To underscore the importance of pre-workout (and race) eating, I’ll point out that there have been studies on runners in which they are told to run until they are completely exhausted. When the runners have stopped, researchers found that it was typically their brains that were out of energy, not their muscles. The brain is a powerful organ, and when it says stop, you usually will stop.
So what should you be eating before your workouts?
Exercise is fueled primarily by carbohydrates. A light meal of both simple and complex carbohydrates lays a foundation for your morning workout.
Picking the particular foods for your breakfast will be a process of experimentation for you. Depending on your stomach, you’ll need to find what works for you. And once you do find something that works, use that same formula on race day.
The size of your pre-workout breakfast will partially be determined by the intensity of your workout. If you’re running slowly for a long period of time, you’ll be able to eat more and digest the food more easily. If you’re doing very intense exercise (such as a sprint triathlon or speed work on the track), it will be harder for you to digest foods, so you’ll may want to try liquid meal options such as a fruit smoothie or a meal replacement drink.
A typical pre-workout meal for a long run (greater than an hour), should contain about 300-500 calories, depending on your weight.
Here are a couple of examples of pre-workout meals that would fall into that caloric range:
Meal 1 – Two packs of oatmeal with milk (400 cal) and a medium sized banana (100 cal)
Meal 2 – One bagel (300 cal) with peanut butter (200 cal)
Meal 3 – Two slices of toast (200 cal), 12 oz of orange juice (150 cal)
When should you eat breakfast?
Most runners should try to eat their breakfast at least an hour before running. This gives some of the food a chance to be digested prior to starting your run, which will give your brain some of the fuel that it needs to get going.
As a practical matter, get your breakfast assembled the night before a long run and eat as soon as you get up. Then, as you go about the rest of your morning routine (getting dressed, filling bottles, etc.), you’ll be digesting your breakfast during that time.
If you eat a larger meal more than an hour and a half before your workout, you may want to consider another light snack 15-20 minutes before you start running. This could be half of an energy bar, a piece of fruit or some juice – something to keep your blood sugar up and get you ready to go.
Bottom line: make sure that you eat a small meal of 300-500 calories of carbohydrates one hour or more before you start your long workouts. This will give the energy foundation that you need to perform better and feel better throughout your morning.
If you’d like more information on this topic, there are many great books available. Two of my favorites are available at Amazon.com. These two books are by Nancy Clark, who is considered on the top sports nutritionists in the field. Her two books are Nancy Clark’s Food Guide for Marathon Runners and Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. The Food Guide for Marathoners is a short and concise book that sums up a great deal of good information. The Sports Nutrition Guidebook includes much more information and many great recipies.
The performance eating continuum (A theory on the types of foods to eat based on your speed)
Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
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