Pre-workout meals have long been governed by superstition, habit and ‘what my old coach told me.’ The problem with all of these strategies is that they generally have little to do with the science of nutrition and could be doing very little to help your performance. In actuality, they could be harming performance.
First and foremost, the purpose of what you eat and drink before exercise and competition is to provide hydration and energy for the body during that performance. Specifically, the body needs glucose for energy and to delay fatigue, fluid to prevent dehydration, and the food and drink to not upset the stomach and intestines. A pre-exercise meal would generally need to be high in carbohydrate, moderate in protein, low in fat, have enough calories and be accompanied by fluid to fulfill these requirements. Specifics for a meal 1-4hrs prior to exercise are 1.0-4.5gm of carbohydrate/kg body weight, or 1g of carbohydrate/kg body weight 1hr prior, 2g/kg 2 hours prior, 3g/kg 3 hours prior, 4g/kg 4 hours prior, etc. Fat is slower to digest and thus will take longer to exit the stomach, so should be kept to a minimum in a pre-exercise meal and should be avoided within an hour of the start of activity.
For fluid, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends consumption of about 2cups of fluid 2-3 hours prior to exercise to ensure it is absorbed and that the body is hydrated. It will also allow for anything extra to be eliminated from the body well before the beginning of activity – nothing like having to run to the bathroom just as you are about to start a workout or a race! Water is sufficient, but personal preference is best. Although, the sugar content of a beverage should be known. Any drink that has a lot of sugar can cause stomach upset. For those who train or perform for more than 1hr, and choose to use a sports drink or electrolyte beverage instead of water, the concentration of carbohydrate (including sugar) should not exceed 8%.
The first rule of pre-workout meals should be to ensure you feel your best. Nothing you consume should break this rule – nothing makes you feel ill, jittery, have a heavy stomach, etc. If it makes you feel anything other than your best, it will negatively impact your performance, whether it is a workout or a competition.
Timing of the meal is a complicated topic and honestly comes down to what works best for you. Some people cannot eat anything for upwards of 12 hours prior to competition, some can eat immediately prior to a workout. The usual range is 3-4 hours prior to a competition and at least 1 hour prior to a workout. Again, this should be individually based though, and may differ based on the type of workout/competition you are participating in. Maybe you can eat closer to the start if it is a weight session, farther away if it is a long run or bike ride.
Practically speaking, it is best to consume what you like and tolerate well. It is also important to consume what you are used to eating and drinking prior to workouts or competitions. If you believe that what you eat and drink prior to a workout/competition will result in a winning performance or a better effort on your part, that should never be discounted either.
It is a process of trial and error, and you may have some bad workouts/competitions during the process to find what works best for you. Feel free to experiment and research what science says about pre-workout meals. If you take the time to find what works best for your pre-workout/competition meal/beverages, your performance will benefit.
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THP The Healing Path