Training Diet

You just got a new sports car that requires high octane fuel to run at optimal speed. Would you buy the cheapest gas you could find? Many athletes are concerned about what to eat before, during, and after exercise to optimize their 'sports car'. And rightly so, nutrition plays a very important role in enhancing and optimizing performance.

Although, pre and post exercise meals are important, the entire diet is the key factor that will determine the performance and well-being. Optimal health and performance is achieved with proper diet every day, not just the day before and after exercise. Eat a Variety of Foods daily in order to consume all the nutrients needed for good health and optimal performance.

Pre exercise meal

What an athlete consumes before and after exercise is very important for their performance. So why is it important to eat before exercise? Eating prior to exercise prevents hunger during exercise, which is the most important goal of the pre-exercise meal. The fuel for muscles is usually provided in the meals 2 to 3 days prior to exercise, not the pre-exercise meal. Therefore, it is very important to not only consume a high-energy meal the day of exercise, but also several days before.

What to consume?
What to consume depends on the intensity and type of activity being performed. Regardless of the activity, glucose is the preferred energy source, particularly for activity at higher intensities. Thus, carbohydrate should be your primary food source.

What to consume before competition is also very individual; however, carbohydrates should be the primary food source in every athlete's meal. Some people can eat a large meal shortly before and not having any problems, others struggle with indigestion, nausea, or stomach discomfort. The goal is to enhance stamina and endurance without stomach discomfort. This is achieved by trying different foods, different times, and evaluating how the individual responds. Remember, this trial and error should not be done the day of competition, rather as a test during training.

The day before exercise should consist of carbohydrate rich meals such as pasta, bread, brown rice, or whole grains etc. Try to avoid high fat and protein in the diet, since they slow down the digestion, do not promote glycogen storage and will not provide energy for your exercise. Finally, make sure to drink plenty of fluids, preferably in the form of water.

When exercise/competition is scheduled will impact the timing and amount of the preceding meals. The following meals show sample pre-exercise/competition menus according to morning, afternoon, or evening events. The recommendations are based on a 2500 kcal diet, thus people requiring additional calories need to add items on the menus. Do not forget fluids. Slowly drink beverages, approximately 1 ounce per 10 pounds of body weight at least 4 hours before the exercise task.

Dinner (day before): 2 cups spaghetti 60 g CHO 320 kcal
  1 cup pasta sauce 30 g CHO 125 kcal
  1 dinner roll plain 15 g CHO 80 kcal
  1 cup mixed greens 5 g CHO 25 kcal
  1/2 cup cooked broccoli 5 g CHO 25 kcal
  TOTAL: 115 g CHO 575 kcal
Bedtime Snack: 1 cup orange juice 30 g CHO 120 kcal
  1 banana (small) 15 g CHO 60 kcal
  1 granola bar 15 g CHO 60 kcal
  TOTAL: 60 g CHO 240 kcal
Light breakfast: 1.5 cup cheerios 45 g CHO 180 kcal
  1 cup skim milk 12 g CHO 80 kcal
  1 banana 15 g CHO 60 kcal
  TOTAL: 72 g CHO 320 kcal
Hearty breakfast: 2 eggs scrambled --- 150 kcal
  2 slices whole wheat bread 30 g CHO 120 kcal
  2 tbsp peanut butter --- 135 kcal
  1 tbsp jam 15 g CHO 80 kcal
  1 cup skim milk 12 g CHO 80 kcal
  1/2 cup orange juice 15 g CHO 60 kcal
  1 banana (small) 15 g CHO 60 kcal
  TOTAL: 87 g CHO 685 kcal
Lighter Lunch: 1 cup chicken noodle soup 22.5 g CHO 90 kcal
  1 dinner roll, plain 15 g CHO 80 kcal
  1 cup skim milk 12 g CHO 80 kcal
  1 orange 15 g CHO 60 kcal
  TOTAL: 64.5 g CHO 310 kcal
Hearty Lunch: Subway 6" Roasted Chicken Breast 47 g CHO 320 kcal
  1 chocolate chip cookie (Subway) 30 g CHO 210 kcal
  1 apple (medium) 15 g CHO 60 kcal
  TOTAL: 92 g CHO 590 kcal
Late Afternoon Snack: 1 cup orange juice 30 g CHO 120 kcal
  1 banana (small) 15 g CHO 60 kcal
  1 granola bar 15 g CHO 60 kcal
  TOTAL: 60 g CHO 240 kcal


General Recommendations for Pre-Game Meals

The timing of the meals is individual, but some general recommendations are to consume a solid meal 4 hours before exercise. A lighter snack including a smoothie or a liquid meal are options if solid food cannot be tolerated 2-3 hours before exercise. If there are only 1-2 hours before exercise a high carbohydrate/energy drink or fluid replacement drink beverage can be sufficient. With less than 1 hour before exercise, water and fluid replacement beverages are recommended. Again these are general recommendations, the athlete needs to figure out his/her own needs and tolerances.

What to eat/drink during the event

What and how much to consume during an event is individual; however, no matter what and how much one can tolerate the emphasis should be a high carbohydrate containing food that is light in character. For most people a lighter snack such as a fruit, some crackers, a low-fat sports/granola bar, or a fluid replacement drink is tolerable. Note that some crackers and sports/granola bars contain high amounts of fat and protein and would not be suitable for consumption during the event.

The purpose of food consumption during an event is to quickly provide energy without developing stomach discomfort and nausea. Carbohydrates are the only nutrient that could provide energy in a short period of time. Endurance runners who need a source of energy while running commonly consume a high carbohydrate containing gel. However, any high carbohydrate, low fat, and low protein containing food that one could tolerate is appropriate.

All events do not require extra energy during exercise. In fact, studies have shown that sports drinks may be beneficial during high intensity exercise lasting 60 minutes or longer; or less intense exercise for prolonged periods of time.

Post exercise meal

The post exercise meal is extremely important since it will determine the recovery and energy level of the athlete for the following bout of exercise or competition. The first priority post-exercise is to replace any fluid loss. This can be done by consuming water or fluid replacement drink.

It is also important to consume some carbohydrate immediately within 15 minutes after exercise to start restoring glycogen. Some examples of foods to consume include fruits, juices, sports drinks, smoothies etc. High carbohydrate drinks (i.e. full strength juices, smoothies or high carbohydrate/energy drinks) may be used as a source of carbohydrate post-exercise; however, they do not dual as a fluid replacement too. If these high carbohydrate drinks are consumed post-exercise addition fluids still need to be consumed.

The post-exercise meal should be consumed within 2 hours of exercise for best glycogen restoration. Focus the meal on carbohydrates, at least 100 to 200 g, but combine the carbohydrates with a lean protein (lean meat, chicken, turkey etc). Consuming protein with carbohydrate post-exercise will help build, maintain, and repair muscle. Adding 7-10 gms of protein with the carbohydrate within 30 minutes of exercise will stimulate protein synthesis. Recent research suggests consuming approximately 20 gms of protein at one time maximizes muscle synthesis and repair; protein in excess of 20 gms will not promote additional muscle synthesis or repair.

Examples of 100-200 g carbohydrates

  • ~3 cups of pasta
  • ~7 slices of bread
  • ~7 flour tortillas (6 in.)
  • ~2 cups of rice
  • ~3 cups of mashed potatoes
  • ~6 cups of mixed vegetables with corn, or peas

Note: a combination of pasta, bread, and vegetables in a meal can easily meet the requirement


Proportion of carbohydrate, protein, and fat as energy for various sports

Proportion of carbyhydrate, protein, and fat as energy for various sports

This figure shows the proportion of carbohydrate (blue), fat (pink), and protein (yellow) that are used as a fuel source during different intensities of exercise.


How to Differentiate Fluid Replacement, High Carbohydrate/Energy, and Meal Replacement Drinks

Carbohydrate adds flavor, but also can cause stomach problems and dehydration in higher concentrations such as that found in full-strength fruit juices and pop. Athletes prefer sport drinks because of the flavor. To select the most appropriate sport drink consider the situation and use the following criteria:

Fluid replacement drinks - Recommended when there is 1 hour or less before an event AND during an event. Enhances performance for athletes exercising at high intensities for 60 minutes or more of continuous duration.

Check the label

  • Carbohydrate-less than 19 grams per 8 ounces
  • Sodium-50 to 179 milligrams per 8 ounces
  • Potassium-30 to 50 milligrams per 8 fluid ounces
  • No caffeine or carbonation

High carbohydrate drinks - Recommended as pre-event fluid when there are at least 1 to 2 hours before an event OR as a fluid replacement immediately after an event.

Check the label

  • Carbohydrate-50 to 70 grams per 8 ounces
  • Protein-none or up to one-fourth the carbohydrate content
  • Fat-none

Meal replacement drinks - Recommended as pre-game meal replacement (3 to 4 hours before) for athletes with sensitive stomachs OR for athletes requiring additional calories as a snack or meal supplement.

Check the label:

  • 250 to 350 calories
  • Includes protein, carbohydrate, and fat

How to read a sport drink label


High Carbohydrate/Energy Drink

high carbohydrate/energy drink


Meal Replacement (Liquid meal)

meal replacement label

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