Eating to enhance your exercise routine

Beep, beep, beep, beep…it's 5:30 a.m. Your tired eyes slowly peel apart, you manage to throw on an exercise outfit, stretch for a few moments, and then you run out the door for that morning bout of exercise. The fact that you have not eaten in over 10 hours likely doesn't even cross your mind. Should it? After a 30-minute run you're feeling pretty good about yourself. You shower, grab a cup of coffee and rush out the door. You're ready to start your day…or are you?

My goal is to help you understand why what you eat before and after a workout affects your endurance and your performance.

The Basics

We need carbohydrates, fats, and proteins available to supply energy to our moving body. Carbohydrates are important because they provide energy for moderate to intense activities. Fats are better at providing energy for lower intensity exercises that require endurance. Proteins are important for repairing body tissues and are not typically used for energy during physical activity. Each of these types of foods are broken into adenosine triphosphate or ATP. Adeno what? ATP is the form that our food takes when it is used as energy. Our body can only store a very small amount of ATP, which is used up within seconds of starting to exercise. The rest of our ATP has to be converted from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins during exercise.

The pre-exercise meal

The majority of energy you will need during that early morning workout will be provided by carbohydrate stores, from the food you ate in the previous two days. Ideally, you should get up early and eat a "pre-exercise meal." I realize that time and sleep are precious commodities, but at the very least, try to eat an easily digestible drink or meal 20 to 30 minutes before exercising. What is an easily digestible meal? Try eating a banana, an energy bar, or a carbohydrate-rich drink such as a vegetable or fruit juice. Definitely stay away from higher fat foods before exercise. Don't grab a couple of cookies or a candy bar and head out for a lunchtime spinning class. Fat is slow to digest and can cause abdominal cramping and a heavy sensation.

The post-exercise meal

This may be the most important meal you eat all day! This meal allows your body to recover and rebuild stores so you can continue to train. First, replace any fluids lost. The easiest way to do this is to weigh yourself before and after exercise. Drink 20 ounces for every pound lost. Second, refuel with carbohydrates and proteins within the first 30 minutes following exercise. Waiting to eat (especially longer than 2 hours) results in less energy stores in the muscle, which will decrease your endurance when you embark for that morning run tomorrow. Eating protein in this timeframe rebuilds muscle and boosts the immune system. A 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein in your port-exercise meal is likely your best bet.

Nutrition is a complicated topic but is important to understand, especially if you're an individual who exercises at high intensity or for long durations. I encourage you to experiment with different types of foods. It may take some trial and error to determine which foods don't weigh you down or cause an upset stomach while you're exercising. Keeping a food diary of what you eat before and after exercise along with notes on your length of exercise, energy level, and your endurance can help you determine patterns. Paying attention to these patterns will make you a smarter athlete and will help you to understand your body better. You'll know when you can push yourself and when you should stop to refuel!

Dr. Jennifer Lyon, DO, is a physician at Creekside Clinic in Traverse City. BN