As I travel around the country participating in a variety of events I am constantly surprised by the nutritional choices I see athletes making prior to workouts. If you want to have a great ride, hike, run, or strength workout, here are the 6 worst pre-workout foods and habits for cyclists, runners, and triathletes to avoid in the 2-3 hours before training, along with some guidelines on how to eat for optimal performance.
Avoid High-Fiber Foods
Fruits and vegetables should absolutely be a major component of any athlete’s diet, and many athletes are successful on entirely plant-based nutrition strategies. However, foods high in fiber and low in caloric density are not the best choice for a pre-workout meal or snack. Salad or cut vegetables are wonderful from a nutrition standpoint, but they are high in fiber and low in energy. While your stomach is busy breaking down the bulk of the veggies you ate you are less likely to absorb enough energy to fuel a high-quality training session.
Bacon is not a Performance Fuel
It’s not just bacon, but any high-fat meat product. With the recent popularity of “fat-first” nutrition strategies, some athletes believe the fat and protein from meat will seamlessly and quickly convert to fat energy for training. The problem is, meats like bacon are relatively slow to digest. Even if you are trying to fuel your activity primarily with fat, the fuel you’re using is primarily stored fat rather than recently-ingested fat. Fat and protein can be part of your pre-workout and during-workout calories, but consider them supplemental nutrients compared to carbohydrate during these periods. They will help slow the digestion of carbohydrate, which can be good during endurance sports, and help keep you from feeling hungry longer, but carbohydrate is still the high performance fuel you need for performance.
Skip the Spice
I love spicy food, but I satisfy my craving for spicy foods after workouts, not before. Spicy foods before training are a recipe for heartburn and indigestion. You are already working hard enough to potentially cause some stomach upset; don’t make matters worse by piling on the peppers and hot sauce in a pre-workout meal.
Sip fluids, don’t chug
Overloading your gut with fluids is more likely to leave you feeling sloshy and bloated than improve your hydration status. While you want to consume 16-20 ounces of fluid in the 60-90 minutes before training (especially if it’s going to be a hot workout), aim to consume this fluid relatively gradually. Similarly, guzzling a large volume of fluid during training or competition isn’t wise, unless you have practiced that strategy and confirmed it works for you.
The exception to the ‘no chugging’ rule is during long endurance events where aid stations are few and far between. In this case it can be wise to take an extra bottle of fluid at an aid station and consume it before leaving or in the time shortly thereafter. The lower pace/intensity of long endurance events can help make ingestion of a large volume of fluid more tolerable, but again, this is something you should experiment with in training.
The prospect of riding 100 miles or hiking all day encourages some athletes to stuff themselves to the gills at breakfast. I agree you should have a satisfying breakfast before a big endurance challenge, but gorging isn’t going to help you perform at your best. If anything, overeating at breakfast is going to give you an upset stomach or make you feel sluggish in the first hours of your adventure. Your eating choices in the days before an event or big endurance challenge will determine whether you start with full stores of muscle glycogen. Full glycogen stores play a bigger role than your pre-workout or pre-event meal in terms of the quality of your training session or your performance in an event. Eat an amount you are normally comfortable with, not more.
A cup of coffee or an espresso before a training session or event can help improve focus. For many people it’s part of their pre-workout ritual, and that’s fine. Just don’t overdo it. Be careful with energy drinks. Those canned drinks often contain two servings, each of which with 250mg of caffeine or more. Some also contain more than a gram of sugar per ounce. When you pound the entire can before a workout you’re more likely to feel jittery and nauseas than alert and powerful. And while caffeine is not a diuretic for those who consume it regularly, it can induce the urge to urinate sooner after ingestion, which can be problematic during workouts and events.
Pre-workout nutrition doesn’t need to be complicated. For the most part, your normal eating behaviors will do the job. An additional small, carbohydrate-rich snack and 16-20 ounces of fluid in the hour before training will help before short 60-90 minute) morning workouts following an overnight fast. If that morning workout is going to be longer than 90 minutes you will want to consume carbohydrate calories during the workout as well. If it’s only going to be 60-90 minutes that pre-workout snack and your muscle and liver glycogen should be enough energy. Similarly, if you are training in the late afternoon or after work, a pre-workout snack and 16-20 ounces of fluid might help you have feel more energized during your workout, even though the vast majority of the energy you’re burning is still coming from stored carbohydrate and fat.
Eat right and have fun out there!
CEO/Head Coach of CTS