Exercise: What to Eat Before, During, After

woman exercising

Les was an avid exerciser. He worked out nearly every morning for an hour, including both aerobic and resistance exercises. While he said he felt good during the workouts, he recently felt his energy waning during the day and his thinking was getting more “fuzzy” and blamed it on his age.

As it turned out, his age wasn’t the reason. While he was doing the work necessary to get stronger, he wasn’t fueling his body effectively before, during, or after his workouts. That’s because he wasn’t replacing the daily nutrient losses.

To be clear, if your movement routine includes gardening, a slow stroll, or any other exercise that barely gets your heart rate up, you likely don’t need to make any dietary changes. A three-meal-a-day habit is likely quite adequate for a steady stream of fuel for these types of movement.

But if you’re very active, a few tweaks of your eating habits before, during, and after working out will help to enhance your performance, body composition, and the energy you feel all day.

There are four aspects of your eating plan to consider: calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fluid.

Calories = Measurement of Energy

We all know that the longer the workout, the more calories are burned. And that intense workouts burn more calories than less intense ones.

Therefore, active individuals require more calories than their sedentary peers. For those without weight concerns, exercising allows them the ability to eat more.

Since exercise helps to burn more calories, it can help you to lose weight, too, if that’s your goal. But, rapid weight loss will eventually hurt your performance, energy, and mood – both during your sport and the rest of the day.

Even if weight loss is your goal, keep weight loss to no more than one to two pounds a week. Quicker weight losses often indicates decreased muscle mass. And, since muscle mass is a huge determinant of metabolism, this muscle loss can slow down your metabolism (not increase it as exercise should do). Not, to mention muscle loss can drop your energy and your ability to perform. Keep to a slower weight loss help to keep energy up and weight loss more permanent.

And, by the way, just because I’m mentioning “calories”, doesn’t mean you have to start counting calories when you exercise. The term “calories” are simply a measurement of energy. If you’re mindful about your hunger (as a measurement of your fuel gauge), there’s no need to count calories.

Help, I’m Gaining Weight

Are you trying to lose weight – but find yourself gaining weight instead? You’re not alone. This is quite common.

Is that because you’re losing fat, but gaining muscle? (Muscle is heavier than fat.) Maybe. Maybe not.

If you were quite thin to begin with, with little muscle mass, then yes, I would expect intense exercise to add on muscle weight – and weight on the scale.

But, let’s get real about how fast muscle weight comes on. Most athletes can’t gain anywhere close to a pound of muscle a week (think about that…52 pounds of muscle a year? Is that even possible?). So, if you’re gaining weight quickly, you’re likely adding fat weight, too. Which may not be bad if you were extremely skinny prior to starting exercise.

But, with two-thirds of all adults now overweight or obese, what’s happening if they start gaining weight with exercise? Most often, when exercisers start gaining weight, it’s likely that they are overeating.

Let me ask you a couple of questions. Do you enjoy eating? Are you rewarding yourself (with food) after working out?

Hey, eating a bit more is ok when you’re burning more calories. But, I’ve found that many people overestimate how many calories are burned in one workout. It’s easy to do.

That’s because those “calorie burned” read outs on the exercise equipment are using a formula based on the calories burned by a LEAN, active male. And since muscles burn more calories than fat, this reference male will likely burn way more calories than an overweight individual (male or female) of the same weight.

What about the calorie formulas online? Studies have shown that most of these formulas are NOT correct for most people. The only accurate way to estimate how many calories YOU are burning, is through a laboratory test that’s not available to most of us.

So, if you’re unintentionally gaining weight, stop rewarding yourself and pay closer attention to signals of hunger and fullness. And, ignore those “calorie burned” readouts and pay closer attention to your portion sizes.

Chances are you’re doing a short workout (burning 100-200 calories) and then indulge with a coffee drink containing 400 calories. Or maybe, thinking you’ve burned more than 1000 calories after a long run, you’re rewarding yourself with a huge dessert.

If you’re gaining weight quickly, it’s likely NOT all muscle. And, if you’re trying to lose weight, and you’re not, you’re likely overestimating your calorie burn – and underestimating those extra indulgences.

Calories - WHEN to Eat

For your best energy, performance, and mood, I recommend at least three meals a day for both active and inactive individuals.

If you’re exercising moderately for under an hour a day, you may find that eating slightly larger portions at your three meals is adequate to build muscle mass and keep your energy up. Or just make sure that the meal around the time of your workout is the largest (and therefore, provides the fuel and building blocks for the body to do the work of rebuilding muscles back stronger).

But, if you feel sluggish after eating larger meals (I do), then experiment with eating snacks between meals.

Most serious athletes find that eating every three or four hours is beneficial for energy and performance. That might mean three meals and three snacks – or six mini meals.

Protein

I’m guessing that your goal is not just to strengthen your heart and lungs, you likely exercise to build muscles to increase your endurance and strength, too.

If you’re looking to get optimal results while working out intensely, it’s important to realize that results don't come just from the exercise. We don't build muscles from working out alone.

Building muscle is a two-step process. First, you exercise to break down the muscle, and then you rebuild it stronger. And, to rebuild muscle, you need protein (around the time of the exercise) plus adequate calories to do the work of rebuilding.

Building muscles is a two-step process:

  1. Break muscles down. During the workout we stress our muscles which actually breaks them down
  2. Rebuild them stronger. In order for the body to be able to build up your muscles stronger, you MUST provide the body with the materials needed to do that rebuilding - around the time of the workout.

Here’s an analogy to help you to understand how to maintain this muscle mass – and build more.

Building Muscles is Like Building a House

There’s a lot of construction going on in my neighborhood. What do you think would happen if all the workers showed up, but none of the building materials gets delivered?

How many homes could those workers build? NONE! They can't do the work of building that house if they don't have the raw materials available, can they?

Same with building muscles. In order to build muscles, you need to do the work/exercise AND provide the needed raw material (protein plus adequate calories). This is best achieved by providing these materials either shortly before or shortly after the exercise. This blog details how to achieve this goal.

Carbohydrates

Just like our cars and computers need a source of energy to operate, so do humans. And, while there is some flexibility in what fuel we run on, on average, we burn a 50/50 glucose/fat fuel mix.

You know what fat is. What’s glucose? Glucose generally comes from carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products like milk and yogurt. Most fats and protein-rich foods contain no glucose.

Glucose is essential for life. That’s why your doctor likely checks your blood glucose (also known as blood sugar) to make sure it’s kept within the normal range. Normal fasting levels are generally between 70-99 mg/dL. Low levels tend to make people feel weak. High levels are indicative of prediabetes and diabetes.

Why a 50/50 glucose/fat fuel mix? The brain, red blood cells, nerve cells, and bone marrow require glucose as a fuel. And, a lot of it! The brain, weighing in at just 2% of our body weight uses about 25% of all the calories we need in a day.

The heart prefers fat as a fuel and the rest of the body is flex fuel – meaning they will use either fat or glucose as a fuel.

Active muscles also prefer glucose as a fuel. So, as activity intensity increases, the body shifts from a 50/50 glucose-fat ratio to a fuel mix that’s more concentrated in glucose.

That’s why athletes tend to perform longer and stronger on a higher carb eating plan. That allows adequate glucose to maintain blood glucose levels during your workout. Plus, a high carb diet will increase your glycogen stores.

What’s glycogen? It’s a storage depot for glucose found both in our liver and muscles.

While even a lean body has 100,000 calories worth of stored fat, we have very little glucose storage. Just 300-400 calories in our liver – enough to supply the brain with the glucose it needs while we sleep.

The muscles contain anywhere from 400 (if you don’t exercise) to 2000 calories (for a trained athlete) of glycogen. This glycogen provides us with the glucose we need for exercise. Our muscles are lacking the enzyme needed to release this glucose into our blood stream, so it’s only available to THAT particular muscle.

Have you heard of marathon runners who “crash” around the 20-mile mark? This is due to the depletion of glycogen. If the average runner burns 100 calories per mile, they will have enough glucose to fuel that muscle for about 20 miles.

That’s why it’s important for long distance athletes to consume carbohydrates before or during their event to provide the additional glucose they need for the event. This can be accomplished by having breakfast or a pre-event snack. Some people also get their carbohydrates by drinking a sports beverage throughout the event.

Realize that your glycogen stores are nearly depleted by the time you wake in the morning. If you workout first thing in the morning, try consuming about 100 calories of carbohydrate prior to your exercise routine. This will help prevent your blood sugar level from dropping during the workout. And, within the first hour after, make sure to consume another 30g carbohydrates for every hour of intense workout. You can find that in two slices of bread or a fruit smoothie. Post-exercise carbs will help you to replace the lost glycogen in your muscles. The greater your glycogen stores, the more you’ll have available to increase speed, endurance, and stamina for the next workout.

  1. Fluid

As discussed in detail in another blog, even slight dehydration of 1-2% of your body weight can decrease performance and your perception of energy. So, it’s important to start your workout hydrated and continue to drink fluids both during and after exercise to replace losses.

What’s 1-2% dehydration? Write down your weight (in pounds) with a decimal point after the number. Such as “150." Now, move the decimal point to the left two spaces. For this example, 1% of 150 would be, “1.50 pounds”. That means, if you lose 1.5 pounds on the scale, you would be 1% dehydrated. And, of course, if you lost 3 pounds, that would represent 2% dehydration.

Now to translate that weight into cups of water, remember that two cups of fluid (16oz) weighs a pound. So, if you’ve lost 3 pounds, you’d need 6 cups of fluid to re-hydrate completely.

Here’s a quick way to assess your hydration. At any time of the day, check the color of your urine. It should be clear of slightly pale in color. If it’s darker – you’re likely experiencing dehydration. If it looks like the color of apple juice, you might be seriously dehydrated. Keep in mind that certain medications and supplements (like vitamin C) can affect the color of your urine, too. Ask your medical professional or pharmacist if you’re concerned.

If you exercise strenuously – or in very warm weather, try this fun experiment. Before exercising, weigh yourself naked. (Put your clothes back on before you leave the house, please). Then, after you finish your exercise, remove those sweaty clothes and weigh yourself again.

For each pound you lose, drink 16-20 ounces of water to return your hydration level to pre-exercise levels. BTW you don’t need to buy yourself any fancy waters like pH-balanced or alkaline water.

In summary, if you’re active, keep in mind that just a few tweaks of your eating habits before, during, and after working out will help to enhance your performance, body composition, and the energy you feel all day. The four aspects of your eating plan to consider are calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fluid.

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