As my personal fitness routine has become less intense over the past few years, I’ve paid less attention to how I fuel my body prior to a workout. When I was in the thick of a competitive triathlon season or training for Ironman-distance races, nutrition was key. But after more than 10 years of training and racing, I was feeling burned out and my body needed a break.
I wanted to return to my fitness roots, to a time when I simply exercised for fun and to feel good. A time before GPS watches, rigid training schedules and liquid nutrition. I wanted to connect with a fitness community. When I was training, I rarely participated in group rides or runs because the distances were often too short, the pace too slow, or the timing didn’t fit my schedule. It was easier to simply go on my own. It was also lonelier.
With training no longer as all-consuming as a part time job, I’m not nearly as fit as I was a few years ago. Happiness is a trickier measure in this regard because, for me, fitness and happiness are directly proportionate.
I come from a long line of people with slow twitch muscle fibers and metabolisms to match. When I was training for Ironman-distance triathlons, I could eat whatever I wanted.
Now I have to be more conscious about my food choices — both in quality and quantity — and I’ve had to make peace with some of my clothes not fitting the way I’d like. The trade-off is that instead of spending long, solitary hours on my road bike, my daughter and I hit the trails together on our mountain bikes.
Instead of endless miles of pounding the pavement alone, I join dozens of fellow runners for Sunday morning trails runs.
Less exercise simply means I have to consume fewer calories. But eating is no longer the complex, calculated endeavor it used to be. Now, however, one of my daughters routinely comes home from school and asks, “What should I eat?” before she heads to track practice or begins a strength workout. For her, the short answer — for her quick, power workouts — is usually a bagel with peanut butter or a yogurt and banana.
For those who are where I once used to be — calculating the nutrition needed for multi-hour workouts, six days a week — the answer is more complex.
In general, the answer is this: A combination of complex and simple carbohydrates with a little protein thrown in is the ideal pre-workout fuel. The mix of carbs ensures a slow and steady release of energy throughout your workout and is easy to digest. Whole grains will help you go the distance, and a little bit of jam or honey adds more fuel and gives you an energy boost.
Ten-to-20 grams of quality protein, such as nut butter or eggs, helps to stabilize insulin levels and keeps you feeling satisfied longer.
My go-to pre-workout meal was typically a slice of toasted whole-grain bread topped with almond butter and honey. Adding a banana, “Nature’s Power Bar,” according to Dr. Louise Burke, head of Sports Nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sport, “helps to keep nutrient levels high and increases potassium levels, which serves to maintain nerve and muscle function.”
And fitnessmagazine.com recommends adding a dash of cinnamon as well, noting that the spice “has been linked to stabilizing blood sugar and improving brain function.”
But on race mornings, or whenever I had more than an hour prior to a workout, “power oatmeal,” as I referred to it, was always my meal of choice. I’d heat a half cup of whole grain old-fashioned or steel-cut oats and one cup of water in the microwave and add blueberries, ground flaxseed, honey, cinnamon, turmeric, almond butter, almond milk and nuts.
According to mensfitness.com, “Oats are full of fiber, which means they gradually release carbohydrates into your bloodstream,” keeping energy levels consistent. “Oats also contain B vitamins, which help convert carbohydrates into energy.”
Adding fruit, which breaks down quickly, helps to keep you hydrated and energized. And though a small amount of protein is recommended, it helps to remember that “protein doesn’t break down fast enough to become fuel for a workout,” the site notes, but it will be “used later to prevent muscle damage.”
These days, I often settle for a mug of tea before a workout and delay eating until after I finish. This practice is not recommended by mensfitness.com which notes that eating before you exercise fuels your workout and maximizes your effort and results, and also prevents low blood sugar, “which leads to light-headedness and fatigue.”
Other recommended pre-workout meals include fruit smoothies, with a mixture of yogurt, fruit and almond milk or fruit juice, which are easy to make and consume, and rapidly digested; Greek yogurt with a fruit and nut-based trail mix; and bananas or apple slices, which are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, with almond butter.
However, be sure to avoid fatty foods pre-workout, which are hard to digest, leaving you feeling sluggish and prone to cramping. Raw sugar and candy are also ill-advised as the temporary sugar rush will inevitably lead to a mid-workout crash.
Finally, take care not to overeat, as eating too much can lead to “indigestion, sluggishness, nausea, and vomiting,” mensfitness.com warns.
Pre-workout fueling is best regarded as a snack, not a meal.