Featuring Tamara Rhodes, MS, RD, LDN
A former coach of mine used to say, “To be the best athlete you can be, you need two things – money in the bank [high-quality training] and gas in the tank [optimal nutrition].” Whether you are a seasoned athlete or looking to start a fitness program for the first time, nutrition is an essential tool to maximizing your health, training, and athletic performance.
A high-quality diet fuels your body for effective training and increases energy levels while decreasing the risk of sickness, fatigue, and overuse injuries. The human body can be thought of like an engine that runs on units of energy called calories. A person’s calorie needs are based upon gender, age, body size, and activity level.
Calories are obtained from the foods and beverages that make up an individual’s diet – specifically a class of nutrients known as macronutrients. The three macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
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Think of Carbs as Your Body’s Fuel
Carbohydrates take the least amount of time to digest and are quickly converted into energy. Carbohydrates are stored in the liver and the muscles as a compound called glycogen.
During physical activity, carbohydrates serve as the body’s #1 fuel source. There are two main types of carbohydrates, each of which has a specific function within the context of a fitness routine.
Complex carbohydrates, which include foods like whole-grain bread and pasta, whole-grain cereals, brown and wild rice, potatoes and sweet potatoes, oats, corn, and peas, provide a steady, long-lasting source of energy.
The second category of carbohydrates, referred to as simple carbohydrates, delivers a quick boost of energy. Simple carbohydrates are found in fruits, refined breads and cereals, white rice, pretzels, honey, jelly, sports drinks, sports gummies and gels, and some varieties of crackers and granola bars.
Protein and Fat: The Essential Additives
In contrast, foods rich in protein and fat do not readily supply fuel for exercise. However, protein and fat do play crucial roles in many bodily processes and ensure necessary supportive elements in physical activity. Foods high in protein and/or fat are lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs and egg whites, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, nut and seed butters, and most dairy products.
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Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Adequate hydration is just as imperative to quality exercise as sound nutrition is. The human body is 60 percent water a fluid loss of just 2 to 3 percent can result in muscle cramping, fatigue, and dizziness. Fluids should be consumed early and consistently, and it is a good habit to drink prior to becoming thirsty.
Monitoring urine color and frequency can also help to assess hydration status. Urine that is clear or a very light yellow is indicative of sufficient fluid intake, whereas urine that is dark or golden yellow is suggestive of dehydration. The day before a race, a game, or a hard workout, try to drink an extra 4–8 cups (32–64 ounces) of water. In addition, make sure to limit any dehydrating fluids such as caffeinated or alcoholic beverages.
What to Eat and When Prior to Exercising
There is no magic food, meal or snack to eat prior to exercising. It is, however, important to allow enough time for proper digestion and nutrient absorption. Ideally, a meal high in complex carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and low in fat should be consumed 3-4 hours before exercise. Try to drink an extra 15–20 ounces of water at this time as well. For more examples of meals or snacks to eat 3-4 hours before exercise check out the list below.
Many people like to workout prior to work in the morning and do not have time to eat then wait 3 -4 hours before working out. If you like to exercise almost immediately after waking up, I usually recommend eating a small snack beforehand. The snack should be an easily digestible carbohydrate that is low in fat and insoluble fiber. Some examples include 1-2 slices of toast with jelly or honey, a small bowl of cereal, a banana, or anything in that “30-60 minutes before exercise” list below.
When preparing for a competition or an important workout, exercise caution in eating any foods that may be unfamiliar. Foods that are high in fat (fried foods, pizza, doughnuts, creamy sauces and condiments) and/or high in fiber (fiber-fortified cereal or granola bars, large quantities of raw vegetables, excessive amounts of beans or lentils) should also be avoided, as these tend to make the stomach and intestines work harder and can cause gastrointestinal distress during activity.
Examples of pre-workout meals to eat 3 – 4 hours before exercise include:
- 1 whole-wheat bagel with 2 tablespoons peanut butter and 1 banana
- 2 whole-wheat toaster waffles with ½ cup nonfat vanilla Greek yogurt and ½ cup peaches
- 1 breakfast quesadilla – 1 whole-grain tortilla, ½ cup shredded reduced-fat cheese, sliced apple
- 2 slices whole-grain French toast topped with 1 cup strawberries
- 1 breakfast parfait – 1 cup yogurt, ½ cup whole-grain cereal, and ½ cup blueberries
- 1 cup cooked oatmeal with 2 tablespoons raisins and 2 tablespoons sliced almonds
- 2 slices whole-grain toast and 2 scrambled eggs with a side of 1 cup raspberries
- 1 whole-grain pita pocket stuffed with 3 ounces turkey, spinach, and 1/8 avocado plus 1 kiwi
- 6” roast beef sub with lettuce and tomato on a whole-wheat roll, 12 cherries, and baby carrots
- 2 fish tacos with man salsa and a side salad
- 1 grilled chicken sandwich on a whole-grain bun with 1 nectarine and ½ cup steamed green beans
In the final 30-60 minutes before exercise, top off the body’s fuel tank with an additional 8 ounces of fluid and an easily digestible (low to moderate fiber) snack that is high in simple carbohydrates. This will help bolster energy levels and prevent blood sugar levels from dipping too low and causing a “crash”. Consuming fluid with a carbohydrate-rich food also speeds up fuel transport to the muscles. Sample pre-workout snack suggestions are:
- ½-1 cup applesauce
- 1 English muffin with ½-1 tablespoon honey
- 1-2 slices of toast with 1 tablespoon jelly
- 1 palm-sized portion of dried fruit (raisins, dates, figs)
- 1 fist-sized amount of fresh fruit (berries, melon, grapes)
- 1 piece fresh fruit (orange, plum)
- 1 cup of unsweetened cereal (Cheerios, Wheaties, Kix)
- 25-30 pretzels
- 12-15 animal crackers
- 3-4 Fig Newtons
- 4-6 graham cracker squares
- ½-1 package sports gummies or gel
About UPMC Harrisburg
UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.