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Fueling Up Prior to Exercise

Like a well-oiled sports car, your body needs the proper fuel to keep its engines roaring. 

Before a training session, avoid lethargy and improve energy and mood by eating, but choose wisely.  Not just any old food and not at any old time.  When preparing foods for exercise, It’s important to understand the three W’s: Why, What and When.


Pre-Exercise Fuel: Why?

Here’s the science, simplified!

During exercise, your body uses primarily glycogen, and a bit of sugar and fat in the blood and fat in the skeletal muscle for fuel.  Without sufficient glycogen stores as a result of the food you eat, you may feel sluggish and slothy, deterring you from continuing those healthy habits and reaching your goals.  Thankfully training adaptations occur drastically.  As you train, mitochondria begin to populate.  Mitochondria are cells that take the stored energy and fatty acids in the blood and make it usable, essentially powering your workouts.  They congregate strategically around the blood supply and the working muscle to use the oxygen from the blood and turn it into energy for the muscles that it sits on, like a perfectly designed factory.  This proximity makes exercise easier and more enjoyable over time.  Where does the food we eat come into play?  Upon eating, the body chemically and mechanically breaks down food, primarily carbohydrates, into their simplest form and shuttles those simple sugars through the gut and into the bloodstream. The muscles and mitochondria await the arrival, in preparation for exercise.  Ingesting these carbohydrates, mainly the simpler starchier kind, shortly before workouts can help to top off the fuel tanks (glycogen) to make exercise energetic, enjoyable, worthwhile long lasting and fun!  Exercise gets easier.


Pre-Exercise Fuel: What?

It’s all about the carbs.  But keep it simple prior to exercise.

There are two forms of carbohydrate: the simple and the complex.  Complex carbs should generally be avoided when exercise nears.  Although the complex carbs, like whole grains, steel cut oats and fruits and veggies are teeming with fiber and full of nutrients, they may cause digestive distress if exercise is coming up because they are much harder to break down.  Reverse the thinking, it may be beneficial during the pre-exercise window.  The simplest carbohydrates, those starchier, more sugary breads, pastas, cereals and quick oats are perfect for easy absorption, and are generally better tolerated pre-exercise.  In addition, avoid high protein and fats, which are also hard to digest before a workout.     


Pre-Exercise Fuel: When?

Time to fuel the tank properly!

Eating before exercise, especially when working out 60 or more minutes at a fairly moderate to intense pace, constitutes proper nutrition beforehand.  Generally speaking, 1-2grams per kilogram of your current body weight 1-2 hours beforehand is recommended, while focusing gradually less calories and carbs closer to the workout to avoid stomach issues.  If stomach issues are a constant problem, mashed foods and smoothies will work best 30 minutes or an hour before the workout.  What does that look like?  For a 150 pound man, 68 grams of simple carbohydrates one hour beforehand means that it would be best to eat around ½ Cup quick oats with some honey, or a granola bar and banana.  Working out in the evening?  No sweat!  Bring a packet of quick oats or a granola bar and have it handy.  If meals have been consumed regularly throughout the day, your body should be primed for the general workout.  Check out more ideas below and try it out!  Train the gut and your muscles.  For a simple tip, keep a designated “Fueling Station” cupboard full of “fuel” type foods prepped for the workouts of the week [i].

1 Hour Before 2 Hours Before WHY?
Small bowl quick oats cooked in water

Dash of honey or sugar mixed in.

2 slices of toast w/ Nutella spread, glass of orange juice and 1 egg. Motivation



Quality Workouts

Better Results

Accomplished Goals

Mental Clarity

Glass of chocolate skim milk


Bowl of Grapenuts with raisins and banana, glass of apple juice
Small bowl of Cheerios

Blueberries mixed in

Scrambled Eggs or Tofu

2 Eggs/firm tofu, 2 slice of toasted whole wheat toast and 3 sliced grape tomatoes with glass of water


Light Banana Smoothie

Banana, skim milk/water mix, honey, ground oats

Banana Smoothie

Banana, skim milk, peanut butter, blueberries, honey

*Doesn’t need to be exact measurement.  These are around the sizes of meals that will work well for pre-exercise fuel, but should be modified after trial to personalize them slightly and as needed.  These are tailored for AM Workouts, and are breakfast options.

Now you are ready to roll!  If the workout tends to be a long and intense one, eating during the session is recommended for best results. 


[i] Coleman, E. (2011). Diet, Exercise, and Fitness, 8th Ed. Chapter 4: Fueling before, during and after exercise. Page 49-60
Jessica Iannotta, MS, RD, CSO, CDN

Jessica is a registered dietitian and certified specialist in oncology nutrition (CSO). She studied nutrition at Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. She obtained her Master's degree through the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Jessica has worked in inpatient and outpatient oncology settings since 2001 in the North Shore-LIJ Health System. Jessica is in charge of all operations including clinical and culinary operations ranging from menu development to evidence-based website content, relationships with registered dietitians and social workers and developing processes and protocols for intake, management and outcomes analysis of patients.

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