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Don't Exercise on 'E' -- Fueling Your Workout the Right Way

Updated: Jun 5, 2022

Clients often come to workout with me and immediately tell me that they are low in energy, and cranky. When probed for more information, I often hear that there was either no time eat beforehand, they didn't know what to eat, or they didn't want to exercise on a full stomach. While I wholeheartedly agree that it's not ideal to exercise when full, I will emphasize the importance of fueling up properly in order to get the most out of your workout. If you workout with me, you already know that you need to bring your A Game--there is literally no telling what I have up my sleeve--so it's best to plan ahead so that you can be ready to kill it each and every time.

A Lesson on Macronutrients.

Macronutrients are broken into 3 primary categories of food types that we normally consume: Carbohydrates, Protein, and Fats. A fourth, less discussed food form is fiber, which can be found in both carbohydrates and proteins.

Diagram of macronutrients.
The four primary macronutrients are Fiber, Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats.

When trying to fuel up for a workout, it's critical to understand the role each food type plays in your overall body function. The body's primary fuel source is glucose (sugar), which it makes from the foods we consume.

  • Carbohydrates are the body's go-to food source to create energy (glucose). As you know, not all carbs are created equally. Some are 100% whole grain or whole wheat (e.g. brown rice), while others are refined, or broken down into a simple form (e.g. white rice). General Rule: The more refined or simple the carb, the faster the body can burn it and turn it into energy. The more "whole" it is, the slower the breakdown process. This is why whole foods are recommended for weight loss: it breaks down slowly, which leads to fewer trips to the fridge for your next meal :)

Photo of carbohydrate foods (pasta, apple, bread, potato).
Carbohydrates are the body's primary energy source. Whole grains and fiber are ideal for optimal weight loss.

  • When the body is low on carbs, the next source of energy will come from Fat. Fat takes a little longer to break down; however, the body will draw from fat to help sustain your physical activity. Good sources of fat would include avocado, lean meat, cheese, oils, and nuts. Because fat is higher in calories than carbs, it's critical to exercise portion control.

  • Protein is the body's last resort for energy. Its primary function is to build and repair muscle, not fuel a workout. We consume protein before and after a workout in order to strengthen our muscles and prevent muscle loss during cardio workouts, BUT the body will use protein once carbohydrate and fat stores are depleted.

Meal Timing: How to Fuel Your Workout Properly

To get the most from your workout, it's ideal to consume whole grains 2-4 hours prior to your workout to give your body sufficient time to break them down for your workout. Simple carbs are ideal only within 30-60 minutes of your workout because the body can quickly turn into the fuel you need. Critical Note! Simple carbs should not be your go-to choice, because they are often high in calories and low in fiber, which leads to energy crashes and intense food cravings (usually for more sugar). This why eating a donut for breakfast instead of oatmeal isn't the best idea...You'll be looking for more food within the hour :)

Photo of simple carbs versus whole carbs.
Simple/refined carbs (top row) are ideal to consume within 60-30 minutes before your workout. "Whole" carbs (bottom row) should be consumed 2-4 hours prior to a workout for optimal exercise performance.

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