You may be one of the many women who skip breakfast and head straight to the gym, unaware that you’re shortchanging your body of much needed energy. Although it’s not always possible to fit in a big breakfast three hours before a workout, it is important that you eat the right foods at the right time so you have enough energy to get through your cardio and crunches. “Research suggests that you will have a better workout if you are able to eat something to get your blood sugar on the upswing,” says Nancy Clark, MS, RD, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guide Book and nutritionist in private practice at Healthworks Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Clark also suggests that not eating in the morning could catch up with you later in the day, making you feel ravenous and more prone to saying, “I deserve these donuts!” and replacing all the calories you’ve burned, plus more.
What your body needs
In order for you to get the greatest benefit from your workout, your body needs to have a balanced supply of nutrients to draw from. Stephen DeBoer, Registered Dietician at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota says, “The body needs three main sources of nutrients: protein to provide amino acids used for building muscle, carbohydrates for energy and fatty acids to conserve carbohydrate calories so you can exercise for longer periods.” So if you work out first thing in the morning, you really do need to eat breakfast and make sure you leave enough time to digest it, otherwise you might feel uncomfortable. “The digestive process requires a certain amount of blood going to your digestive tract and if you’re trying to exercise, you’re pulling some of that blood to your muscles, making it difficult to exercise to the maximum comfortably,” explains DeBoer.
Adela Garcia-Friedmansky, IFBB Fitness Pro and Miss Fitness Olympia is one of the rule breakers when it comes to eating breakfast before hitting the treadmill, “I do cardio early in the morning and I prefer not to eat before a cardio workout. Instead, I’ll have a snack of cream of wheat or rice or oatmeal after.” For those who are strict about their routines like Adela, DeBoer suggests having a snack before bed. “If you’re eating a meal at 7 o’clock at night and then don’t work out until 7 the next morning, your blood sugar reserves will be low. Having a snack before bed will keep carbohydrate or glycogen, a form of glucose that’s stored in the liver and muscles as an energy source, at a higher level so you’re maintaining your blood sugar.”
Fueling your workout
So what constitutes a good breakfast? “I think cereal is the breakfast of champions,” says Clark. “It’s carbohydrate, it’s quick and easy and it’s a nice balance of protein and carbs once you add milk. Hot cereals are fine too, if you cook.” John Acquaviva, associate professor in the department of health and human performance at Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia, says avoiding foods high in protein and fat before a workout is key because they take about 3 or 4 times the amount of time to digest compared to carbohydrate. In other words, you’d have to wait 3 or 4 hours before starting your workout instead of the recommended 1 to 2 hours if you’re eating a high carb meal.
Stop for a snack
IFBB fitness pro Kelly Ryan is one busy competitor, so it’s no wonder that she sometimes finds herself a little on the hungry side during her afternoon workout. If she hasn’t had time to eat prior to hitting the gym, she’ll take a break and eat a bar with a whole grain base. Clark says that if the workout lasts for more than an hour and a half, fueling up during is a good idea. That way you maintain a constant source of energy and keep your blood sugar up. Keep tabs on how you’re feeling during your workout. If you’re experiencing fatigue and lightheadedness, it’s probably time to stop for a snack. But not everyone can tolerate food while pumping iron and you might end up with a sore stomach instead. In that case, don’t forget to drink plenty of water during your workout; it’s crucial for preventing dehydration.
While some people are ready to dive into their dinner soon after their workout, others may prefer to wait a while. “It’s recommended that you wait at least half an hour until your body has completed the post-exercise oxygen consumption phase,” says Acquaviva. “The muscles are still asking for a great deal of blood to supply oxygen and cool the body down. So if the muscles are fighting for blood and you eat, the body gets confused and wants to send blood to the stomach to help digest food and send it to the muscles at the same time.” After the post-exercise oxygen consumption phase has eased off, Acquaviva suggests a high carbohydrate meal to replace glycogen stores. Some muscle repairing protein doesn’t hurt either, especially if the workout has been a grueling one and some microscopic muscle damage may have occurred. Acquaviva suggests a smoothie with added protein powder as a perfect post-workout treat, “It’s tasty and certainly nutritious and will replace a lot of what you’ve lost through exercise.”
Timing your food intake to correspond with your workouts isn’t always easy. And even if you’ve slept through your alarm and you only have half an hour before you’re due at the gym, make sure you eat something, even if it is just a small bowl of cereal. Clark says getting into a good food and exercise groove is imperative to keep your body in top form, “When people train, they tend to focus on an event. But part of their training is to train their intestinal tract to manage food before, during and after an event. They should also know that fueling is an integral part of the training program, it’s not something that should be added on at the end.”
Russ Hess, director of the Sport and Recreation Center at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, suggests consuming low glycemic carbohydrates with small amounts of fat and protein before a workout and high glycemic foods to increase energy levels and restore glycogen in the muscles post-workout.
Low Glycemic Foods
Low fat yogurt
High Glycemic Foods
Cream of Wheat
Whole wheat bread
You want to revamp your diet to make sure you’re eating the right foods at the right time and make your workout routine more effective, but where to begin? Here are some suggestions for getting your meals and snacks on the right track:
- Consult a registered dietitian that specializes in sports nutrition. He or she will have the proper background and experience to guide you in a meal plan tailored to your exercise routine
- Visit a referral network like dietitians.ca for a dietician in your area.
- Check with nutrition clinics at universities where you live. They can provide cutting edge research on eating and exercising. Perhaps you can even take part in a study
- Enlist the help of a personal trainer who is also a professional competitive fitness athlete. Compare notes and listen to suggestions on ways to help make better nutritional choices.