Fueling up: spring and summer sports nutrition
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Eating Before and During Sports Activities

By Andrea Holwegner BSc, RD

sports nutrition - what to eat before and during a workout

It’s that time of year again. Time to pull out your bike, in-line skates and running/hiking shoes and enjoy the best of the outdoors. Regardless if you are a gym junkie or pursuing outdoor sports in the hills, mountains, ocean or lakes, nutrition provides an important edge to keep you feeling strong and energetic.

Fuelling up before sport
The pre-workout meal has 3 important roles:

  • Top up your carbohydrate stores in your muscles and liver. Carbohydrates are sugar and are the “gasoline” or energy used for all sports.
  • Ensure adequate blood sugars for concentration and focus.
  • Satisfy hunger so you don’t get too hungry or feel too full before or during your workout.

Things to consider in a pre-workout meal:

  • Hydrate: Drink fluids throughout your day and be sure to drink at least a half litre to a full litre (two to four cups) of fluid starting four hours before your workout.
  • Avoid high-fat foods: Fat is very slow to digest and won’t top up your muscle fuel. Skip high-fat foods such as chocolate, chips, fries, greasy burgers, and cream soups.
  • Watch high-fibre foods: While small amounts of fibre are generally well tolerated, be aware that fibre is slow to digest and may cause stomach upset during a workout without enough time to properly digest.
  • Choose carbohydrate rich foods: Carbohydrates should supply the main part of your pre-workout meal. Carbohydrates found in foods such as grains, cereals, breads, fruits and veggies are quick to digest and will provide energy for your working muscles and top up your blood sugar.
  • A small amount of protein if eating 2-4 hours before exercising: In order to sustain energy and fullness if you have two to four hours before a workout add a source of protein such as 30 to 60g (one to two ounces) of meat, poultry, seafood; one to two tablespoons of peanut butter; one cup of yogurt/milk, half a cup of cottage cheese or one or two eggs. Excessive amounts of protein is not ideal if you only have a short amount of time before your workout since protein is slow to digest and may feel heavy in your stomach or cause cramping/bloating.
  • Timing before your workout: The less time you have, the smaller the amount of food generally tolerated. In general, if you have two or more hours before exercising eat a high carbohydrate meal that is low in fat and has a small amount of protein. If you have less than an hour before your workout stick with a small snack that is mostly carbohydrate.
  • Liquid meals for the nervous and those with sensitive stomachs: Meal replacement shakes and smoothies can sometimes be easier to digest than solid foods.

Meal ideas for 2 or more hours before exercise

  • Smoothie with fruit, yogurt, milk.
  • Yogurt with banana and cereal.
  • Cereal, milk and dried fruit.
  • Oatmeal, milk and orange juice.
  • Toast, banana, and small amount of peanut butter.
  • Pancakes, milk, strawberries.
  • Toast, egg(s) and apple juice.
  • Bagel with cream cheese.
  • Meal replacement drink or instant breakfast shake.
  • One sports bar and sports drink.
  • One sandwich with turkey/roast beef/ham.
  • Chicken noodle or vegetable soup with crackers and flavoured tuna.
  • Cottage cheese and canned fruit with a low-fat blueberry muffin.
  • Wrap with ham, lettuce, red peppers and cheese.
  • Hard-boiled egg(s), grapes, crackers.
  • Pasta salad with low-fat dressing, chicken breast and veggies.

Nutrition during your workout

Effects of dehydration

When you are dehydrated here are just a few of the effects on sport performance:

  • Increased perceived effort (you “feel” like your workout is difficult).
  • Difficulty with mental focus, concentration and balance.
  • Increase in muscle cramps.
  • Impaired aerobic exercise performance.
  • May slow anaerobic power.

Everyone’s different

The amount of fluids you need for exercise depends on:

  • Individual differences in how much you sweat.
  • The type of sport, duration, and intensity (the longer or more intense the exercise, the more you will sweat).
  • Temperature of your environment (the hotter and more humid, the more you will sweat).
  • Females generally have lower sweat rates than males.

Fluid focus

Since everyone is different, here are some general guidelines to get you started:

  • Exercise dulls thirst sensation. If you feel thirsty you are already dehydrated. It is best to drink on a schedule.
  • Research shows that if you are exercising at a high intensity, you may lose 0.4-1.8 litres of sweat per hour. As a general guideline try one or two cups (250-500ml) for each 30 minutes of exercise you do.
  • If exercise is less than one hour in length, water is all you need. If you will be doing continuous, high intensity exercise longer than one hour, or doing exercise throughout the day especially in hot temperatures, a sports drink or an alternative source of carbohydrate is needed to keep your muscles fuelled with energy.
  • One way to check if you are hydrated is to weigh yourself before and after a workout and see if your body weight has changed. If it has gone down, it is likely a sign you need to drink higher amounts in your future workouts. You need to drink 1.5 litres if you have lost one kilogram of weight.

Whatever sport or form of exercise you choose to do this spring and summer, be sure to fuel up with good nutrition and hydration before, during and after your workouts.

Andrea Holwegner — the Chocoholic Dietitian — is a registered dietitian and founder and president of Health Stand Nutrition Consulting, a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers and a media expert for the Dietitians of Canada.

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