Should I eat before a workout?

There was a disturbing time  for me when running was more about burning calories than it was about feeling energized and free. It wasn’t entirely my fault.  My Mom and Dad’s eating and activity behaviors showed me that calories were something to restrict and burn and, to limit them at all costs. So when a dietitian told me that  calories could help improve my running performance I was confused. I actually was so distrusting if this skinny woman with glasses that I had to become a  dietitian to study this for myself.

Yes, it is true you don’t want to eat more calories than you burn unless you want to put on weight (SOME people DO benefit from putting on weight).  More importantly for an active person already at a healthy weight is eating enough calories to energize the body’s potential to run far and sometimes fast(er).  Timing those calories has proven beneficial to me as well. That brings me to the topic at hand. I recently did an interview where they asked me this question:

Should you eat before a workout?

The simple answer is yes. The complicated answer addresses when, how much, what, and why you should eat before a workout. Here are some general rules of thumb that I employ. Also, I have come to believe that calories are my friend, not my enemy and after several years of struggling we have learned how to play well together.

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Real Premium Calories  Eaten by Scott Jurek on his Appalachian Trail journey to FKT . He grubbed this down minutes, maybe even seconds, before heading to blaze.

Why eat before a workout? If you are eating on an empty stomach because you heard you would burn more fat you most certainly are cheating your workout and your body.   Working out on an empty stomach may  lead you down the path of a shorter workout time at lower intensity  than you liked simply because you don’t have the energy on board to do what your training plan is asking of you.

Eating a light snack before exercise maximizes your workout by providing quality energy to your body so you can complete all sets and reps in the gym or run your entire 5K loop in the appropriate heart rate zone.  Depending on how your body digests food, it is recommended to consume a high-carbohydrate snack 1-2 hours before exercise that is lower in total fat and protein.

Here are some rules of thumb to try and see if they work for you:

  • How much protein a pre-workout snack should have is dependent on how soon before your workout you plan to eat and whether or not you are doing a strength training work out or a more cardio workout:
    • If snacking three hours before your workout 7-15 grams of protein is about right. The shorter the amount of time between eating and your workout, the less protein you should consume and if you are eating a snack 30 minutes before a cardio workout you should be eating little to no protein. Save it for after your workout.
  • How many carbs? Carbs get your energy engine (muscles) up and running. If you are doing a one hour work out eat about 15-30 grams of carbohydrate 1-2 hours before. Organic Energy Food Oatmeal is a great choice here. If you are 30 minutes I out I would recommend Organic Energy Food Banana Mango Coconut
  • Should you avoid fat and fiber?  If your workout is lower intensity some folks can tolerate some fat, but if you are going hard you definitely what to limit the amount of fat you eat to as little as possible in the 1-3 hours before your workout. It will take longer for you to digest fat and having fat in your stomach during a high intensity workout could give some GI distress. Same thing goes for fiber: Keeping fiber under 3 -5 grams in a pre-workout foods eaten around the three hour mark is a good place to start. Everyone responds differently when it comes to digesting so you may be able to tolerate more or less than that amount.
  • Are there any micronutrients (e.g. calcium, potassium, sodium, etc.) that are important to get before a workout? In general micro nutrients should be coming from the foods you eat all day long to prevent inadequate consumption of any one nutrient to prevent deficiencies that in the long run will hurt both your health and your workouts. However, sodium which is the primary mineral lost in your sweat can give you a leg up on hydration. Sodium will not give you energy but it will help you with fluid absorption and retention, especially if you are a heavy sweater. CLIF SHOT electrolyte drink before your workout will give you three nutrients in one to support your efforts: carbohydrate, fluid, and sodium

PERSONALLY Speaking

Some people can eat a burger and hop on their bike while others need food to be totally digested before the can even think about exercise. Eating 1-2 hours of prior to your activity seems to work for most but, try out different timing and different foods to see what your stomach says are best.  Some pre-workout foods: half a whole wheat bagel with 1 tablespoon organic  peanut butter; CLIF Bar; 1 cup of nonfat yogurt with a banana; or 16-ounces of CLIF Electrolyte Drink.

Bottom line is to eat and/or drink something before you workout to improve the quality of your exercise!

Piecing Together the 26.2 Puzzle and Trusting the Process

Training for a marathon is like building a puzzle.  Trusting that it will all come together I piece together specific workouts,  nutrition, and rest. My last two weeks of training have been light.  One week of light running is built into my four week training to help me rejuvenate and absorb the training I have done the weeks prior. I take it easy with light jogs, body work, and rest. This time however required two “light weeks” to absorb a pre-Boston Marathon visit to Boston to celebrate the life and legacy of Nana Mary, the nurturing matriarch of our family who’s nearly ninety-eight years on this planet have had a lasting impact on my life.

It seems  counter intuitive that not running will actually help me (not hurt) better achieve my goal of running  Hopkinton to Boylston at the Boston Marathon, but it works when accompanied with the other pieces of the puzzle and my job is to just trust the process. The loss of Nana has had a physical and emotional toll that demanded recognition with  a need to lighten my load where I could.

Nana would say, “You do too much. You run too far.” This time I listened to her and took a step back  for another week of doing less. Like my training, my body and mind needed to absorb what was happening, and I needed to trust the process.

Tasked with writing Nana’s eulogy my blog went as “dark”(or light depending on how you look at it) as my training. So it seems only appropriate to bring light back to it by honoring this amazing woman’s legacy.

Today, we celebrate Nana Mary’s incredible life and legacy as the tenacious, tough, and nurturing matriarch of our family.

Mary was someone special to everyone in this room. To me she was Nana and to my children she was Nana Mary. She has been an ever-present grandmother to Jenine, myself, and my brother Sean and was blessed to participate in the lives of her five great grandchildren.

Some may have called Nana stubborn or fiery. I call her passionate. She had a flare for drama that only Nana could bring and this was not lost to her. She told me that Papa would call her “excitable Mary”. My mother recalls a time when was Nana speaking loudly (passionately) about something and someone told her to “stop yelling”. Nana’s response? “ I am not yelling, I am making a point”. I admired this about Nana. You never had to guess what she was thinking. If she felt strongly she would always make her point known. I knew right where I stood with her if wasn’t back to her apartment in time for dinner.

Despite the thousands of miles between us she has always been an influential presence in my life. Some of my very first memories as a child are of Nana and our trips to the Dello Lodge in Alton Bay. I remember running and hiding from Nana in the kitchen of their apartment on the top floor of the lodge. When I was brave enough to peek out the window I looked down to see Nana furiously waving her arms and talking to the police. I knew I was in big trouble. The activities and entertainment he children and grandchildren chose  have always had a way of making Nana very “nervoso” but as I have grown and shared stories with her of my adventures she seemed to appreciate it in a worried yet, vicarious sort of way.

I am forever grateful for our hours of coffee talk and fruit cup during my visits. These years of openly asking questions and sharing thoughts and feelings with Nana as grown woman have been gift. I once asked my what is the secret to marriage and motherhood. Her answer:  forgiveness and patience  and of course love.

Nana’s love was shown in so many ways to all of us. Whether she was being an ever gracious host and tirelessly cooking our  favorite dishes or passionately telling us to be careful. Nana Mary lives on in the minds and hearts of her great-grandchildren. My boys got to know her well and every time we eat spaghetti, they exclaim, Nana Mary makes the best sauce. 

Near the end of Nana’s service I was overcome by this feeling of relief. The strong sense that she was ok where ever she had gone came over me. I envisioned her and other loved ones standing together laughing at this life because everything is fine and they now know in the end we are all going to be ok. Life is about trusting the process so you can really live and experience it despite the things about it that make you nervous or scared. I suppose if I must circle this back, life too is about piecing the puzzle together for a picture only you can imagine. Let’s do this!

-1.facebook_-747297638Nana Mary, Papa Ralph Sr. and my Dad, Ralph Jr.