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How to Fuel My Athlete Before a Workout

Contributed by Elisa Marley, RD, CD

Whether your children are headed off to sports practice, you are headed off to the gym, or you are rushing to your weekend tee-time, knowing what you should or shouldn’t eat before physical activity to many of us is a guessing game.  We do not want our children or ourselves loading up on energy drinks and foods that may actually be doing more harm than good.  But what is the right kind of fuel should we be putting in our bodies to give us the energy we need when we are headed out to burn it off?  The answer depends on a few things. 

First, the duration and intensity of your activity, as well as your normal dietary habits, matter when figuring out how to best fuel your body.  If you already eat a balanced diet, your exercise will be low to moderate in intensity, and your activity will last for 60 minutes or less then you likely do not need any additional fueling.  However, if you are going to be exercising more intensely for over an hour, then getting some extra fuel in your body would be wise.  One way to know if you are properly fueled is if after exercising you feel a little tired but overall energized then you are eating well for your activity level.  If you feel wiped out and exhausted it’s time to revisit your pre-workout eating habits.

Most people do well by adding a small snack 30-60 minutes before exercising.  Keep to simple carbohydrates like fruit, a snack bar or some crackers.  Our bodies like carbohydrates as a fuel source and they are easy to digest.  Pre-workout carbs help maintain your blood glucose levels during exercise and replace muscle glycogen stores (glucose that is stored in the muscles), so your body doesn’t start to break down muscle for more energy. Adding some protein is also helpful to maintain muscle before a workout.

If you find your exercise is higher in intensity and duration, then you should consider eating a bit more ahead of your exertion.  We suggest 3 hours prior to workout is a good time to eat a combination of foods higher in carbohydrates and moderate in protein for better support.  Good suggestions include a turkey sandwich, fruit, low-fat milk or Greek yogurt with berries and a sprinkle of granola. 

Next you want to think about hydration.  We generally recommend drinking 20-32 oz of water within a few hours prior to the start of exercise.  Gatorade, Powerade or any electrolyte style drink are not necessary for exercise that lasts under 60 minutes.  Fluid and electrolytes are easily restored with adequate water and a snack for lighter workouts, so there is no need for the extra calories that come in those beverages.  That is especially true for children who should only have sports drinks during extended and heavy exercise that lasts over an hour.  For children, water is boss.  Sports drinks for anyone are most beneficial for longer, more intense exercise where the body expels more fluids and electrolytes than plain water can replenish quickly enough.

Finding the right food and the right timing that works for you can involve some trial and error.  Begin by paying attention to your body and notice how you really feel before, during and after activity to determine what’s best for you.

Keep a look out for a follow-up article next week that will explain what you should eat to keep your body strong AFTER your workout or training.