Fueling Your Workout



There are a lot of misconceptions regarding exercise and nutrition. Which should I fill up on after a workout, protein or carbohydrates? Should I consume a sports drink if I’m exercising for a long time? Should I eat before my workout? Everyone thinks they know the answers and are often willing to share their advice. But who’s right and who’s wrong? The answers to five common questions about fueling your workout will sort fact from fiction.

Will protein make my muscles bigger?

Protein is an important nutrient. It provides calories and helps repair muscle. But just eating protein will not make them grow larger or stronger.  The only way to grow muscles is to put them to work. “Carbohydrates are the best fuel for working muscles,” says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson Heather Mangieri, MS, RDN, CSSD.

Carbohydrates are partially converted to glycogen which is stored in the muscle to provide fuel. “Fifty to 60 percent of energy used during one to four hours of continuous moderate to hard endurance activity is derived from carbohydrates,” says Mangieri. Protein, on the other hand, feeds the muscle after your workout, supports its growth and helps it to repair itself. You should try to consume lean protein within 30-45 minutes after exercise.

Do sports drinks, gels and energy bites live up to the hype?

There isn’t anything special about these items. They can provide you with the necessary glucose your body may need during long bouts of exercise, especially when you feel your blood sugar levels getting low. But actual food can provide the same benefit. “Real food will provide the same benefit as these pre-designed workout fuels,” says Mangieri.

For some athletes, eating solid food in the middle of a workout can cause digestive upset or may not even be practical. In these cases, easily consumed sports gels, chews or drinks may help. “Food and fluid intake around workouts should be determined on an individual basis with consideration for an athlete’s gastrointestinal tract tolerance, as well as duration and intensity of the workout,” says Mangieri. It is always recommended to “test” out some of these items beforehand to see how they react with your digestive system. Waiting until you’re in the middle of an iron-man triathlon may not be the best idea.

Is it best to work out on an empty stomach?

Our bodies are like cars. We wouldn’t take it on a long trip without making sure there was gas in the tank. Your body needs fuel to function, especially if you’re asking it to run, jump, swim or lift weights. Don’t skip breakfast. “Eating before exercise, as opposed to [exercising in] the fasted state, has been shown to improve exercise performance,” says Mangieri.

Eating in the morning helps replenish liver glycogen and steadies blood sugar levels. If you’re not into “breakfast” food, eat some of last night’s leftovers, try a smoothie, or even a handful of nuts will do the trick.

Regular exercise means I can eat what I want and not gain weight, right?

Wrong! Working out isn’t license to go crazy at the buffet line or the donut shop. Exercise is only half the equation when it comes to losing or maintaining a healthy weight.

Although your calorie intake may be higher during days where you train exceptionally long or hard, your diet should still consist of fruits, vegetables, lean meats and fish, and whole grains. “Recovery nutrition is necessary if you are an athlete participating in strenuous activity, especially if you are participating in multiple events in the same day,” says Mangieri. “For the casual exerciser working out for an hour or less, a healthy balanced diet will work just fine.”

Is chocolate milk really an athlete’s best friend?

Chocolate milk is favorable because of its carbohydrate and protein content, but it’s not your only choice. “Yogurt or half a turkey sandwich on whole wheat can be just as effective,” says Mangieri.


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