“What should I eat before I exercise?”

That’s a key question—as well as what to eat during extended exercise—that athletes commonly ask me, a sport nutritionist. While they know the words carbs, proteins and fats, they often don’t know how to translate those words into food choices. Hence, the goal of this article is to offer specific food suggestions to fit a variety of sports situations. This is far from a complete list!

Please be sure to experiment with new pre- and during-exercise foods to learn which ones settle best in your gut, don’t “talk back” and enhance your performance.

Remember that for a fencing tournament, you will have eating phases that cross between several of these suggestions.  You should plan your food intake so that you’ll have energy to warm up, fence well in pools, and then have energy again for your elimination bouts.  Depending on how well run the tournament is, you could have long breaks in between pools and DE rounds, so plan accordingly.

Pre-event carbo-loading dinner:
#1. Pasta with tomato sauce, meatballs, green beans, French bread, lowfat/skim milk, frozen yogurt with strawberries.
#2. Turkey with potato, stuffing, lowfat gravy, winter squash, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls, apple crisp with reduced-fat ice cream.

Pre-game breakfast: 1 to 2 hours before, let’s say, a 9:00 a.m. start time:
Wheaties (or other dry cereal) with lowfat milk and banana; oatmeal with applesauce and brown sugar; cream of wheat with raisins; bagel or English muffin with peanut butter; poached eggs with two slices of toast; yogurt and granola.

Liquid “meals” if you have trouble digesting solid food
Fruit smoothie (milk, yogurt or juice blended with frozen berries, banana chunks), Carnation Instant Breakfast, Boost, Ensure, lowfat chocolate milk, vanilla pudding, pureed peaches.

Brunch 4 hours before, let’s say, a 1:00 pm start time:
Heftier portions of any of the above breakfast options
French toast with cinnamon sugar, berries, breakfast ham
Pancakes with maple syrup, scrambled eggs, fruit cup
Veggie omelet with non-greasy hash brown potatoes, toast
Breakfast burrito (scrambled eggs, lowfat cheese, salsa wrapped in a flour tortilla) plus fruit cup and orange juice

Four o’clock pre-game dinner before a 7:00 pm basketball game
Any of the carbo-loading dinners or brunch suggestions
Cheese ravioli, tomato sauce, peas, fruit salad, sugar cookie
Grilled chicken (small portion) with baked potato/lowfat sour cream, steamed carrots, bread, blueberry cobbler, lowfat milk (or milk alternatives: lactose-free milk, soy milk)
Turkey sub with lettuce, tomato, lowfat mayonnaise, baked potato chips, vanilla yogurt and oatmeal-raisin cookie
Wonton soup, stir-fried chicken with veggies, steamed rice, lo mein noodles, pineapple chunks, fortune cookie

Grab ‘n Go Snack: 100 to 300 non-perishable calories within the hour pre-exercise, stored in your desk or gym bag:
Nature Valley Granola Bar, Quaker Chewy Bar, Nutri-Grain Cereal Bar, Fig Newtons, Teddy Grahams, graham crackers, Nilla Wafers, animal crackers, hard or soft pretzels, cinnamon raisin bagel, snack-box raisins, trail mix
Energy Bar options to fit assorted dietary preferences:
Good tasting, all natural ingredients: Zing Bar, Clif Nectar Bar, Lara Bar, Perfect 10 Bar, Odwalla Bar, KIND Bar, NRG-Bar, PowerBar Harvest
Gluten free bars: Bora Bora Bars, Lara Bars, PURE Bar, First Endurance Bar, Hammer Bar, Wings of Nature Bar; Zing Bar
Nut-free: Metaballs, AllerEnergy Bar (www.peanutfreeplanet.com)
Raw: Raw Revolution Bar, PURE bar
Vegan: Pure Fit, Lara Bar, Hammer Bar, Vega Whole Food Raw Energy Bar, Clif Builder’s Bar, Perfect 10, ReNew Life Organic Energy Bar
Yummy organic options by entrepreneurs who will appreciate your support:
NRG-Bar (www.NRG-Bar.com; developed by an Ironman triathlete),
Olympic bar (www.OlympicGranola.com; developed by a dad with eight kids),
ZingBar (www.zingbar.com; developed by two dietitians who believe food should taste great!)

Pre-exercise “quick fixes” These choices lack nutritional value but are easy to digest, provide the quick energy the body wants, and when eaten five minutes pre-exercise, are unlikely to create rebound hypoglycemia (also known as a “sugar crash”).
Pop-Tarts, Nabisco Sugar Wafers, Rice Krispie Treats, toast with jelly, marshmallows, gum drops, jelly beans, licorice, York Peppermint Patties, Jello, marshmallows, sports drinks (Gatorade, PowerAde, etc.), fruit juice, sweetened iced tea, defizzed Coke, homemade “energy drink”*

*To avoid red dye and questionable ingredients, make your own energy drink. Simply add 7 packets (teaspoons) of sugar to 8 ounces of coffee. You’ll end up with 80 mg caffeine and 110 calories, similar to what’s in a Red Bull but at a fraction of the price!

Pre-exercise high sodium snacks for athletes who sweat heavily.
Consuming a salty food before exercise helps retain water in your body and delays becoming dehydrated.
Pretzels, salt bagel, baked chips, ramen noodles, chicken noodle soup, canned broth (chicken, beef or vegetable), beef consomme (jellied); boiled and salted red potatoes or potato chunks, ham & cheese sub with mustard, V-8 Juice.

Fuel during exercise that lasts for 2 to 4 hours
Buy sports clothes with pockets, so you can carry these with you.
Gummi bears, Starburst Fruit Chews, jelly beans, licorice, butterscotch candies, Peppermint Patties, Tootsie Rolls, Whoppers Malted Milk Balls, mini MilkyWay Bars, GoGurt
Engineered options: Gu, Carb-Boom!, Clif Shot, Clif Shot Bloks, Gu Chomps, Honey Stinger, Hammer Gel, Jelly Belly Sports Beans, Sharkies, PowerBar Energy Blasts

Make your own GORP or trail mix. Easy recipe here.

Fuel during exercise that lasts >4 hours, such as a long bike ride, cross-country ski, or adventure race
Any of the above snacks that you might consume during 2 to 4 hours of exercise, plus more substantial fare:
Peanut butter & jelly on bread, bagel or flour tortilla (wrapped “burrito style” to keep the jelly from oozing out); gorp (raisins, peanuts, M&M mixture), trail mix, ham and cheese in a pita pocket, beef jerky (for sodium), noodle soup, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate bars … any food that tastes good, settles well and helps you survive the event. (We’ll talk “good nutrition” at another time!)

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes in her practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100). For more information, read her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, and soccer teams: www.nancyclarkrd.com.



  • ladyofshalott99, October 12, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

    While I disagree with all the grain-based, high artificial sugar/HFCS-ingredient carbohydrate options–clearly, the RD is biased towards easy-to-obtain, artificial crap food– I will agree that without *some* carb-based fuel before/during an event, one will be more likely to start strong, then crash mid-day. It’s important, though, to consider the *source* of your fuel, and how that fuel impacts your performance. Garbage in, garbage out.

    I would also recommend Paleo for Athletes by Loren Cordain. There is a lot of good Paleo info for those who follow a more protein/veg (with fat for fuel), lower carb/artificial food diet, but this book alsoincorporates a balance of carbs for performance athletes.

    And this site has some pretty awesome recipes for athletes in training: http://www.health-bent.com. Non-artificial fuel for your body/training/workout. All the recipes I’ve tried from that site so far have tasted great. Check it out.

  • amart, October 13, 2010 @ 7:02 am

    I agree with the above poster. I also don’t believe that carbohydrate loading is necessary for fencing, so long as the fencer has been eating a regular amount of carbs throughout the week prior to the tournament and not doing an excessive amount of training.

    Even though I like to think that our sport is a llot more difficult than people give it credit for, in terms of carbohydrate consumption, fencing is nowhere near most of the sports that carb loading is necessary/helpful for (long distance running, cycling, or swimming). I think the best thing to do around a tournament is continue to eat well, like you should have been doing all year prior to the tournament :) and also to avoid unfamiliar foods and excessive amounts of fibre.

    I like that the author included a part about increasing sodium intake for people who sweat a lot. I used to eat a relatively low amount of sodium, and I sweat like crazy. After one particularly bad spout of dizziness on the piste I starting drinking a lot of V8 or eating high-sodium foods before/during fencing, and the amount that my focus and mental clarity improved was really noticeable. Heavy sweaters should definitely try this out!

    All in all I think the article makes good suggestions for a sport with a very high calorie consumption rate, but I don’t know if fencing fits the bill. Eating excessive amounts of starch or sugar might make a person just as lethargic as being underfed :S

  • amart, October 13, 2010 @ 7:03 am

    and by above poster, I mean below poster, apparently. Different layout than the forums lol

  • Ramon York, October 14, 2010 @ 5:54 am

    I think that’s a good snacks, what the ingredients of that?..

  • K.G., October 26, 2010 @ 1:07 am

    I agree with not having to carb-load as much in fencing. The one time I tried it I didn’t feel tired all day but I was noticeably slower than usual – my reaction time was slower and my brain felt sluggish. I fenced terribly. It was only one time so maybe the carb-load was not the cause, but that is what I think it was.

  • Dmpill, November 3, 2010 @ 10:03 am

    Uh, disgusting! As ladyofshalott99 says, garbage in = garbage out. All the fat and NO sugar, no white flour, and no artificial anything, please!

  • Bboy, December 29, 2010 @ 6:25 am

    Pop tarts? Rice krispie Treats? This woman has no idea what an athlete’s diet should consist of.

  • Carri Mcmahan, March 14, 2011 @ 2:59 am

    Half a sandwich, fresh or dried fruit, or a small handful of nuts are all good snacks. Sports bars, or energy bars, are convenient, but they aren’t necessary for athletes. You can get the same energy from healthy foods.

  • Material Handling Equipment, March 21, 2011 @ 10:27 pm

    Those are some very detailed food suggestions. Overall, it’s sensible to stick to a high-carb diet to have enough energy throughout the day. It’s practical advice not just for athletes but also for people with physically demanding careers.

  • Nicole Smith, June 9, 2011 @ 7:53 am

    The food on the top is making me really hungry. But anyway, your write up is so very useful. Informative in every way. Thanks for the tips.

  • Strip Lights, June 11, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    The menu makes me much hungry :(
    Well its very tasty and great in its combination…I think it must be favorite for every one.


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  • restaurant design ideas, August 17, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

    An excellent review of types and amounts of food necessary for athletes to achieve good results. 
    A balanced diet with adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats and proteins is a mandatory condition of sports life.

  • kiah, January 20, 2012 @ 10:04 pm

    usually I eat pasta the night before a nd a smootie (Im a vegan- i dont touch eggs) for breakfast. I dont eat before bouts as it makes me feel sick. works for me. I usuall eat after.

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