What to eat before sports: A practical approach to pre-training and pregame nutrition

In today’s post I want to visit some thoughts on pregame and pre-training food. This means a small meal, snack, or other food product. I’ve covered pregame hydration, and we’ve also provided some ideas on post-workout food.

As it is with so many aspects of nutrition, there’s quite a bit of controversy around pregame nutrition. I’m indebted to my colleagues Jae Berman and Heather Rivera, who are the two smartest sport and performance dietitians I’ve ever come across.

Berman and Rivera take a very practical approach and recommend that all athletes ask themselves a few questions before coming up with an approach to pregame nutrition. And whenever possible use real whole food options over packaged products or bars to achieve your nutrition goals.

The questions

1. Are you actually hungry before training? A simple question that too few of us ask.

2. What’s your gut telling you? Some people get nausea just thinking about competing.

3. What are your goals? If you’re a high-performance athlete there’s likely a benefit from carefully planned pretraining nutrition. But if you’re training for weight loss, muscle bulk, or general health/longevity there may be negligible benefit from an overly detailed pretraining nutrition regimen.

Having a snack before a workout is touted as beneficial by many health professionals, supplement companies and media outlets alike.  While there is some truth in the science of this, in reality, not everyone benefits from or needs this level of nuance in a nutrition plan.

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For guidelines and best practices for WHEN AND IF your local authorities have deemed it safe to return to the play, check out U.S. Soccer's PLAY ON home page HERE.

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How the answers might influence your decision.

1. First, are you actually hungry before training? It’s a surprisingly simple question, but if you’re doing a normal training or competition of an hour or so, and you’re not hungry then you likely don’t need anything. Berman and Rivera say you should “never be so hungry you make poor decisions (… a snack an hour or two ahead is a good idea), and never so full that you are pushing the healthy limits of your digestive and metabolic systems.”

2. Next, what’s your gut telling you? In my career as a team physician I’ve seen a surprising number of elite athletes who have nausea or vomit before competition. If you’re one of those who get really nervous you definitely don’t want to challenge your gut with pregame food. Listen to your body. If on the other hand you find yourself with hunger pangs during training, experiment with pretraining snacks.

3. Finally, what are your competition goals? If you’re an endurance athlete or triathlete then your pretraining and in-training nutrition strategy is critical. Here’s what Berman and Rivera have to say about other goals: “If you’re wanting to lose weight, you’re eating adequate and balanced meals, and you don’t feel hungry immediately before or after your workout, skip the snacks. They’ll add excess calories and impede your goal. Same goes for lean goals, general health and longevity.”

Some specific recommendations

If your last meal was more than 2 hours ago
If your last meal was less than 2 hours ago AND you feel physical hunger

Consider these snack examples:

½ cup berries + 1 cup plain, Greek Yogurt
1 piece fruit + 1 cup cottage cheese
1 slice whole grain bread/1 brown rice cake + 1 Tbsp unsweetened nut butter
½ cup berries + handful of plain nuts
½ whole grain bagel + 1 Tbsp nut butter
Apple + 2 Tbsp nut butter
½ cup dates + 7 almonds

Finally … do your experiments in training and not on the day of competition.

Some helpful resource links:

Timing your pre- and post-workout nutrition
Nutrition for workouts infographic

Key Points:

If you find yourself hungry during training or competition you’ll likely benefit from a pregame snack or small meal.

If you’re an elite endurance athlete or triathlete your pre-training and in-competition nutrition strategy is critical.

Most athletes engaged in normal training or competition of an hour or so may have no benefit from a pre-workout snack.

Each person responds differently to nutrition strategies, experiment with some changes during training and see how they affect you.

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(Dr. Dev K. Mishra is a Clinical Assistant Professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University and Medical Director of Apeiron Life, at which Jae Berman serves as Director of Nutrition and Heather Rivera Clinical Nutrition Advisor. Mishra is the creator of the online injury management course and the Good to Go injury assessment App for coaches, managers, parents and players. Mishra writes about injury recognition and management at blog, where this article originally appeared.)

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