What and when you eat before exercise can make a difference in how you feel during the activity and how well you recover after. In other words, when you make good dietary choices food will help you with two things:
- Sustained energy
- Fast recovery
It’s important to understand what role the three main macronutrients - protein, fat, and carbs – play in exercise nutrition. That will help us determine what types of meals and snacks to look out for.
Protein to speed up recovery
Eating protein before exercise is important for anyone who wants to improve health, body composition, or performance. Research suggests that protein can reduce markers of muscle damage which results in faster recovery. For example, one study showed that having 20 g of protein 1 hour before and after exercise improves muscle protein synthesis (1) compared to carbohydrates or placebo. This improved muscle protein synthesis translates into improved recovery, increased strength, more lean body mass, and even better exercise performance.
What does 20 g of protein look like?
To help you visualize here are a few examples of how much food you need to get 20 g of protein.
- 250 g Cooked beans (1,5 cups)
- 150 g Eggs (3 medium eggs)
- 150 g High protein Lizza bread (3 slices)
- 120 g Mozzarella (1 typical pack)
- 100 g Almonds (3 small handfuls)
- 90 g High protein Lizza pasta (1 serving)
- 70 g High protein Lizza muesli (1 small bowl)
Keep in mind that almost any real food contains some protein. When you eat a meal that consists of several ingredients the protein adds up and you might need less than in the examples above. If you’re looking for more inspiration, check out our post on 6 easy ways to enjoy more plant protein.
Carbs and fats help with energy
Your muscles can use both glucose from carbs or ketones from fats as energy for exercise. Carbs are used mainly to fuel high-intensity efforts (2) while fats are primarily used at low and medium intensity (3). This doesn’t mean that you can’t run fast or exercise hard if you follow a low carb or keto diet.
Your body stores carbs in a form of glycogen in muscles and liver and you have enough of it to continuously exercise really hard for 1-2 hours even without eating a single carbohydrate. Also, most of us exercise to stay fit and look good, not to beat records or earn a living as professional. So, if you enjoy yoga, walking, hiking, jogging, swimming, or cycling then you can get your energy from fats just as well as from carbs. In fact, exercising while eating low carb can even have certain benefits.
How many carbs or fats you should eat depends a lot on how long before exercise you are eating and how demanding the session you’re planning will be.
How to time your meals right
Meal timing is very important for professional athletes to optimize athletic performance. For the rest of us, it matters for a different reason. Food takes time to digest and exercising with a full stomach can be unpleasant. The portion size and timing of food should reflect that. There are two different types of pre-exercise food timings you should consider.
- A proper meal 2-3 hours before
- A snack 30-60 minutes before
Pre-exercise low carb meal ideas
If you your exercise follows around 2-3 hours after your last meal then you don’t have to think about any special sports snacks. Simply choose a healthy protein rich meal that you enjoy and you will have enough energy for your activity. Here are two meal ideas that fit the bill.
Low Carb Pasta Carbonara
This is a classic pasta recipe made low carb. A single serving will give you a respectable 28 g of protein, only 18 g of carbs, and 13 g of fats. Try it and see that pre-workout meals that have good macros can be really tasty too.
Low Carb Pizza with Greens
Yes, you can even enjoy a pizza to fuel your active lifestyle. This recipe is full of greens to give you all the plant goodness you need. A single serving carries 32 g of protein, 21 g of carbs, and 29 g of fats.
Pre-exercise low carb snack ideas
If you’re planning your activity after work and you know that lunch is long gone and there’s no time to get a proper meal, then it’s the perfect opportunity for a snack. Here are two of our favourite protein rich snacks. Start with a small amount and see what serving size works for you. The goal is to get a bit of protein and energy in your system without overloading your digestion.
Low Carb Muesli Bars
Each of these delicious home-made protein bars contain around 32 g of protein so you don’t even have to eat a full one to get the 20 g we mentioned earlier. Try our recipe and you will see that having a bunch of these ready in the fridge is really convenient for your active lifestyle.
When you don’t have a snack prepared you can always whip up a quick toast. Try this recipe with our low carb toasts and get 26 g of protein, 12 g of carbs, and 29 g of fats in each portion. That’s plenty of fuel for any activity you choose.
Don’t forget about hydration
When you think about what to eat before exercise always think about drinking too. Good hydration is important for optimal exercise performance and dehydration could not only decrease performance but also get you in trouble in a warm climate.
It is generally recommended to drink at least 0,5 litres of water around 4 hours before exercise and at least 0,23 litres 10 - 15 minutes before exercise (4). If you tend to sweat a lot during exercise, consider eating something salty or choosing a drink that contains electrolytes including sodium.
Our next article follows with tips for what to eat after exercise.