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Running on Empty

With the holiday season behind us and the semester now in full swing, many of you may be finding yourself with tight schedules and even tighter waistbands. As you try to squeeze in time to exercise so you do not have to squeeze into your pants, it is critical to remember the importance of properly fueling your body before, during, and after physical fitness activities.

Think of your body as a car with your heart as its engine. When you exercise, your heart pumps out blood at an elevated level both to distribute more oxygen and energy to your muscles and to remove waste produced by your muscles during exercise. That means fueling up your tank with the right foods and your radiator with the right fluids, with the right amounts, and at the right times, is crucial to achieving optimal physical performance.

You don’t have to adhere to a rigid schedule and there are no hard-and-fast rules for priming your body before exercise. However, if you do not have enough energy and you end up “driving your car 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 are in danger of breaking down valuable muscle tissue. Having said that, there are some general steps that you can take before, during, and after physical activities to ensure maximum performance and fitness progress.

Your body’s primary source of energy is carbohydrates. As a result, when you are planning on hitting the gym, going for a jog, or stepping onto the court for a basketball game, you want to make sure you body has an ample supply of this energy-rich nutrient. The key is to consume easily digested carbohydrates so you avoid feeling sluggish and experiencing intestinal distress. Eating healthy carbohydrates such as a serving of whole-grain cereals with low-fat or skim milk; whole-wheat toast with reduced-fat peanut butter, or low-fat or fat-free yogurt; whole grain pasta; brown rice; or a fruit or vegetable forty-five to sixty minutes prior to your workout can offer you the energy you need. If you only have five or ten minutes before you exercise, try grabbing a cereal bar or a piece of fruit such as an apple or banana. Steer clear of foods high in saturated fats and even in healthy protein. These types of fuels digest substantially slower in your stomach and consequently make the energy they contain less accessible. Furthermore, these foods redirect oxygen and energy-delivering blood from your muscles to your stomach to assist in the metabolic process. It is important to remember that each person has a different level of tolerance with pre-exercise food. In my experience as a certified personal trainer, my new clients have often reported that they do not eat before exercise because they're afraid the food might cause intestinal problems. As a result, they needlessly suffer through major energy problems during their workouts. That is why it is critical to watch not only what you eat, but also when and how much you eat before you exercise.

In addition to the The necessity of feeding your body carbohydrates you should be feeding your body before any physical activity notwithstanding, the importance of properly hydrating your body during this time cannot be overlooked. Keep a water bottle with you throughout the day and refill it to make sure you have balanced fluid levels in your bodily systems before your workout. If you are playing in a morning game or going for an early jog, aim to take in sixteen ounces of water before you begin. Making a pit stop during your workout for a snack is only necessary if you have been exercising for more than sixty minutes at a vigorous intensity. A small snack of fifty to one hundred calories, such as a banana or a handful of raisins, should provide you with the boost and focus you need during physical activities exceeding one hour.

After you have finished your exercise, you should aim to consume a meal that is high in protein and carbohydrates within sixty minutes. It is during this post-workout time window, as your body works to repair muscles used during exercise, that your muscles will be most receptive to the foods you consume. Rapid refueling should only be a concern for people whose repeated bouts of exercise are intense and depleting. If you have a full day to recover before your next training session, or if you have done an easy workout and have lower recovery needs, you need not become obsessed with refilling your tank immediately after your workout. However, it is encouraged for all athletes to get into the habit of refueling soon after their workout. In doing so, you will not only feel better and have more energy, but will also have a curbed appetite.

It is important to realize that these are general guidelines. We have different digestive systems and a lot depends on what kind of workout you’re doing. Do what works best for you. Know that what you put in your body is as important as what you do with your body. Both are crucial in keeping your engine performing at its best. Remember: You haven't finished your exercising until you've refueled!
A note on the author: the Bottom Line in Health seeks to provide simple fitness and nutrition tips for the Yeshiva University community. As a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness and Nutrition Specialist, it is my goal to enhance the readers’ understanding of how to maintain a healthy standard of living while improving performance in and out of school and supporting an overall sense of well-being.