Unfortunately, the answer is not a simple yes or no.
There are lots of different factors that determine whether having a pre-exercise snack is recommended or not. Factors such as why you are exercising, how long you are exercising for and the intensity of that exercise will all play a part in determining whether you should consume a pre-exercise snack. Below are a number of questions to help you determine what recommendation is right for you.
Are you an elite athlete?
An elite athlete is someone in peak physical condition and who is competing at some level in their chosen discipline. Elite athletes come in all shapes and sizes and their pre-exercise snacks depends on the type of sport they compete in and their training schedule.
Generally, elite athletes are training 2+ hours per day and regularly participating in competitions. Competition means that they need to maximise their performance. For example: run as fast as they can for as long as they can.
For most elite athletes a pre-exercise snack it a must. It ensures they have sufficient energy to keep up with their high energy demands and help them perform at their best.
Most elite athletes have their own particular preference for what type of food they consume for training and when they actually like to eat it. If you are an elite athlete you will need individual advice from a sports dietitian, so your diet can optimise both your health and your performance.
Recreational athletes are generally training for 2+ hours per day but perhaps don’t have the demands of added pressure from regular competition and the need to perform at their best. Recreational athletes do want to maximise performance but generally not at the expense of enjoyment.
A pre-exercise snack is recommended as being beneficial for exercise lasting 2 hours or more, particularly if it is at a high intensity. Training at high intensities depletes your muscles glycogen stores. This is the primary fuel of your muscles when you’re exercising hard and generally only lasts a couple of hours. A pre-exercise snack will give you the energy to go that little bit longer before you fatigue. If you are training less than 2 hours, as long as you are eating sufficiently, you probably won’t need a specific pre-exercise snack.
Are you trying to lose weight?
Most people who engage in some form of exercise are doing so because they want to improve their health and lose some weight.
Weight loss occurs as a result of energy intake (food) being less than energy expenditure (basal metabolic rate and physical activity). It doesn’t actually matter when you eat or exercise during the day. If your energy intake is less than your energy expenditure and this is maintained over a prolonged period of time, you will lose weight. Don’t get caught up in confusing advice such as: “don’t eat carbs after 4pm” or “you will lose more weight if you don’t eat before exercise” or “you will lose more weight if you exercise in the morning compared to at night” etc… The only thing scientifically proven to result in successful weight loss is a negative energy balance. We created a 12 month habit building program that teaches people how to consistently eat well for the rest of their life, so they can not only lose weight, but keep it off long term!
So, should you eat before exercise or not? Well, that’s totally up to your personal preference.
If you train first thing in the morning you may not like exercising straight after breakfast and will prefer to exercise on an empty stomach. Maybe you train in the afternoons after work and feel like you need something little to get you through your training session. Maybe you don’t. Everyone is different. As long as your pre-exercise snacks are part of a healthy eating plan and you include them in your overall energy intake, you will be fine. It won’t affect your weight loss at all if you eat before your training session or not.
One of the benefits of exercising as part of a healthy weight loss plan is that you are burning extra energy. This helps you lose weight faster or lets you eat more food. One argument for eating before exercise is that you will have more energy to train harder in your workout and thus burn more energy overall. This is my preference. I find that having a small snack 30 minutes before exercise makes me feel more energised and I can train harder for longer.
A banana, apple, glass of skim milk or a tub of yoghurt are all good pre-exercise snacks that will give you the energy you need without having too much in your stomach.
Do you exercise for longer than 2 hours at a time?
Depending on the intensity of your exercise, if its likely to last for more than 2 hours, it’s a good idea to have something to eat beforehand to give your body the energy it needs to complete the session without you feeling too fatigued. High intensity exercise will deplete your muscles’ energy (glycogen) stores. Eating prior to exercise helps slow down this depletion of energy so you can make it to the end of the session. This is most important for high intensity exercise (running, hard cycling, crossfit, etc).
High intensity exercise, lasting 2 or more hours may need to be accompanied by a sports drink. This will provide energy for the exercise session and also help replenish fluids and electrolytes (salt lost through sweat).
Are you competing in a race or game?
Competition is different from general exercise. Competition generally requires an individual to push themselves to their limits by going as fast as they can, as hard as they can, for as long as they can.
Like elite athletes, individuals participating in serious competition should seek advice from a sports dietitians as recommendations are tailored to individual circumstances. Factors such as the type, duration and intensity of competition is considered, as well as the training state and fitness level of the individual.
In general a snack 1 hour prior to competition is a good idea to ensure there is fuel in the tank.
Are you exercising at a low, moderate or high intensity?
As I’ve mentioned previously, a pre-exercise snack is recommended before high intensity exercise. For lower intensity exercise such as walking, jogging, leisurely cycling and slow swimming, you probably don’t need one and it will depend on personal preference and when you ate last
To summarise, a pre-exercise snack is recommended for elite and recreational athletes, for people engaging in high intensity exercise lasting longer than 2 hours or before a competition or race. Athletes should obtain specialised advice from a sports dietitian as recommendations will depend on their individual circumstances.
If you don’t fall into any of the above categories, a pre-exercise snack as part of a healthy eating plan may help you train harder and burn more energy in an exercise session particularly if you exercise first thing in the morning. Pre-exercise snacks may include, but are not limited to: fruit (bananas, apples, etc), low fat dairy products (skim milk, yoghurt, etc), energy or sports drinks (Gatorade, Milo, Sustagen, etc).
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