In my private practice one of my specialties is working with athletes, from professional baseball, hockey, golf and tennis players to marathoners, triathletes and weekend warriors. I’m Board Certified as a Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD), which is a fancy way of saying I have extra training in sports nutrition, and one of the topics I talk to my clients about most often is what to eat and what to avoid before and after exercise.
Before you get your blood pumping you want to eat a meal or snack that best supports digestive health and circulation, and gives your body enough fuel for strength and stamina.
If you’ve ever eaten too little before a workout you may have experienced that “hitting the wall” feeling or even light-headedness. But overeating, or choosing a pre-game meal that’s too heavy it can disrupt blood flow and impede circulation.
A heavy or hard to digest meal can divert a large percentage of blood flow to your GI tract and away from your heart, lungs and muscles, which can make you feel sluggish, impact speed or lead to cramps.
Also once that heavy meal starts to get digested it can negatively impact circulation. One analogy I use with a lot of my clients is to think about a straw and imagine that it represents your arteries. Think about pouring olive oil through a straw - then picture hardened bacon grease or butter trying to get through a straw (not a pretty picture!). Bottom line: no matter how hard you work out the composition of what you eat before exercise has a big impact on how your body performs during exercise.
I’ve had some athletes or women trying to lose weight tell me that they eat “whatever” (mac & cheese, ice cream, etc.) before a game or workout out because they’ll burn it off. But it’s not that simple. To feel well and optimize circulation - so you get a great workout - the best pre-exercise foods include a combo of (if eaten at least an hour before working out to allow some time to digest):
-Easy to digest carbs like pasta, rice, potatoes, bagels, and non-acidic fruits (for longer events I do recommend whole grain carbs, which get digested and absorbed more slowly to offer a “time-released” delivery of fuel to your working muscles over a longer duration).
-A small dose of easy to digest protein like chicken, chunk light tuna canned in water, eggs, tofu and low fat milk/yogurt/cheese, to help stabilize blood sugar.
-A bit of plant-based fat, such as extra virgin olive oil, oil-based salad dressing, natural nut butters and avocado, to optimize circulation and boost antioxidant absorption.
Breakfast before a morning workout:
Oatmeal topped with sliced almonds or chopped walnuts and a smoothie made with frozen, unsweetened fruit and organic skim or soy milk
Lunch before a mid-day workout:
A few whole corn tortillas filled with diced boneless skinless chicken breast, veggies and sliced avocado
Dinner before an evening workout:
Chopped vegetables sautéed in olive oil tossed with pasta and shrimp
Sports nutrition isn’t an exact science and most athletes are pretty in tune with their bodies to know what feels best for them, but in my experience the above strategies are pretty tried and true because they make sense based on how your body functions.
Come back tomorrow – for those of you on the opposite end of the spectrum I’ll explain why eating before exercise is a better strategy for losing body fat than working out on an empty stomach.