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Exercise Nutrition 101

As a student-athlete, I get to hear a lot of nutritional advice from coaches, fellow athletes, friends, and even professors. It’s hard to know who to trust! Taking a nutrition course this past semester primed me in the research necessary to make healthy choices for myself. I’d like to share just a few nuggets of nutritional info, you can keep in mind with your active lifestyle. So get out your notepads and pens, and take yourself back to your student days! Today is a lesson in Exercise Nutrition 101.

Carbs vs. Fats before Exercise?

You may have heard mixed opinions on what the best pre-exercise meal should be. Some are big on protein loading, while others would vote carb loading any day. Both seem like adequate contenders, but there is a clear-cut winner in this match-up. There are five major reasons why a carbohydrate-rich meal before a competition is ideal:

  1. Carbohydrates serve as the primary energy nutrient for short-term anaerobic exercise (like sprinting, heavy lifting, etc.). As well as for prolonged high- intensity aerobic exercise (running, swimming, cycling, etc.).

  2. Carbs replenish sugar storage depletion, which occurs during the overnight fast (sleep).

  3. Carbs digest and absorb more rapidly than proteins or fats.

  4. Protein can add stress to exercise in the heat, because of it’s high energy requirement for breakdown and absorption. This extra work lets off heat that can strain the body’s cooling systems.

  5. Protein breakdown for energy requires water, facilitating dehydration.

How do Carbs Work?

So how do carbohydrates work? When carbohydrates are consumed, they are converted into blood sugar. If there is an excess of blood sugar, insulin is activated and uptakes this extra sugar and stores it in the form of glycogen, in both the muscles and the liver. When blood sugar levels are low- such as when it is being used to energize physical activity- glycogen can be taken from either the muscles or liver and converted back into blood sugar for use.

Because the introduction of carbs in the form of blood sugar activate an insulin surge- time between eating and exercising is important for the storage of carbs. We want carbs to be ready for use, blood sugar available, and normal hormone levels. 

Guidelines for Eating Prior to Exercise

Pre-competition Nutrition

The ideal pre-competition meal includes 150-300g of carbohydrate and is consumed 3-4 hours prior to exercise in order to provide complete time for the meal to be digested, absorbed, and stored.

Daily Pre-Exercise Nutrition

During normal weekly exercise, the eating can look a little different. Before a normal workout, eat a low glycemic snack with fiber no closer than 60 minutes prior to exercise.

During Exercise Nutrition

Once you begin to exercise, insulin release is put on hold. Therefore, eating simple carbs during exercise will allow you to grab the new, added energy straight from the blood sugar without hormone complication. A balance of 4:1- carbs to protein- snack (if needed) may extend time to fatigue and reduce muscle damage, in comparison to only carbs.

Post Exercise Nutrition

Finally, replenishing depleted glycogen stores is important for the body to get back to normal functioning levels. When you exercise you throw your glycogen levels out of whack. Eat a snack within two hours of exercising, or as close to the end of activity as possible. Once again it should contain a balance of 4:1 carbs to proteins- my go-to is an apple and peanut butter.

Please note, pre exercise meals are only important if you maintain a nutritionally sound diet in your lifestyle. While we cannot provide individualized, full nutritional assistance in one article, I would recommend visiting the supertracker site that was released by the USDA. This resource takes into account age, sex, height, weight, and activity level to develop a personalized plan based off of a balanced, and healthy diet perspective.

I personally, would likes to stress the importance of a balanced diet. All of the nutrients are important, even more so when you are using them to fuel physical activity.

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