What Are the Best Foods to Eat Before Exercise? Recipe Included! Guest Author Brendan Brazier

Thursday May 3 | BY |
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Store-bought energy and protein bars are often filled with unhealthy ingredients—try homemade instead.

As you probably already know, commercial versions of many sport nutrition products are not usually the healthiest options. Commonly packed with artificial flavors, refined carbohydrates, denatured proteins and sometimes even harmful fats, they’re certainly not something I’d want to consume.

Some commercial options have improved over the years, but I like to know exactly what goes into mine, so I opt to make my own. Whole food energy bars, sport drinks, energy gels, energy pudding, post workout recovery drinks, whole food meal replacement smoothies and even performance pancakes are all part of my specific sport nutrition program.

What’s the Best Fuel Immediately Before Exercise?
The body’s first choice for fuel during intense exercise is the simple carbohydrate. Once it’s burned all of those available, it will then opt for complex carbohydrates. It’s in the best interest of the athlete to ensure the body is provided with enough simple carbohydrates to fuel activity so that complex carbohydrates are not needed.

If the body has to resort to burning complex carbohydrates while exercising at a high intensity, it will have to use extra energy in order to convert the complex carbohydrates into simple carbohydrates. Additionally, if too much protein is eaten before intense exercise, it will likely cause muscle cramping due to the fact that it requires more fluid to be metabolized than does carbohydrate or fat.

Also, protein is not what you want to have your body burning for fuel. Protein is for building muscle, not fuelling it. When protein is consumed in place of carbohydrates immediately before exercise, and therefore burned as fuel, it burns “dirty,” meaning that toxins are created as a result of its combustion. The production and elimination of toxins creates stress on the body and as such, causes a stress response. Ultimately, endurance will decline.

Pre-workout Snacks Must be Digestible
For a pre-exercise snack, the most important factor is digestibility. If the food eaten shortly before a training session or race requires a large amount of energy to digest, it will leave the body with less fuel—the last thing needed before exercise. Additionally, hard-to-breakdown food will require more blood to be sent to the stomach to aid in the digestion process. When blood is in the stomach, it can’t be in the extremities delivering oxygen and removing waste products, which is a requirement for optimal physical performance. It’s also not uncommon for a “stitch” to occur in the diaphragm area if food has not been digested completely before a workout or race—especially an intense one—begins.

For high-intensity shorter training and racing, it’s beneficial to fuel up on simple carbohydrates. The healthiest sources are fruits. Dates are a good choice since they’re rich in a simple carbohydrate called glucose. Glucose goes straight to the liver for immediate energy. The body doesn’t have to convert it to a different form to utilize it, making glucose-rich-foods the ideal primary fuel before or during a high-intensity workout.

Simple carbs burn quickly, however, meaning that if glucose is the only carbohydrate source, it will have to be replenished about every 20 minutes after one hour of intense activity to keep the body adequately fueled.

If I’m going to perform a mid-range or longer workout that lasts up to 3 hours, but is still quite intense; or compete in a race such as a marathon; I will have a nutritionally balanced raw bar. In addition to the dates, I include a small amount of alkaline protein, usually raw hemp, and a source of essential fatty acids such as ground flax seeds or soaked almonds for prolonged, high-net-gain energy. In my first book, The Thrive Diet, I also include recipes for sport drinks, energy gels and recovery smoothies.

Try this recipe before your next run.

Chocolate Blueberry Energy Bars

These nutrient-packed bars are easy to make and offer a convenient way to carry whole food nutrition with you.

Yield: Makes approximately 12 50-gram bars.

1 cup fresh or soaked dates
1/4 cup almonds
1/4 cup blueberries
1/4 cup cocao powder
1/4 cup ground flaxseed*
1/4 cup hemp protein powder*
1/4 cup unhulled sesame seeds
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp lemon zest

Sea salt to taste

1/2 cup sprouted or cooked buckwheat (optional)
1/2 cup frozen blueberries

In a food processor, process all ingredients except the buckwheat and frozen blueberries. Knead buckwheat and berries into mixture by hand.

To shape as bars, flatten the mixture on the clean surface with your hands. Place plastic wrap over top; with a rolling pin, roll mixture to desired bar thickness. Cut mixture into bars.

Alternatively, form mixture into a brick; cut as though slicing bread.

*For even greater nutrient value, ground flax and hemp protein can be substituted on a 1:1 ratio with Vega Whole Food Smoothie Infusion or, better yet, Vega Whole Food Meal Replacement.

Brendan Brazier

Brendan Brazier

Brendan Brazier is a former professional Ironman triathlete, a two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion, the creator of an award-winning line of whole food nutritional products called VEGA, and the bestselling author of Thrive. He is also the developer of the acclaimed ZoN Thrive Fitness program and the formulator of the new (September, 2011) award-winning, 7-product natural VEGA Sport system. His latest book (September, 2011) is called Thrive Foods: 200 Plant-Based Recipes for Peak Health. Read more about Brendan at his website.


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  1. Hello says:

    Yeah, you have to be careful when eating before exercising. Word of caution, don’t eat or drink any carbohydrates before a race unless it’s two or three hours before or immediately before (drink some simple sugars). As soon as your blood sugar starts rising, insulin starts being released, which is not what you want in your bloodstream during a competition unless you want to crash from hypoglycemia. Fortunately, exercise suppresses insulin release. I also read that the best combination after exercise to switch the body from a catabolic to anabolic state is both carbohydrate and protein. Carbohydrate alone as an after exercise food source showed a slower recovery.

  2. Hello says:

    Of course, if someone is trying to lose weight he or she should probably not eat anything after a workout to keep the body in a catabolic state.

  3. Rt Gon says:

    Fruit is best. Two pounds of unheated nectar honey with spring water will work as well. I use only raw sugar before and raw protein after with more sugar before bed.

  4. carvacrol says:

    I usually have fruit before I exercise, but will have a go making these energy bars this week. I’ll have to adapt the recipe though, as most of those ingredients are hard to get here in Thailand.

  5. Joseph says:


    It really depends on your goals, eh? If you’re interested in *performance*, then, yes… the simple carbs before will offer benefit.

    However, if you’re looking into *Longevity* (which many of us here are), you may wish to consider learning about Intermittent Fasting, and training your body to exercise in the fasted state. This will boost HGH, optimize your Insulin response to be more of a Fat-burner, and promote cellular protein recycling.

    Mark Sissom had an *awesome* series lately on Fasting, and part five was about fasting exercised. Take a look: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/fasting-exercise-workout-recovery/#axzz1t4cfSBGM

    The other links to the rest of the series are at the bottom of the page.

  6. IdaFish says:

    I usually can’t eat 2 hrs before workout cause I get a stitch so so easily.. These bars look amazing and I’ll def try them out! And I think I might buy that book for my brother who exercises too much for his own good and he just stopped being vegan (went vego instead – fish and eggs included tho) cause he didn’t get all the fuel that he needed.. We’ll see!!! 😀

    Awesome post!
    Now I’m wanting a POST-exercise recipe 🙂

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