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What to Eat or Drink Prior to a Cardio Workout

author image Andrew Reiner
Andrew Reiner has covered scholastic and collegiate sports since 2007. He has written for "The Record Delta" in Buckhannon, W.Va., winning first-place awards from the West Virginia Press Association for sports news writing, sports feature writing and sports columnist, among others. Reiner earned a Bachelor of Arts in communications and integrated media from Geneva College in Pennsylvania.
What to Eat or Drink Prior to a Cardio Workout
People are jogging on treadmills. Photo Credit Andres Rodriguez/Hemera/Getty Images

You probably don't want to head into your next cardio workout on an empty stomach, feeling tired and depleted. However, you also don't want to go into that cardio session on a full stomach, feeling like you might get hit by a case of stomach cramps or, worse yet, need a sudden pit stop at the bathroom. Finding the happy medium requires an athlete to eat and drink in small, steady doses, keeping energy and blood sugar levels steady, while the body remains cool and hydrated.

Striking the Right Balance

To fuel their bodies for intense, calorie-burning cardio workouts, athletes must rely on two critical dietary elements: protein and carbohydrates. However, steak and pasta are far from the only sources of those nutritional building blocks. Green vegetables, beans, fruits and nuts provide protein and essential nutrients like iron, while beans, whole grains and starchy vegetables like potatoes and yams provide long-lasting stores of simple carbohydrates which the body can easily digest. A balanced meal of carbs and proteins, eaten three hours before exercising should provide athletes sufficient fuel for their workouts.

Foods to Avoid

If you need a quick fix to curb your hunger before a workout, stick to a small snack such as a bagel or piece of toast with peanut butter, combining small doses of protein and carbs, or a piece of fresh fruit. However, the American College of Sports Medicine advises athletes to avoid high-fiber foods, such as beans or bran cereals, and high-fat foods, such as dairy products, in the hours leading up to a workout. Athletes should also avoid caffeine for about two hours prior to exercise, as it can spark activity in the intestinal tract, according to the ACSM.

How Much to Hydrate

The old rule of thumb that an athlete should drink eight, 8-oz. glasses of water per day just isn't sufficient, according to the ACSM, nor is the maxim of drinking whenever you feel thirsty, especially for older athletes. The ACSM recommends drinking water or sports drink relative to the amount of sweat lost during exercise in addition to regular hydration throughout the day. Fruits and vegetables can also aid in hydration, since those foods contain up to 80 percent water and are packed with flavor. Hydration is best measured by an athlete judging the color of his own urine. Light yellow urine, similar in color to lemonade, proves an athlete is well hydrated, while dark yellow or brown urine, similar in color to iced tea, indicates dehydration.

Not All Fluids Hydrate

When hydrating for a cardio workout, stick to water and sports drinks, and avoid soft drinks and energy drinks. The carbonation in soft drinks can leave a bubbly feeling in an athlete's stomach, leading to gas or heartburn. Plus, a spike in the body's glucose levels caused by the typical sugary soft drink can cause an equally aggressive drop in glucose later on. Similarly, energy drinks often contain not only high levels of sugar but also high levels of carbohydrates which can cause stomach cramping during exercise.

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