Athletes constantly ask me whether they should eat before training, or go out on an empty stomach. Even with the extensive amount of research available today, this and many other diet and exercise-related questions remain controversial. Each individual is different. Personal differences in metabolism can skew how each of us respond to not only the food we eat, but also the timing of its consumption and how much of it we can consume.
Most of us have busy schedules. Pressed for time, many of us will either train early in the morning, or squeeze in a session during lunch. Eating around a tight schedule takes some careful planning to ensure you’re getting a quality meal in before you hit the road. If you’re an early morning riser and you don’t eat before training, you’ve most likely fasted without food for six to ten hours.
If your training session is less than 90 minutes, and you’ve fueled-up your muscles and hydrated properly, chances are you won’t have a problem. If however, you’re going longer than 90 minutes, topping-off your tank 30-60 minutes before heading out is probably a good idea. If you’re preparing to do your long session in the late afternoon and your lunch time is more than four hours away from training, a snack would also make sense.
Whether you’re training in the early morning or the late afternoon, extensive research favors easy-to-digest carbohydrates that also include a small amount of protein and fat. Examples include carbohydrate gels, energy bars and sport drinks. The small amount of protein and fat in these supplements help blunt the glycemic effect (the rate at which glucose enters the blood stream) and helps maintain a steady blood glucose level. A word of caution: some recent studies have shown that ingesting high-glycemic foods 30-60 minutes before training or racing can cause a hypoglycemic effect in the blood stream.
Though this low blood sugar condition does correct itself quickly, it may not be ideal before a race. On the other hand, ingesting low-glycemic foods (whole grain) just before training or racing may cause too much strain on the digestive system. Bottom-line: experiment a little. Find what works for you in terms of what food you eat, how much you eat, and when you eat it relative to your practice sessions. Experimenting and observing how your eating habits effect your performance during your practices will help you better prepare for race time.
Eating further out from training sessions alters your food options. When eating two hours before a training session, it’s still a good idea to keep your meals small and easily digestible (surf and turf may be a little too much). I would recommend liquid carbs, breakfast or training shakes with a little protein and some fat, or lighter fruits like bananas and melons. Keeping your carbohydrate intake to about 1 gram per pound of body weight is a good guideline when you’re two hours from a training session.
When you’re eating three to four hours before a training session, you can eat a full meal that includes meat. The advantages of eating three to four hours before training is that it allows your body to restore your liver glycogen to normal levels. Also, assuming you’ve consumed enough carbohydrates with your meal, this timing also allows your body to store carbohydrates into your muscles as glycogen, and minimizes the feeling of hunger during training.
Consuming the correct amount of food depends on how hard and long your training session will be, as well as the temperature of your body and its rate of heat dissipation during your session. During hard training weeks, it’s vital that you stay on top of your caloric intake as proper fueling helps your body run at maximum efficiency. Cutting calories below usage levels can alter performance and recovery during a training cycle. So if weight loss is a goal, you may observe a decrease in performance until your weight stabilizes and you get your caloric intake back to an appropriate level.
Timing your food delivery takes careful planning and preparation, but is a fundamental component of training. Building it into your daily routine will help you get optimal results from your body, and set you up for better performance on race day.