Spring Fitness: Pre-exercise Fuel

by Rachel Zavala

Gatorade® insists you gulp down its electrolyte-infused thirst quencher to get you through your workout, while a health magazine informs you that a creative concoction of cereal and trail mix is an innovative exercise fuel. However, your best friend swears by exercising on an empty stomach to burn more fat. Your simple pursuit to eat a meal that won’t manifest itself in unpleasant ways during your workout is less straightforward when you’re bombarded by these conflicting messages.

“The basic principles of eating well apply [to sports nutrition] as well,” says Professor Miriam Nelson of the Friedman School, PhD. “You’re not going to have your best performance if you are hungry, so the trick is to eat a healthy snack before.”

Pre-exercise food serves to energize your workout by providing your muscles and brain with fuel in the form of glucose (carbohydrates). If you have not eaten in a few hours and head into the gym hungry, your body enters a starved metabolic state. Your body is then unable to utilize glucose efficiently, leaving you feeling fatigued and    promptly exiting the gym after 15 minutes on the treadmill.

Exactly which foods will agree with your stomach and what time you eat them before exercise varies greatly. “There is no prescription for it, but there is guidance,” Nelson says. “Everyone needs to experiment with different food to find what is best.”

For recreational exercise lasting less than an hour, Nelson recommends consuming a mixed snack containing carbohydrates and a little bit of fat and protein about 30 minutes to 90 minutes prior to exercise.

“Avoid heavy creamy food and heavy fat before you exercise,” she advises. Nelson also warns against eating high-fiber food prior to working out because it may cause gastrointestinal distress. “If you have eaten a big salad for lunch, just wait a few hours before you work out.

Here are some other tips from Nancy Clarke, M.S., RD, author of the highly regarded Sports Nutrition Guidebook.

  • A good general rule is to allow three to four hours for a large meal to digest, two to three hours for a smaller meal, and one to two hours for blended or liquid meal.
  • Allow more digestion time before intense exercise than before moderate activity levels. Muscles require more blood during intense exercise than at rest, so your stomach may not receive the normal blood flow needed for the digestion process.
  • Use caution with extra sugary foods like jelly beans, syrup, and soft drinks before exercise. These foods produce a rapid rise and fall in blood glucose levels, leaving some people feeling light-headed and shaky.
  • Biking, swimming, and using the elliptical machine allow you to maintain a relatively stable position; therefore your stomach is not as prone to distress. Running and sports that involve running jostle your stomach, increasing the likelihood that you’ll experience digestive problems. Keep your mode of exercise in mind when you are deciding what to eat beforehand.

After experimenting with different snacks, identify the meals and snacks that make you feel best while exercising and stick with them. “There is wisdom in having routines because your body adapts to them,” Nelson says.

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