Fueling Tips for Double (and Single) Workouts

by Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD

As one coach aptly stated, "Too many athletes show up for training, but they don't show up for meals. They might as well not show up for training." So true! Pre-exercise fueling makes a big difference in terms of how well all athletes, including runners, can enhance their performance. Food eaten within the hour before a run gets put to good use; it can help you train harder and longer. (It can also help curb post-exercise hunger/sugar cravings and over-eating of "the wrong foods.")

You can only run and race at your best if on a daily basis you are fueled well enough to train at your best. Yet too many runners wonder what (and if) they should eat before they exercise. Marathoners want to know what to grab (if anything) as they roll out of bed and run out the door. Triathletes ask about how to fuel for their second workout of the day. And every runner wants a pre-exercise snack that will not cause intestinal distress.

No one pre-exercise food is best for all athletes. Hence, you want to experiment to learn which foods settle best in your body. Here is some guidance for effective pre-exercise fueling.

• First off, take steps to train your gut (not just your heart, lungs, and muscles).

I've talked to many runners who purposefully choose to not eat within hours of exercise as a means to avoid gastro-intestinal (GI) upset. While this may seem like a good idea for the short term, it's a bad idea if you want to optimize performance for the long run.

The intestinal tract is trainable and can digest food during exercise that you can sustain for longer than 30 minutes. (The gut shuts down during short, intense bouts, so plan to eat 2 to 4 hours in advance of track workouts!) To train your gut, start by nibbling on 50 to 100 calories of crackers, pretzels, or any simple-to-digest carb within the hour pre-run. Once your GI tract tolerates that snack, titrate the calories up to 200 to 300—maybe a packet of oatmeal, a granola bar, or an English muffin (with some peanut butter on it for longer-lasting energy). Experiment with a variety of fruits (applesauce), vegetables (sweet potato), and grains (leftover pasta) to learn what works best for your body. You are an experiment of one.

For some runners, GI distress can be caused by the inability to thoroughly digest specific types of carbohydrates called FODMAPS (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols). Common sources of FODMAPs include garlic and onion (found in the spaghetti sauce & garlic bread often enjoyed the night before a long run), as well as apples and raspberries. For more in-depth FODMAP information, visit www.KateScarlata.com.

• Meal timing matters. When you eat matters as much as what you eat.

Too many runners eat backwards. That is, they undereat during the active part of their day, only to consume a huge meal before going to bed. Two standard excuses for skimpy daytime fueling include:

#1: "I look forward to a big dinner. That's when I finally have time to relax and reward myself for having survived yet another busy day."

 #2: "I want to lose weight. I eat so well at breakfast & lunch, but then I blow it at night. Evening eating is my downfall..."

If either scenario sounds familiar, think again. You are going to consume the calories eventually, so you might as well plan to eat when the food can be put to good use.

Morning runners want to eat part of their breakfast (granola bar & latte) before they workout and then enjoy the rest of their breakfast afterwards (oatmeal, banana & PB). They want to plan an early hearty lunch at 11:00ish and a second lunch/hearty snack at 3:00ish. The goal of the second lunch is to both fuel the upcoming workout and ruin the appetite for dinner so they can then enjoy a lighter dinner—and likely sleep better than if they had stuffed themselves with a big meal.

Runners who do double workouts should prioritize eating a hearty early lunch to refuel from the morning session and prepare for the second (afternoon) session. They'll have 4 to 5 hours to readily digest the food before they train again later that day.

• You might need to plan time to eat. Busy runners who juggle work or school and double workouts often complain they have no time to eat. Sometimes that is true and sometimes they choose to sleep a few more minutes (leaving no time for breakfast) or keep working on a project (leaving no time for lunch). Those are both choices. They could have chosen to make fueling more of a priority.

If you struggle with finding time to eat, plan ahead. Maybe you can convert your morning coffee into a latte and add an energy bar or two to eat while driving to the gym? Any food is better than no food!

Some runners schedule lunchtime into their daily calendar. Others set an alarm for a 3:00 pm snack before their 4:00 pm workout.

A hearty (early) lunch eaten as the main meal of the day is important for runners who do double workouts. That meal will offer fuel for an energetic afternoon workout.

Alternatively, plan to have a mid-afternoon second lunch readily available, such as apple + cheese+ crackers, half or whole PB & J sandwich, or yogurt + granola + banana. Any fuel—even cookies or candy—is better than exercising on empty. (Research suggests sugar/candy eaten within 15-minutes pre-exercise can actually boost performance and not simply contribute to a sugar "crash.")

Final thoughts: For serious runners, every meal has a purpose. You are either fueling up to prepare for exercise, or you are refueling afterwards to both recover from the work-out and prepare for your next session. Fueling properly takes time and energy. You need to be responsible! Do not brush off meals and snacks as if they are optional inconveniences in your busy day.

Most runners find time to exercise; they can also find time to fuel properly. Proper fueling requires time-management skills, particularly for students and athletes doing double sessions. By scheduling time on rest days or weekends to food shop and (ideally batch-cook), you'll be able to have the right foods in the right places at the right times—and enjoy the rewards of workouts that feel good and show improvement.


Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in Newton MA (617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook is a popular resource, as is her online workshop and books. For more information visit www.NancyClarkRD.com.



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