It doesn’t matter if you work out in the morning, during your lunch break or at night: pre-workout snacks are always important. They help ensure that your body has everything it needs to fuel itself during whatever activity you’re doing, whether it’s climbing the Stair Master, running on the treadmill, spinning on a bike, pumping iron or playing a tennis match.
But there’s a lot of confusing information out there about what the best kinds of snacks are should they be high in carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats or some combination of nutrients? Here’s what you need to know about eating before your workout, as well as the top five snacks that’ll keep you going.
You want your workout to burn the most calories possible. So to really get your metabolism running, it makes sense to work out on an Empty stomach, right? Wrong! It may seem counterintuitive, but you’re much better off eating a snack or small meal before you exercise. Of course, what you choose to eat and when you eat it are important to the success of your workout and have a profound effect on how your body uses the calories.
Aim for carbs and protein
The best pre-workout snacks have a relatively high amount of carbs, a moderate amount of protein and limited amounts of fat. While protein is important for building muscles and repairing them after exercise, carbs are essential to give you the energy to work those muscles in the first place. Your best bet is to choose a snack with both complex and simple carbs so that the energy released during your workout is slow and steady throughout your regimen. It’s also important that the carbs are easily digestible.
Consider the timing
You shouldn’t eat your snack on the way to the gym down the street or as you head out the door for your run. You’ll get the maximum amount of energy by eating 30 to 60 minutes before your workout, so planning is important.
Make nutrition a priority
Each spring, aspiring athletes seek figure-flattering workout wear to cover winter-weary bodies. Athletic gear is purchased and primed. Tires are pumped, wheels trued and iPods loaded with favourite tunes. Often overlooked is the major ingredient in any training regimen-a balanced nutrition plan.
World Masters Champion cross-country skier Sheila Kealey recommends making proper eating a priority. “If you are going out for a bike ride you pump up your tires and put on your helmet. I think bringing something to eat and drink is just as important as getting ready to go out for your ride,” says Kealey, a research associate in nutritional epidemiology with the University of California.
Timing Is Everything
Let’s look at the early-morning exerciser, who hits the gym soon after jumping out of bed. It has been hours since his last meal, and his blood glucose is at the fasting level. This person is running on empty. When your “gas tank” is on empty, your body starts to break down amino acids from your muscle mass and converts them to glucose for energy. Instead of burning fat, you’re in danger of breaking down valuable muscle tissue.
To tap into those dreaded fat stores instead, eat something nutritious before you exercise. It’s also a good idea to refuel after exercising with a nutritious and hydrating beverage. There is a wealth of evidence on the role that nutrients play on blood sugar and insulin, and their effect on your energy level.
For instance, if you get up in the morning after an eight-hour sleep and down a glass of orange juice, the simple carbohydrate in the juice rapidly sends your blood sugar to elevated heights. This rise in blood glucose is followed by a rebound fall leaving you feeling weak and without the necessary fuel to work out. That glass of orange juice will do little to appease your appetite, so chances are you will also feel hungry.
Now, if you add a bowl of high-fiber cereal and skim milk to that glass of juice, instead of the surge in blood sugar you will have a nice, steady rise and a slow fall over the course of several hours. This meal, containing simple and complex carbohydrates, low-fat protein, and fiber, should give you enough energy to fuel your workout while helping to keep you feeling full until lunchtime.
Build a solid nutritional base
To tackle summer triathlons and duathlons Kealey relies on a solid nutritional base supplemented with high energy snacks. Her diet includes unprocessed foods and lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats. Having the right foods on hand when you need them takes careful planning. “You are not going to be eating well if you don’t have good stuff in the fridge and good foods in your cupboard,” says Kealey.
Choosing the Right Foods
Protein and fiber slow the absorption of food in your stomach. The action of these nutrients helps maintain a normal rise and fall in blood glucose and normal insulin response. Insulin is produced in response to the amount of glucose in the blood; its role is to help get glucose into the cells. So when your blood-glucose level surges, insulin production increases, to help shuttle that extra glucose into the cells. And what goes up must come down. When your blood sugar falls, you feel hungry — even if you just ate two hours earlier.
People who eat meals of refined carbohydrates (orange juice, plain bagel with jelly) without protein and/or fiber fall into a vicious cycle of eating more calories throughout the day. This roller-coaster ride of high and low blood sugar leaves them hungry and eating every few hours.
Some scientists believe that these rapid shifts in blood sugar and insulin cause your body to deposit more fat. Others say that it’s not so much the blood sugar and insulin as the excess calories you consume. Whichever theory is correct, it’s clear that simple carbs without fiber or protein are the wrong choice if you are trying to lose weight.
What you eat before working out depends on the activity and what works best for you. Kealey recommends eating at least in the two hours before a workout in order to ensure you’ll have enough energy. “What you eat should be carb rich, something that you know digests well, such as a peanut butter and banana sandwich, yogurt with fruit or an energy bar and water.” Within the hour before a workout Kealey recommends a sports drink or energy chews (much like gummy bears) that digest well.
Let Your Stomach Be Your Guide
Sometimes we use the clock to dictate when we’ll eat our next meal. A better system is to use your stomach to cue you when you’re hungry. Getting in touch with hunger is one of the most effective weight-management tools. But this only works if we eat complex meals containing some protein and/or fiber.
Start by making sure that most meals and snacks contain lean protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, and/or small amounts of fat. This type of meal or snack will help slow down food absorption, help you feel satisfied, and provide fuel to energize your physical activities.
Consider dividing your eating plan into 5-6 small meals per day. More frequent, smaller meals and snacks will keep your energy level high and your hunger at bay. This approach will prevent ravenous hunger pangs and reduce the risk of overeating another weapon to add to your arsenal of weight-loss tricks.
What you eat during your workout depends on the length of time you spend training. “If you are only going to do a 30-minute run you probably don’t need to eat or drink anything. When you are getting up to an hour you should have something to drink or a little bit to eat like an energy chew,” says Kealey.
For workouts lasting more than two hours, Kealey recommends eating something solid to stave off hunger. Refueling after exercise is also really important and is something that a lot of people forget about. Kealey advises that, “After exercise it’s really important to have something to drink to hydrate,” says Kealey, recommending, “a little bit of protein for muscle repair and carbs to replenish your glycogen stores (stored carbohydrates).”
Adjust the size
A small snack is enough to get you through a 45-minute workout, but if you’re planning a two-hour run or a particularly long cardio and weight-training session, you should adjust the size of your snack accordingly. This will ensure that you have enough fuel to last the entire time.
Energizing Snacks and Meals
To put zip in your step, choose from a variety of complex carbohydrates, lean protein, low-fat dairy products, and healthy fats. Try to include a form of lean protein (soy, nuts, dairy, meat, fish, beans, eggs) at each meal.
Here are my Top 10 picks for healthy snacks and meals to fuel physical activity:
- Whole-grain cereal, berries, and skim or low-fat milk
- Oatmeal made with skim milk, sprinkled with crushed flaxseed
- 1/2 whole-grain bagel with peanut butter and banana slices
- Smoothie made with low-fat yogurt, fresh fruit, and orange juice
- Poached egg on whole-wheat toast with 1/2 grapefruit
- Salad with mandarin orange slices, slivered almonds, and veggies, drizzled with olive oil
- Yogurt parfait with low-fat granola
- Apple or celery slices with peanut butter and raisins
- Meal replacement bar (Check the label to make sure it’s approximately 220 calories or less.)
- Brown rice and steamed veggies sprinkled with a little cheese
Successful weight loss is all about figuring out the tricks of the trade. Find foods you enjoy, that are satisfying, and that will keep you away from the temptations of the kitchen, break room, vending machines, and drive-throughs. Simply eating the right kinds of foods in the right amounts will give you the kind of control that leads to permanent weight loss.
Snacks to Fuel Your Workout
Whole-wheat toast with nut or seed butter, banana and cinnamon.
A slice of whole-wheat toast with your choice of something like peanut, almond or sunflower seed butter topped with slices of banana and a sprinkling of cinnamon is a great pre-workout snack. It gives you simple and complex carbs, is easy to digest, increases your potassium levels (which drop when you sweat) and stabilizes your blood sugar.
Apple slices and yogurt peanut butter dip.
Mix nonfat vanilla Greek yogurt with peanut or almond butter to make a dip that’s perfect for apple slices. Consider adding grapes or raisins for an extra kick of energy.
Pour yourself a serving of whole-grain cereal mixed with uncooked oatmeal, slivered almonds and chopped dates. Add low-fat milk or almond milk and you’re good to go.
Half of a lean protein sandwich on whole-wheat bread.
Make yourself a sandwich with chicken, turkey or lean roast beef on whole-wheat bread for a great mix of carbs and protein. Veggies like lettuce, tomato or spinach will add nutrients.
The best thing about smoothies is that they’re portable and easy to customize. Blend sliced fruit, Greek yogurt and some granola or oats for a thicker consistency, and consider add-ins like protein powder, kale or peanut butter.
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