Ready, Set, Go!

By Stephanie Bouquet, SB Nutrition Consulting

(reprinted from Coastal Grower Magazine, Fall 2012)

Whether you are a seasoned athlete or a weekend warrior, the foods you consume play an important role in how your body performs. Training and subsequent performance can suffer without good food choices and consistent feeding times. The benefits of a balanced diet are cumulative, meaning an active person needs a healthy diet every day, not just on the day of a practice or sporting event. It’s best to experiment with what you eat and drink to find out what works best for your particular body.

Here are some nutrition recommendations for fueling before, during and after exercise:

Before Exercise:

Active individuals need a diet rich in carbohydrates every day to fuel muscles and feed the brain.  Eating before exercising helps to top off body carbohydrate stores, known as glycogen, that are found in the liver and muscles. This promotes a stable blood sugar level and gives the body energy to move. Ideally, the optimal time to fuel the body is two hours before exercising. The best foods to consume are high in carbohydrates with a moderate amount of protein and fat. High fiber sugars and starches (fruits, vegetables and whole grain breads, for instance) are recommended carbohydrate choices on a day to day basis; however, more easily digested carbohydrates may be better tolerated closer to physical activity. High intensity movement of the body, like running, cycling or jumping, causes the stomach to get jostled which interferes with digestion and can lead to stomach upset.

Foods to try include: yogurt with low fat granola, a peanut butter or lunch meat sandwich, oatmeal with banana and low fat milk, or grapes with nuts and a string cheese. Liquid carbohydrates, such as drinkable yogurts or sports drinks, may be a better alternative if it’s difficult to consume solid foods or time is limited before exercise. It’s also important to hydrate before exercising to prevent sluggishness, a common symptom caused by dehydration.

During Exercise:

Rehydrating with water during exercise is necessary to cool the body when muscles heat up.  Shorter spurts of exercise lasting less than 60 minutes do not require any additional fuel for the body. As activity extends beyond an hour, the muscles and brain will need more nutrition. Approximately 30-60 grams (100 to 250 calories) of carbohydrate foods per hour from a banana, dried fruit, gram crackers, sports products (drinks, gels, bars) or even jelly beans will meet this need. In addition, consume two to three ounces (or gulps) of fluid every 15-20 minutes of exercise. By alternating sipping on a sports drink that contains electrolytes (like Gatorade or Powerade) with plain water helps ensure proper fluid balance. The body’s natural thirst mechanism that signals the need for fluids can dissipate during long exercise sessions and is not a useful hydration tool for all exercisers. The sports industry promotes products for use during exercise, but these products do not contain “magic” ingredients to boost performance. Convenience and portability are key elements of the products, but the same benefits can be obtained using natural foods if desired.

After Exercise

The top priority after completing exercise is to replace body fluid. Dehydration can affect performance if more than two percent of body weight is lost during an exercise event. For example, that equates to a three pound loss for someone weighing 150 pounds. Drinking about two cups (sixteen ounces) of fluid for every pound lost while exercising is a common method for reestablishing hydration status.

Although there are more complicated calculations for determining body hydration levels, a quick and easy method is to check urine color. The goal is to maintain a lemonade or light yellow color for optimal hydration. The darker the color of the urine means the greater the likelihood that dehydration is present. The first 30-45 minutes after exercise is the best opportunity to refuel glycogen muscle stores and repair muscle damage. Muscles will soak up carbohydrates like a sponge during this time frame. Foods containing carbohydrates with a moderate amount of protein, such as chocolate milk, instant breakfast drinks or a fruit smoothie, help muscles recover and reduce post-exercise muscle soreness.

Perhaps most important is to realize that what works for one person may not work for another. Learning your winning combination of foods and fluids will allow your body to perform at its very best.