of energy. This sustained energy source means that less fueling will be required during the run. Many runners can go up to 2 hours without additional fuel during low intensity (long slow runs) because the body is focused on utilizing fat rather than carbohydrates for fuel.
Additionally there is some research showing that the pre-workout protein intake could reduce muscle soreness later by providing immediate access to protein for recovery.
3. Healthy Fats
During low to medium-intensity exercise – hello distance running – the body will first generate energy from available fat sources. Including more quality fat in the diet is a key component of the primal diet and vegan diet. Both show that with fat as fuel, runners tend to crave less junk and can go for hours without needing to refuel.
Small Pre-Workout Snacks
Early morning or late afternoon where you aren’t in need of a meal, but feel a little bit hungry it’s important to grab some fuel so that you don’t find yourself mid-way through the run starving and thus ready to quit. It can also help to stabilize blood sugar if it’s been a long time since your last meal (i.e. overnight) and give you that boost of energy that is needed.
Timing is important!
It will usually take 30 minutes for small snacks, 3 hours for small meals and 4 hours+ for larger meals to be digested and absorbed by the body. Following are some pre-run snack ideas, in another post we’ll cover pre-workout meals for those of you who favor runch or evening workouts.
Let’s start with what I do, since no matter how much info I provide you ultimately always ask “but what do you eat?!”
– 1/2 scoop Vega One Protein powder, 1/2 serving Vega Sugar Free Energizer, 1 tsp greens powder, 1/2 tsp glutamine
I do half on Vega because I want the energy, but don’t want to be TOO used to the contents. Thus getting a better boost on race day. Additionally I don’t use caffeine or other stimulants so it doesn’t take as much for me to feel it.
As my long runs increase to 13+ miles I will also have a little nut butter and part of a banana pre-run
Create your own with an energizing powder, protein, and healthy fats.
Here is a chocolate smoothie specifically recommended in Thrive Fitness from the founder of Vega for before long runs or races:
- 1 cup yerba mate tea (brew night before)
- 1 cup green tea (brew night before)
- 3 large Medjool dates
- 1 tbsp coconut oil
- 1 tbsp hemp protein
- 1 tbsp ground chia
- 1 tbsp spouted buckwheat grouts
- 1/2 lemon
- 1 tbsp raw carob
Dates have what is often considered an ideal ratio of carbohydrate to protein of 3:1 which will provide sustained energy. Many runners like to slice open a date and put in a little nut butter before longer runs. This is a great option for runners avoiding grains and for those who bring whole foods along for during the run.
A perfect blend of carbs, protein and fat nuts can provide sustained energy for longer workouts. A common complaint among distance runners is feeling hunger after a few hours of training and nuts are a great option pre and during the run to provide a little satiating fat and fuel without needing to eat a lot.
Here are some great ideas that incorporate both dates and nuts >> 21 Energy Ball RecipesFind out the best pre-workout snacks to have your best run! Click To Tweet
One of the MOST common runner snacks is a banana with a little nut butter. Whether we stumbled upon it by pure chance or through science, the fact is that it works. Filled with potassium, manganese and carbohydrates the banana is great for energy and warding off muscle cramps. Additionally it has been shown to help settle an upset stomach!
Combining it with peanut butter slows the carbohydrate absorption and creates a steady blood sugar flow for longer energy. The bread isn’t really necessary before runs under 90 minutes, but it’s tasty and easier to eat.
A few more fabulous options:
- Avocado on toast
- Kind bar or other whole food bar
- Small yogurt
- Mixed fruit cup
- Protein pancakes
- Rice cake with nut butter or avocado
- Low fiber cereal
How long do you eat before running?
What’s your ideal pre-run fuel?
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