workout food

By Eliot Dittmer, UWO Peer Wellness Educator

When talking about nutrition and exercise, most of the attention is focused on what to eat after a workout or physical activity to maximize muscle gain, recovery time, and to ensure that the workout is not gone to waste. There is no doubt that this is very important, as I have previously written an article focusing on the post workout aspect. However, I would now like to shine on a light preparing for physical activity with adequate nutrition.

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. Glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrates in the muscles and liver, is broken down into glucose for the body to use as energy. Glycogen stores are not unlimited and when they are depleted this can result in a decrease in exercise performance and an overall lethargic feeling. Carbohydrate intake will be variable depending on intensity, length, and other factors. According to PD Gollnick, author of many peer reviewed articles on sports nutrition, carbohydrates may be the only source of energy for the muscles and are taken directly from the muscle glycogen storage. However, for longer more endurance type workouts the amount of carbohydrates used for energy may be more variable. (Gollnick, 2006).

The macronutrient that most often comes to mind when thinking about exercise is protein. Proteins are the building blocks of cells, they aid in muscle synthesis and repair as well as boost metabolism. For someone who is more focused on gaining muscle, consuming protein along with carbohydrates prior to a workout would be more beneficial.

Fats often get a bad rap. People like to avoid fats because they are either calorically dense or have been told they slow you down. Fat is actually the preferred source of energy for more moderate to low bouts of exercise over a longer period of time. These exercises could include a jog, brisk walk, or a bike ride. This is another example of the variability of pre workout nutrition depending on the type of exercise.

Now that I briefly explained what to eat prior to a workout, another important factor must be addressed, the when. This is very key to ensure the body gets the best use out of what you put in it. When the body is under exertion, blood (energy) is flowing to the skeletal muscles, the brain, and the skin. When the body is at rest there is more of a focus on rest and digestion. Eating right before a workout can result in competition for energy and stomach issues. Christopher R. Mohr, PhD, RD, recommends to eat a balanced meal around 1-3 hours before a workout. This will allow for the food to digest and the body to increase glycogen storage. Some examples of meals that he gives are a banana with peanut butter, greek yogurt and fruit, and oatmeal with low-fat milk and fruit (Mohr, 2017).

Just as with nutrition in general, finding out what to eat before a workout depends on a variety of different factors. Try to schedule in a time 1-3 hours before to get a quick meal in. In general, it is important to give the body fuel (carbohydrates), allow for muscle repair and growth (protein), and fuel for more moderate to low intensity exercise (fats).