Foods to eat and avoid before a big fitness event: Tips from a Sports Scientist and Dietician

March 6, 2024 (Last Updated: March 7, 2024)
Foods to eat before a big fitness event

It’s a day before your big fitness event, and you’ve put in the hard work to get there. While your overall fitness may be on point, your preparation doesn’t end with your workouts. What you eat in the days leading up to your marathon, triathlon, or cycling road race can make a real difference. The right food before, during, and after exercise is important to perform at the top of your game.

Here are some nutrition tips and ideas to help fuel your body for your workouts and endurance events:

Foods to eat leading up to your fitness event

Understanding the basics of nutrition is crucial. The calories in your food come from three main macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.

“Most people these days tend to want to make sure that they are having protein before exercise. However, carbohydrates are what we should be focusing on,” says Sports Scientist and Dietician – Rosey Lombard. 

“Carbs are basically petrol for your body and throughout your training days, you should also be making sure that you are having wholegrain carbs as part of a balanced meal (protein, carbs, healthy fats, and vegetables),” Rosey adds.

Carbohydrates take the lead role when it comes to providing energy. They quickly convert to muscle glycogen, a backup blood sugar supply stored in your liver and muscles. This glycogen is essential for creating glucose, and fueling your cells during exercise.

While your body uses fat for fuel, it requires more processing time than carbs. Foods high in fat, like nuts, provide a longer-lasting feeling of fullness but won’t give you the quick energy boost needed during intense workouts.

Protein breaks down into amino acids, the building blocks of your body. While vital for athletes, protein is not an efficient energy source. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), such as leucine, isoleucine, and valine, can be used as fuel by muscles, especially during the recovery process.

Foods to eat on race day

Top off your glycogen tanks with a carb-rich meal 3 to 4 hours before your event if possible. Endurance athletes can enjoy tall-stack pancake breakfasts without guilt. If that’s not feasible, a bowl of cereal an hour before the event (100 to 200 calories) or a 50 to 100-calorie snack 10 minutes before the start can provide a quick energy boost.

Lombard suggests that the day before, you might want to have a bit more carbs than usual, and additionally, the morning of the race you should make sure that you are also topping up the petrol tank (your body) with carbs.

It is also important to note the time in which you are consuming meals. “1-2 hours before the event you could have something more substantial like a bowl of oats with milk, banana, and peanut butter OR brown toast with peanut butter, honey, and banana,” suggests Lombard.

Foods to eat preparing for a fitness even

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30-45 minutes before the event you could have something smaller, that is more HIGH GI (quicker release of the glucose into your bloodstream for quicker absorption for fuel) such as fruit juice, a fruit or crackers with peanut butter, or a slice of banana bread or a hot cross bun.

Ideas for foods to consume 1-4 hours before your fitness event:

  • Peanut butter and honey on crackers
  • Fruit and yogurt smoothie
  • Low-fat cottage cheese
  • Yoghurt + granola + fruit
  • Lean hamburger or chicken on a whole-wheat bun

Ideas for foods to consume 30-60 minutes before your fitness event:

  • A piece of fruit
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Sports drink if your last meal was over 3-hours prior
  • Sports gel, sports bar
  • Fruit puree

“It is also important to note that you need to practice race nutrition in the days, weeks, and months leading up to an endurance event. This is to ‘train your gut’ to deal with digesting carbs while you are exercising,” Lombard shares as a tip.

foods to eat preparing for a fitness event 1

Image: The Body Building Dieticians

Foods to avoid consuming before a big fitness event

While fueling up is crucial, it’s equally important to know what to avoid to prevent discomfort and sluggishness during your big event. Steer clear of:

High-fat foods: Heavy or greasy meals can slow down digestion and lead to discomfort during exercise.

Fiber-rich foods: While fiber is essential for a balanced diet, too much before exercising can cause gastrointestinal distress.

Protein-rich and fatty snacks: Skip the heavy protein and fatty snacks close to your workout as they may hinder the absorption of nutrients.

According to Rosey Lombard, the very important “rule” with nutrition around races is to never try anything new on race day. “I would suggest not having anything unfamiliar or things that you’re not used to eating the day before or immediately before. Alcohol should also be limited as this tends to dehydrate you and can also lead to gut discomfort,” Lombard adds.

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Feature image: Unsplash

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