Fueling your body for exercise

WOODRUFF, WI—Whether you are a competitive athlete, weekend warrior or like to go for daily walks with your dog, what you eat is important to keep up your energy for your activity. Just like your vehicle won’t go far without gas, your body won’t move well without adequate fuel-meaning nutritious and energizing food. What you eat before, during or after exercise affects how you feel during activity and how much energy you have for the entire day.

What should I eat before I exercise?
The purpose of a pre-exercise meal or snack is to prevent low blood sugar, prevent hunger pangs, and to give fuel for your muscles. Pre-exercise foods should settle comfortably in your stomach. The choice of foods depends on individual preferences. It’s a good idea to experiment with different foods to see how your body reacts.

Foods that tend to be well tolerated are high in carbohydrate, moderate in protein and low in fat and fiber. Carbohydrates will provide quick energy whereas protein provides sustained energy that is needed for a longer workout. Fat and fiber will slow down the digestion of food and eating too much of these before your workout may lead to abdominal discomfort or an uncomfortable fullness. Following are some examples of snacks that may be eaten two hours before exercise:

• ¾ cup cereal (not bran) with low fat milk
• ¼ cup cottage cheese with ½ cup fruit
• 1 ounce low fat cheese and 4-5 crackers
• Scrambled low cholesterol egg product, toast with jelly (or lightly spread with margarine)
• 4 graham cracker squares and 1 cup low fat milk
• Half of a lean meat sandwich (turkey, ham), with mustard or light mayonnaise

If you only have an hour before exercise, eat a smaller snack by using the examples above but skip the dairy (milk, cheese) or meat. For example, eat 4-5 crackers or a piece of toast or bread with jelly.

The above snacks might be eaten before a one to two hour exercise session or event. Longer periods of exercise might require a larger meal which should include some lean meat or other protein, fruit or vegetable, whole grains, low fat dairy products and added fats such as margarine or nuts. A larger meal like this should be eaten three to four hours before exercise to allow time to digest.

Individuals vary in the amount and type of food that is tolerated before exercise. Experiment with different types and amounts of food during training so you know what is right for you. Don’t wait until right before an important event or competition to discover what your body can handle.

What should I eat during exercise?
If you plan to exercise for more than 60-90 minutes you will need to eat or drink some carbohydrate during your workout. Carbohydrate is needed to provide energy and maintain blood sugar. Research shows that after 90 minutes, ingestion of 100 to 300 calories of carbohydrates every hour can increase stamina and improve performance in athletic events. You can consume either solid or liquid forms of carbohydrates. Ideas include: diluted juice (half juice, half water), sports drinks or jells, fruit, low fat crackers, granola bars, or cereal bars. Choose crackers or bars that have no more than three grams of fat per serving because too much fat can decrease the action of carbohydrate and can lead to feeling too full. Just like with pre-exercise foods, you will need to experiment to see what your body prefers. The nature of your activity may affect how foods feel in your stomach. For example, if your activity is very strenuous you may feel more comfortable with a liquid carbohydrate source such as diluted juice or sports drink rather than a solid food.

What should I eat after exercise?
After exercise your body needs to replace glycogen (stored carbohydrate) in the muscles. Glycogen provides energy for subsequent activities. In order to do this you will need to eat a balanced meal that includes carbohydrate, protein and healthy fats. This meal should include the majority of food groups (meats, grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy) and contain adequate carbohydrates. An example meal is baked chicken, brown rice pilaf, watermelon, broccoli, trans fat-free margarine and low fat milk.

How do I keep from becoming dehydrated while exercising?
Drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day can prevent dehydration during exercise, events or competitions. Most people need 7-10 cups of fluid daily. Caffeinated beverages may count as part of this fluid as long as you limit these (coffee, tea, colas) to two cups daily. If you have trouble drinking enough fluid, fill a two quart container of water every morning and make sure it is empty by the end of the day.

During activity, the general rule is to drink four to eight ounces of fluid every 15 minutes. The exact amount needed depends on your body weight, how much you perspire and the type of exercise. Here is a way to replace fluid loss after exercise: 1) Weigh yourself before and after exercise 2) For every pound loss from sweat, drink two cups of water.

Competitive athletes who are performing long events are most at risk for dehydration. Here are some hydration suggestions for preparing for a long event such as a marathon or cross country ski race:

• Drink 4-8 extra glasses of juice or water per day for two days before an event.
• Drink at least 16 ounces of fluid two hours before the event and 4-8 ounces of fluid 5 to 10 minutes before the event

Mary Sikora-Petersen, MSE, RD, CDE is a dietitian and certified diabetes educator for Howard Young Health Care in Woodruff and Eagle River.

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