Pre-workout Meals: Preparing for Performance

Pittsburgh Dietitian Blog Posts
February 25, 2015

The pre-workout meal is vital for any athlete looking to properly fuel for activity. This is the last chance to thoroughly feed the body before an intense bout of exercise. Just as you fill up your gas tank before a long road trip, your body expects similar attention.During exercise, the cardiovascular system and respiratory system will be in a state of stress trying to deliver oxygen to muscles. As the demand for oxygen increases, energy needs increase, particularly from carbohydrate. During a long run we can anticipate your body depleting then needing carbohydrate for fuel. Since our body can only save a finite amount of carbohydrate in the muscles and liver as glycogen, it becomes important to maximize those stores going into a workout. Once your liver runs out of glycogen, your blood sugar levels cannot be maintained, and your body crashes. This is most commonly referred to as “Hitting the wall”. Similarly, once muscles run out of carbohydrate, they begin looking to other sources, mainly fat. While most think this is what causes increased fat loss, evidence does not support that notion. Instead, the opposite has been show. During activity your body uses both carbohydrate and fat simultaneously to fuel the body for optimized performance. Once the body runs out of carbohydrate, it must rely on fat or protein to provide additional energy. The conversion of fat to usable energy for muscles takes a significant amount of time, so mid-run your body will not respond quick enough to the increased needs. During this time our body slows down, muscles fatigue, perceived exertion spikes, and performance significantly declines.Since our body has significantly less carbohydrate than fat stores, and they are needed to keep performance high, we need them in a pre-workout meal. Ideally this meal occurs 60-90 minutes before exercise. Those who eat larger meals may need to eat 2 hours before. An ideal pre-workout sits well in the stomach, digests easily, and tastes good. I recommend a serving of grains (bread, rice, or oats) and some fruit as a priority, with some fats for taste. A favorite pre-workout meal is a whole-wheat bagel with banana and peanut butter. This combination of simple carbohydrate, complex carbohydrate and fats will provide the body with a steady stream of energy to compliment the stores in the tissue. This extra energy will extend the life of a run, as well as improve the potential for increased pace or intensity.The pre-workout meal is important no matter what time of day you are exercising. For those exercising early in the morning, this might be the most important meal of the day. After a night of fasting, your liver has diminished glycogen stores, so you have even less to use to maintain blood sugar. This will lead to a rapid decrease in performance and ultimately a wasted workout. If you are someone like me, who does not tolerate big meals early in the morning, look for foods that have a lot of carbohydrate in small servings. I often drink 8oz of juice with an English muffin, peanut butter and honey. The juice and honey provide sugar that contribute to your bodies energy needs, but do not fill up the stomach or give a bloated feeling during exercise. Most importantly, a meal like this can be eaten closer to exercise, so you won’t need to get up 2 hours before to get a sufficient meal in.Remember, just like you wouldn’t leave for a road trip with the tank on empty, you should not leave for a run without being properly fueled. Always-always-always feed your body pre-workout!

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