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Food for fitness: what should I eat before a workout?



Food for fitness: what should I eat before a workout?

Our experts explain everything you need to know about sports nutrition, from picking the right foods to fuel your workout, to whether you should exercise before or after eating.

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What is sports nutrition?

Sports nutrition is a specialist area of nutrition that links the food we eat with exercise science and performance. It’s not just for ‘athletes’ who are performing at an elite level.

The basis is eating the right foods to provide the right fuel for both active adults and competitive athletes to perform at their best, and maintain their overall health and wellness.  

Do I need to worry about sports nutrition?

To stay fit and healthy, everyone needs the same balance and variety of foods, whatever their activity level. This mean focusing on the five main food groups – carbohydrates such as potatoes, pasta, rice or bread, fruit and vegetables, proteins like meat, fish and vegetarian sources of protein, dairy, healthy (unsaturated) fats plus fluids.

If you do moderate exercise three or four times a week, like a jog or gym session for up to an hour, you don’t need sports nutrition, or any extra or special foods.

If you are doing longer, more demanding exercise, a healthy diet is still the foundation, but the amount you need to eat, especially carbohydrates, will be greater.

If you’re training regularly and need more specific sports nutrition advice, a sports dietitian can help.

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What to eat before a workout

Before a workout, choose carbohydrates that are higher in fibre, so they release their energy slowly, and lean protein. For example, if you’re exercising at lunchtime, have a porridge made with low-fat milk and some fruit, or egg on wholegrain toast for breakfast. Or you could have chicken and rice for lunch if you’re exercising in the early evening.

breakfast cereal

If you’re eating less than an hour before exercise, for example if you’re doing an early morning run or gym session, have a smaller snack that you can digest easily.

Choose something that includes carbohydrates: this could be a banana, or low-fat natural yogurt, crackers with low-fat soft cheese, a smoothie or a glass of low-fat milk. Avoid foods high in fat or fibre, as they take longer to digest and may cause stomach discomfort during exercise.

Should I exercise before or after eating?

If you are exercising for more than an hour you should eat beforehand to get the most from your training, but not too soon beforehand.

What you eat is only useful once it has been digested. So ideally, have a balanced meal two to three hours before working out – a bit longer before is fine too.

You can get away with not eating before an exercise session if it is low-intensity or less than an hour. If you haven’t eaten for a few hours beforehand, it’s important to have a balanced meal soon after (within an hour) to recover and refuel.

For a long exercise session, a recovery meal or snack within an hour of finishing exercise is also a good idea.


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Published December 2021

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