Articles – Pre Exercise Nutrition


Training for Football/Rugby/GAA and most team sports usually involves a combination of sprint drills, body weight exercises, weights and practice match. Duration is typically 1.5 – 2hrs and pretty much all the different energy systems are used. In general, the training involves a combination of some sprint, strength and endurance workouts. Therefore choosing the right types, amounts and timing of foods is critical.

The right nutrition will delay fatigue, prevent muscle damage, increase focus and improve overall performance. This ensures that will you get the most out of your training session and benefit from the adaptations that make you fitter and stronger.

The right type of food

Sweets, chocolate, biscuits and sports drinks are NOT the right type of foods to eat before training. I repeat, NOT ! The main problem with consuming these foods is that they cause a quick spike in of your blood sugar levels. This causes a rapid release of insulin whose job is to remove sugar quickly from your blood. The result is a dip in blood sugar levels causing you to fill tired and hungry. This is obviously a disadvantage when the aim is to be in peak condition.

There are 3 primary foods that your body needs before you exercise:

1.   Carbohydrate – Energy

The type of carbohydrate you eat before training determines whether you get a quick burst of energy following by a dip or a sustained constant release of energy. Carbohydrate foods which get converted to sugar quickly are the ones to avoid. Carbohydrate foods that cause a steady release of sugar into the bloodstream are recommended prior to training.  These types of carbohydrates are termed Low Glycaemic Index and High Glycemic Index. The glyaemic index is a measure of how quickly the food gets converted into simple sugars. In general, the less of these you eat the better (more on this in another article). But for now, eating high GI foods before you train is not recommended and can hamper your performance.

Table 1: Carbohydrate Foods

Low GI – good !High GI – bad !
Brown Basmati RiceWhite Rice
Wholewheat PastaPotatoes
Bulgar WheatWhite bread, Baguettes, rolls etc
Rye/Spelt BreadCrackers, biscuits
AppleSweets, sugary drinks, chocolate
PearCornflakes, frosties, coco pops
PorridgeWhite Pasta

2.   Protein – Muscle

Protein provides amino acids which are the building blocks for various body parts such as muscle, immune system, enzymes and hormones. While you can store carbohydrate and fat in the body, there is no storage facility for protein. Therefore, constant supplies are needed. High intensity exercise and resistance training causes muscle tissue breakdown. One way of limiting this is to ensure that you have a fresh supply of amino acids in your system. This has also been shown to delay fatigue and improve focus. Certain amino acids are precursors for certain neurotransmitters in the brain which control alertness and concentration. So if you want to prevent muscle damage, delay fatigue and be switched on then eat some protein before training. Good protein foods examples shown below in table 2.

Table 2: Protein Foods

Main meal proteinsSnack proteins
Fillet Chicken/TurkeyEggs
Free range eggsCottage cheese
Any fishPeanut butter
Lean steak/minceNatural yoghurt
Tofu, tempeh, beans,Powders- Whey Protein/Pea Protein/Hemp Protein/Brown Rice Protein

3.   Fat – yes, it’s good for you !

There are 3 types of fat – mono and polyunsaturated and saturated fat. The only type of fat that needs to be avoided is the refined type such as vegetable, sunflower and canola oils. Animal fats from good sources are healthy for the body and perform numerous functions as well as being our main source of fuel . Fats can improve energy levels, reduce muscle soreness, reduce body fat and improve adaptations. See table 3 below

Table 3: Healthy Fats

Monounsaturated fats Polyunsaturated Fats (containing omega 3)
AvocadoSalmon, mackerel, sardines, herring
Olives, Olive oilWalnuts, Flaxseed,
Nuts, Peanut Butter, hummus Flaxseed Oil, Walnut Oil

Food Requirements

The amount of foods to eat depends on the individual – your age, gender, weight, goals, sport and type of training. For a 70Kg male GAA footballer prior to a standard club training session, amounts he should eat for his main meal are shown in the table below:

Table 4: Food Requirements for a 70Kg player

Carbohydrate1.5g/Kg BW = 105g100g brown rice + 2 slices wholegrain bread
Protein0.3-0.4/Kg BW = 20-30gAverage Chicken Fillet or 3 eggs
Fat25% of total meal = 10-15gTin Mackerel or 30g Walnuts or 1 tbsp of flaxseed oil


When you eat certain foods is important. Meats and wholegrains eaten together take approximately 3-4hrs before they are digested. Therefore, you should not eat your main meal any sooner than 3hrs before training.  In order to exercise you need available carbohydrate stored in the muscle, known as glycogen. It takes several hours for the foods you eat to be converted to glycogen and stored in the muscle. Therefore eating bread or cereal 1hr before training is pointless, as it would not have enough time to get into the muscle. Hence, you need to eat your main dose of carbohydrate foods 3-4hrs before you train to ensure you have glycogen in the muscle ready for training. Protein and fats also take several hours to digest and become assimilated. Thus, any meats or oils should be consumed with your main meal 3-4hrs before training. There are some foods that have quicker digestion times which are suitable snacks 1.5-2hrs before training. These foods should be predominantly only carbohydrate and proteins as fat delays absorption. Remember, one of the most important things that you want to prevent is a spike in blood sugar levels. Therefore, your last snack before training should contain low GI slow release carbohydrate foods. A summary of when and what you should eat before training is given below in table 4

Table 4: Pre training food timing

3-4 hrs before trainingCarbohydrate: Low GI – brown rice

Protein: Chicken/Turkey

Good Fats: 1 tbsp flaxseed oil or handful walnuts

Protein+Good Fats: mackerel or sardines or salmon
1.5hrs before trainingCarbohydrate: apple/pear/oatcakes/porridge

Protein: 1-2eggs, cottage cheese, protein shake,


Everyone is different and therefore certain foods that some people feel good make others feel ill. Therefore, find out what works for you. Use the tips and food examples mentioned above to help you find your preferred mix.

Ø  Eat low GI carbohydrate foods before training

Ø  Eat your main meal 3-4hrs before training

Ø  Eat a snack 1.5hrs before training

Ø  Eat protein foods with meal and snack

Ø  Eat healthy fats with main meal

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