My layered approach to fueling for exercise

With the overwhelming variety of sports supplements and foods available today, it can be difficult to figure out what to eat to fuel your workouts. Before considering gels, bars, or sports drinks, though, it is important to note that the best way that you can fuel your body for a workout is to properly recover from your previous workout. That recovery should include a healthy snack or meal (see suggestions below) and adequate rest. Hydration is key as well. If you are dehydrated, you'll feel sluggish.

How does our body use food as fuel?
Our bodies and our energy levels are fueled by glycogen. Sugars from the foods that we eat are converted by our bodies to glycogen. Glucose, the preferred fuel for many of our tissues (especially the brain), is the most rapidly converted sugar, therefore it provides us with quick energy. Our liver and muscle tissue can store enough glycogen for about 48 hours of normal activity. With strenuous exercise, our glycogen stores become depleted. Replenishing those is what will give you enough fuel for your next workout.

What should I eat BEFORE exercise?
A pre-exercise snack should be easily digested. We need fast-burning carbohydrates to give us energy. Foods that are high in protein but low in carbohydrates are not easily converted to energy. Our bodies will work hard to digest those foods, taking much-needed energy away from our physical activity. Those heavy foods are likely to upset the stomach as well. I like to think of my pre-workout snack in layers:
  1. A fast-burning simple carb layer for quick energy.
  2. A slower burning complex carb layer for sustaining energy.
  3. A little bit of protein (5-10 grams) to keep my blood sugar even.
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Some snack ideas that contain all three of these layers:
  • Fruit and nut energy bars (e.g. Larabar), especially those containing dates
  • Whole grain toast with peanut, almond, or sunflower seed butter and a serving of fruit or a few dates
  • One serving of fruit and a handful of nuts
  • A smoothie containing banana, berries, protein powder or soymilk, and ground flaxseeds or chia seeds
  • Vega Sport Performance Optimizer (here and here) and toast with peanut, almond, or sunflower seed butter
  • Soy yogurt
  • Apple with peanut butter and oats (slice the apple, spread PB on the slices and dip them in rolled oats)
Dates are an excellent choice because they are high in glucose, which is easily converted to glycogen. I usually choose bananas or apples over other fruits just because I am sometimes bothered by the acid in some fruits.

Be sure to adjust your serving size according to your hunger level and the intensity or duration of the exercise that you will be doing. A snack that is too large may upset your stomach and the excess calories will be stored as fat. The body can easily convert glycogen to fat but not fat to glycogen!

What should I eat AFTER exercise?
Try to have a snack or meal within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. The meal should contain the same three layers: simple carbs, complex carbs, and protein but in slightly different amounts (slightly increase protein).

Some recovery snack and meal ideas:
  • Chocolate soymilk
  • Cup of lentil soup with brown rice and a serving of fruit
  • Green smoothie
  • High-protein cereal (e.g. Kashi Go Lean) with soymilk and berries or bananas
  • Chia yogurt snack
  • Oatmeal with added protein (see recipe)
  • Super pancakes with added protein and topped with fruit (skip the syrup)
If getting a meal in within the 30-minute post-exercise window will be difficult or impossible, have a portable, small snack ready (e.g. a banana, a few dates, an orange, a chocolate soymilk drink box).

Always keep in mind that what works for someone else may not work for you. Try different foods until you figure out what works best for you. Bon appetit and happy trails!

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