Does what you eat (or don’t eat) the day before a big workout affect how you perform? 

The answer to this question very much depends on your training goals, exercise/training type and the level of your training e.g. elite athlete vs everyday gym goer. Consuming food and fluid before exercise should be seen as an opportunity to fine-tune carbohydrate and fluid levels and to ensure you feel comfortable and confident, and to support athletic performance.

To determine how far in advance, you should consume a pre-event/pre-training meal or snack, it’s important to note that food consumed before exercise is only useful once it has been digested and absorbed. This means you need to time your food intake so that the fuel becomes available during the exercise period. The time required for digestion depends on the type and quantity of food consumed. A general guide is to have a meal about 3-4 hours before exercise or a lighter snack about 1-2 hours before exercise. It’s recommended that you experiment to find the timing, amount and make up that best suits your individual needs.

From this guide, you can see that it is not necessary to focus on your meals the day before, but consider your food choices a few hours before your session. The exception to the rule might be if you train very early in the morning. Even then, it’s not recommend that you consume a large meal before bed. Therefore, a small carbohydrate-based snack in liquid form, in the morning before your session may serve you best.

What are some mistakes people make when they increase their training but do not eating accordingly?

When the duration and intensity of training increases, it is also important to increase your calorie intake to support the body’s extra energy requirements. I often see people who do not eat accordingly, their energy levels suffer and so too does their concentration, focus and performance. Thus, this can place them at higher risk of injury as well as prolong the recovery process from their training.

A classic example is people who want to build lean muscle mass and lose fat mass at the same time. For one to lose optimal fat mass, they need to be in an energy deficit. But if one wants to build muscle and size, they need to be in energy surplus. Therefore, balancing nutrition with training goals and their program is a science and is best supported with the help of a Dietitian or Nutritionist.

Are there any guidelines for eating the day before a big workout session?

There are no general rules or guidelines to follow for eating the day before a big workout. The exception to the rule might be if you are an endurance athlete and you are “carb loading” before a major event. Therefore, your normal healthy meals the day before will suffice.

As mentioned previously, a general guide for eating before a big workout or training session is to have a meal about 3-4 hours before exercise or a lighter snack about 1-2 hours before exercise. Just remember that foods higher in fat, protein and fibre tend to take longer to digest than other foods, and large quantities of foods take longer to digest than smaller quantities.

What are some meal and snack ideas to prepare for a workout the next day?

As mentioned previously, meal and snacks should be consumed 1-4 hours prior to training. Therefore, eating normally the day before with a focus on recovery nutrition from your previous workout should be the focus. Some examples of meals and snacks (depending on the type of exercise) might be:

The following foods are suitable to eat 3-4 hours before exercise:

  • scrambled eggs and mushrooms on wholemeal toast
  • lean meat and vegetable stir fry with brown rice or quinoa
  • baked beans on wholemeal toast
  • wholemeal roll/wrap with lean meat, cottage cheese and salad vegetables
  • pasta, quinoa or brown rice with a sauce based on low-fat ingredients (e.g. tomato, vegetables, lean meat)
  • baked potato + cottage cheese and diced vegetable filling

The following snacks are suitable to eat 1-2 hours before exercise:

  • liquid meal supplement
  • protein shake or fruit smoothie
  • rice cakes with spread
  • breakfast cereal with milk
  • cereal bars
  • natural or Greek yoghurt + fruit
  • fruit

What are some recovery meal and snack ideas?

When it comes to choosing the best post-workout snack or meal, there is no one “best” option or “one size (option) fits all” approach and recovery strategies should be individualised based on workload, body size, type and duration of the training just completed, goals related to body composition and personal preferences.

However, there are some main goals that all recovery snacks or meals should have. These include:

  • Appropriate refuel glycogen stores and rehydrate the body
  • Promote muscle repair and growth
  • Optimise adaptation from the training session
  • Support the immune system

The focus should be on the composition of the snack or meal when it comes to macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats), fluid and electrolytes. A general rule of thumb according to the latest clinical sports nutrition guidelines when it comes to carbohydrate intake post-exercise, is to consume 1.2g/kg of body mass per hour for the first four hours (e.g. 85g carbohydrate for a 70kg person). The greatest benefits are seen when paired with protein and consumed within 30-45 minutes after completing your work-out/exercise. This immediate delivery not only helps with the replenishment of glycogen stores in the muscle but may also have a positive effect on the immune system as it helps down-regulate the hormonal stress response.

When it comes to protein requirements, consuming essential amino acids, in particular leucine, in the immediate recovery period is essential for promotion of muscle protein synthesis, critical for muscle recovery and adaptation. The general recommendation is to consume 20-30g of protein (or an equivalent of 9g of essential amino acids if you’re supplementing), which has been reported to maximise muscle protein synthesis in the first hour of post-workout recovery.

Therefore, some top picks for post-workout snacks or meals include:

  • A protein shake/smoothie – protein powder with the addition of milk or milk alternative (e.g. almond milk, coconut milk etc.) and fruit
  • 2 boiled eggs + banana
  • Small tin of tuna on wholemeal 2 x rice cakes
  • Seasonal fruit salad topped with Greek yoghurt
  • Small tub (200g) Greek yoghurt + teaspoon of chia seeds and a sprinkle of nuts
  • Lean chicken and wholemeal salad roll
  • Small tin of tuna and 1 cup cooked quinoa
  • Buckwheat thins with natural peanut butter (or other nut butter) + banana
  • Hummus and 1 wholemeal pita bread
  • 1 small bowel lean mince Bolognese + and pasta
  • 1 cup ricotta mixed with 1 teaspoon honey + sprinkle of cinnamon, served with cut up apple pieces