Enette Larson, Ph.D., R.D., CSSD

Active individuals often wonder what, and even if, they should eat before a workout -- especially when hunger strikes close to workout time -- or when the race or sporting event begins too early in the morning to consider eating beforehand. Experienced athletes may remember eating the wrong food at the wrong time and wondering why they felt awful or performed poorly. Can the timing and choice of foods consumed close to and during a workout really make a difference in how you perform? Following a good diet with adequate amounts of energy, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals is critical for optimal performance. No one performs their best by starting a workout hungry or with low glycogen (carbohydrate) stores or after eating the wrong types of food too close to exercising. Also, failing to replace depleted carbohydrates, protein, and fluids after a workout can decrease performance in the days that follow1. Because the recommendations for food and fluid intake before, during, and after exercise vary somewhat with different sports activities, this article will cover guidelines for all types and levels of vegetarian athletes.


The purpose of eating prior to a workout or competition is to provide the body with fuel and fluid. The goal is to choose foods which will prevent hunger, provide additional carbohydrate fuel, and minimize possible intestinal complications. Generally, the meal should be consumed far enough in advance to allow for stomach emptying and intestinal absorption. A good rule of thumb is to limit the pre-event meal to about 800 calories, and give yourself one hour before the workout for each 200 calories you eat. For example, 5 pancakes, maple syrup, a banana, and juice would be eaten about 4 hours before a workout. A smaller 200 calorie meal such as a small bowl of cereal or half a bagel and juice would be eaten between 1 and 2 hours before starting. Meal timing is especially important in activities such as running, aerobic dancing, and soccer, and less critical in sports such as cycling. Athletes who have a "nervous stomach" before competition may find liquid meals such as fruit smoothies made with silken tofu or yogurt easier to tolerate. The pre-event meal should contain fluid and foods that are high in carbohydrates, and low in fat, protein, salt, simple sugars, and fiber. Cereal with sliced bananas and milk or soymilk, pancakes with fruit topping, oatmeal with dried fruit, a baked potato topped with soy yogurt and vegetables, and hummus on bread with fruit are good examples. Pre-event meals should be consumed with one to two glasses of plain water. Too much protein, fiber, and fat in the pre-event meal can lead to heartburn, nausea, diarrhea, or constipation in certain individuals.

Adequate fluid intake is the single most important recommendation for all types of exercise.


Replacing both fluid and carbohydrate during exercise is important. What and how much to replace depends on the type, duration, and intensity of the exercise. Adequate fluid intake is the single most important recommendation for all types of exercise. The general recommendation is to drink 1/2 to 1 cup of water every 10 to 20 minutes. In a hot environment, when perspiration is especially heavy, drinking up to 2 cups of water every 15 minutes may be necessary to replace fluid losses. Adequate hydration enables the active body to regulate its temperature effectively and allows for good circulation and muscle function.

Carbohydrate ingestion in events lasting longer than 60 to 90 minutes can optimize cognitive and physical performance1, and may even be beneficial during high intensity exercise of shorter duration. This applies to both continuous events like cycling, running, and hiking, and sports with intermittent activity like basketball and soccer. Under these conditions, consuming carbohydrates during exercise increases both the time and the intensity the athlete is able to exercise before becoming exhausted. Researchers believe that carbohydrate consumption delays fatigue by providing additional fuel for the working muscle and preventing blood sugar from dropping.1 Recent research also suggests that the presence of carbohydrate in the mouth (i.e., simply rinsing with a carbohydrate solution) has an ergogenic effect--improving performance by 2% and 3% (compared to a placebo rinse) during exercise lasting approximately 1 hour3. A carbohydrate intake of approximately 30 to 90 grams per hour1 (1 to 3 large bananas or 15 to 60 ounces of a 6 to 7% fluid replacement beverage) is recommended for delaying fatigue during prolonged strenuous exercise. Athletes, however, should practice consuming carbohydrate during training to develop an individual strategy.


The meal following a workout is nutritionally the most important meal for aiding recovery from exercise and maintaining the ability to train the following days. Fluid, carbohydrate, and protein intake after exercise is critical, especially after intense training or events1,4,5. A high carbohydrate intake is required to replace depleted muscle glycogen stores2,5,6. Ingestion of foods or drinks providing 15-25 g of protein after each training session will maximize the repair and rebuilding of damaged muscle tissue. Since the body begins to replace its depleted stores and repair any microscopic damage to muscle fibers almost immediately after exercise, provision of these depleted nutrients in the post-event meal may accelerate recovery.

Consuming a carbohydrate source starting 15 to 30 minutes after exercise, followed by additional carbohydrate feedings, will optimize muscle glycogen replacement.6 Delaying the ingestion of carbohydrates by several hours slows down the rate at which the body is able to store glycogen. For the casual exerciser, this means packing a piece of fruit, fruit juice, or a fluid replacement beverage for a post-workout snack, and then eating a mixed high carbohydrate and protein meal (such as pasta with lentil spaghetti sauce or tofu, vegetables, and rice) shortly thereafter. For the athlete in heavy training, a meal containing both a good source of protein and 100 grams of carbohydrate is recommended, followed by additional carbohydrate snacks every 2 to 4 hours.

Guidelines for Planning The Pre-event Meal

                                   Protein Carbohydrate
                                   (Grams) (Grams)
- 2 Starch Servings                6       30
- 1 Fruit Serving                  0-4     6-15
                                   6-10    36-45

- 3 Starch Servings                6       45
- 1 Fruit or Vegetable             0-2     5-15
- 1 cup Fruit Juice or 4 oz. Tofu  0-9     3-15
                                   6-17    53-75

- 4 Starch Servings                8       60
- 2 Fruit or 6 Vegetables          0-12    30
- 1 cup Fruit Juice or 4 oz. Tofu  0-9     3-15
- 1 tsp. Preserves or Syrup        0       13
                                   8-29    106-118

- 5 Starch Servings                10      75
- 3 Fruit or 6 Vegetables          0-12    30-45
- 1 cup Fruit Juice or 4 oz. Tofu  0-9     3-15
- 1 tsp. Preserves or Syrup        0       13
                                   10-31   121-148


- 1/3 cup cooked rice, legumes, sweet potato

- 1/2 cup corn, potato, cooked cereal, pasta (cooked)

- 1/3 to 3/4 cup ready-to-eat cereal (check nutrient label)

- 3/4 cup winter squash

- 1 slice bread, 6-inch tortilla, 4-inch pancake

- 1/2 small bagel, bun, English muffin, 6-inch pita bread

- 1 average piece fruit            - 1/2 cup non-starchy vegetable
- 1/2 banana or mango
- 1/2 cup fruit, canned fruit, or fruit juice
- 2 TB raisins, 3 prunes, 7 apricot halves

Note:  The fat content of the pre-competition meal can
       vary with food choices. Select foods that contain
       no more than 2 to 3 grams of fat per serving.  Any
       more than this will increase both the calories and
       the fat composition of the pre-exercise meal greater
       than that recommended. 


Meal skipping and fasting can be detrimental to performance. An overnight fast depletes sugars stored in the liver (liver glycogen) and can contribute to light-headedness and the early onset of fatigue6. A high carbohydrate meal before exercise increases the carbohydrate available for the exercising muscle which provides benefit during both prolonged endurance exercise and high-intensity exercise. Starting any exercise session hungry or light-headed, however, keeps you from performing your best. If time or calories are a factor, eat a small high-carbohydrate snack (banana, bagel, cereal, vegan "energy bar") about an hour and a half before exercise or drink a glass of a fluid replacement beverage or diluted fruit juice 10 minutes prior to exercise.


Vegetarian diets are generally high in both soluble and insoluble fiber. A small amount of soluble fiber before or during exercise may be beneficial by preventing rapid highs and lows in blood sugar. However, some athletes are sensitive to fiber before exercise,7 especially major competitions. If you experience stomach or intestinal cramps, or diarrhea before exercise, limiting high fiber foods such as legumes, whole grain products, bran products, and dried fruit in the meal preceding exercise may eliminate this distress. Sensitive athletes may need to reduce their fiber intake 24 to 36 hours before competition. Regular meal times and bowel habits also prevent exercise-induced intestinal complications.

It is also important to consider that adequate fiber intake is easily met and often exceeded by vegetarian athletes who have high calorie intakes. Sometimes, trying to eat a high calorie diet containing excess fiber can cause discomfort. Cyclists, for example, participating in a simulated Tour de France had difficulty maintaining adequate energy intake of 8,000 to 10,000 calories when whole grains and high fiber food were selected.7 Those athletes with high calorie intakes should not be overly concerned about fiber and should select a variety of high carbohydrate foods that both contain fiber and are low in fiber (white bread, pasta, white rice, potatoes without skin, and fruit juice).


  • Maintain an overall diet high in complex carbohydrates and low to moderate in fat. Eating a well-balanced diet containing adequate amounts of calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals is critical for optimal performance.
  • Choose pre-exercise meals that work well for you, including complex carbohydrates and fluids. Limit fat, protein, salt, and simple sugar. Before major competitions, don't shock your body by introducing unfamiliar foods.
  • Fasting or meal skipping before exercise can impair performance. Wait approximately 1 hour for every 200 calories you consume before exercise.
  • Drink plenty of fluids during exercise. If exercise lasts longer than 60 to 90 minutes, eat or drink 30 to 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour to improve endurance performance.
  • To aid recovery from exercise, consume a high-carbohydrate, high-protein snack within 30 minutes after exercise and follow with a mixed high carbohydrate and protein meal. High-carbohydrate, high-protein snacks include cottage cheese with fruit, yogurt topped with berries and granola, a mini-bean burrito, or a high-protein sports bar.
  • If you experience stomach or intestinal complications during exercise, your pre-exercise meal may have been too high in fat or fiber or lacking in fluid.


  1. International Olympic Committee, Sports Nutrition Consensus Panel, 2010.
  2. Coyle EF, Coggan AR, Hemmert MK and Ivy JL. Muscle glycogen utilization during prolonged strenuous exercise when fed carbohydrate. J Appl Physiol 61:165-172, 1986.
  3. Jeukendrup AE. Oral carbohydrate rinse: placebo or beneficial? Curr Sports Med Rep. 12(4):222-7, 2013.
  4. Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J. Sports Sci 29 Suppl 1:S29-38, 2011
  5. Burke LM, Hawley JA, Wong SH, Jeukendrup AE. Carbohydrates for training and competition. J. Sports Sci 29 Suppl 1:S17-27, 2011
  6. Coyle EF. Carbohydrates and athletic performance. Gatorade Sport Science Exchange 1(7), 1988.
  7. Hultman E. Nutritional effects on work performance. Am J Clin Nutr 49:949-957, 1989.
  8. Rehrer NJ, vanKemenade MC, Meesler TA, Saris WHM and Brouns F. Nutrition in- to GI complaints among triathletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc 22:s107, 1990.
  9. Brouns F and Saris WHM. Diet manipulation and related metabolic changes in competitive cyclists. American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting, 1990.
VEGAN HANDBOOK COVER This article was excerpted from Vegan Handbook, edited by Debra Wasserman and Reed Mangels Ph.D., R.D.

Enette Larson is also the author of the book, Vegetarian Sports Nutrition, a comprehensive guide for all vegetarian and vegan athletes.