It’s a Saturday morning and my brother is getting ready for a 10km run in preparation for an upcoming race. My sister is going out for a light run as she wants to lose a few pounds before next month’s holiday. They both eat the same breakfast consisting of cereal and fruit juice because they want to have enough energy to get through their run.
This sets the tone for every training session they both do, but should they be eating the same thing based on their training? The simple answer is no.
There are 2 main factors that influence what to eat before you train. They are:
- Your goals (performance vs weight management)
- Training intensity/volume (high vs low/moderate)
Eating the same thing before each training session could be one reason why you’re not seeing the results you’re after, and that’s because not every training session is the same.
So why would you eat the same?
Fuelling for performance
Carbohydrates are king when it comes to performance. When carbohydrates are consumed they are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen, which is the body’s preferred energy source during high intensity exercise. This is why in the days before a race or game day, athletes increase portions of carbohydrates with each meal to maximise energy availability.
Consuming easy to digest carbohydrates that have a low glycaemic index (GI) in the hours before training will also provide a steady release of energy to fuel your workout. As training intensity and volume increases, so does your body’s requirement for carbohydrate to fuel this type of training. Athletes who train multiple times per day will require more carbohydrates to help them perform at their best and recover after each session.
Pre-training options include:
- Brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes with lean meat/fish & vegetables
- Wholemeal bread/wraps with eggs, lean meat/fish & salad
- Bagel & banana with nut butter
- Greek yoghurt with fruit, nuts/seeds & honey
Fuelling for weight management
During low-moderate training, or even at rest, carbohydrate utilisation becomes less reliant and the body’s fat stores become the preferred energy source. Reducing carbohydrate intake enhances the muscle’s ability to utilise fats for energy, and this can be an effective strategy for promoting training adaptations for endurance athletes, but also for maintaining low body fat levels. Footballers and other team-sport athletes need good amounts of carbohydrates to fuel fitness specific training, but when it comes to technical based sessions, that are typically lower intensity, they do not require the same fuelling. In this case, carbohydrate portions would be reduced (not removed as small amounts still help brain function) for the technical session, instead focusing on protein and vegetables to stay full during the session.
Now, although training with reduced carbohydrate availability is good in some circumstances, it’s important to remember that the key to losing weight is energy balance. If you want to lose weight you must be in a caloric deficit (use more energy than you eat), and if you want to increase weight then you must be in a caloric surplus (eat more energy then you use).
On the other hand, conducting some training sessions with reduced carbohydrate intake can be an effective strategy for helping you to eat less calories overall. Training before breakfast may mean you’ve skipped a meal compared to eating before and after, therefore consuming less calories overall. You may also have something light like some yoghurt or a couple of scrambled eggs which will be less calories than a bowl of porridge or pasta.
Suitable low-carbohydrate options before training include:
- Fasted (train before breakfast)
- Eggs (scrambled, boiled, omelette)
- Greek yoghurt
- Cottage cheese
- Whey protein shake in water
The most important thing though, for weight/fat loss, is to stick to what you prefer and can maintain in the long-term, if it helps you to achieve a negative caloric balance. So it’s not just about what you eat in that one meal before, as every meal counts if you want to see results!
Take home messages
- Fuel for the work required – use carbohydrates when you need them to maximise performance, and reduce when performance is not the priority to promote training adaptations and body composition.
- Focus on easy-to-digest low-GI carbohydrates before training for sustained energy.
- Calories are the #1 factor for weight loss
- Training with reduced carbohydrate intake can be effective to support fat loss, but if not in a caloric deficit then this will not happen.
- If your sole goal is fat/weight loss then stick to your preference of training before or after eating, if it helps you train for longer and achieve a negative caloric balance.
- One meal can support training/weight goals but it’s what you do consistently across all meals that will help you achieve your goals.