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Fueling Your Body for Exercise

by Megan Minnick, Purchasing Director

It’s summertime in Madison, and that means that it’s time for the CrossFit Games. Every summer, hundreds of elite athletes and thousands of spectators come to Madison to be part of this event where the “fittest people on earth” demonstrate amazing feats of strength.

One of the reasons that the Crossfit Games are located here is that we are an exceptionally fit city. According to the American College of Sports Medicine’s Fitness Index, Madison, is the 5th “fittest city” in the nation. This ranking is based on a mixture of “healthy behaviors and community infrastructure” that contribute to a fit, healthy population. Take a stroll around town on a summer day and it’s unavoidable—people in our town love to get out and move­—whether that be cycling, running, walking, swimming or going to the gym to work out. Lucky for us, our city provides the infrastructure we need to do all of these activities easily and safely.

No matter how or how much you exercise, in order to get the most out of your experience it’s important to give your body the fuel it needs.

Now is probably a good time to tell you that I myself am no athlete. I do my best to stay active but with three kids and a jam-packed schedule, extended athletic training sessions just aren’t in the cards. To make up for my own lack of knowledge on the subject of food and exercise, I talked at length with our Willy West Assistant Store Director, Frantseska Kois. Frantseska is an endurance athlete who has completed multiple Iron Man and marathon events, and regularly trains with a coach. She has thought a lot about the food she eats to fuel her workouts, and to help her stay in shape for peak performance.

Quality

First off, let’s talk about quality. The Harvard School of Public Health defines “quality” food as including “unrefined, minimally processed foods such as vegetables and fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and healthy sources of protein.” The science is clear—this is the type of food that athletes from CrossFit, to marathon runners, to folks aiming to maintain a moderate fitness routine need in order to be most successful. What differs between these athletic activities is the amount and timing of these foods.

Frantsestka explained that in order to get a good understanding of which foods to choose before, during, and after exercise it’s helpful to first understand how four vital ingredients in our diet work to fuel our bodies. 

  • Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates provide our bodies with quick fuel that is used to make energy in the form of glucose (sugar). Our bodies don’t easily store the glucose we get from carbs—if it isn’t used immediately, it’s turned into stored fat. 

  • Fats: Despite their bad reputation, fats are a necessary part of our diet, and provide us with a longer term source of fuel. Unlike carbohydrates, fats are easily stored in our body, and are the first source of energy that is used after burning through the available glucose from carbohydrates.

  • Protein: Protein provides the “building blocks” that make up our bodies. Protein in our diet is used to help our organs, cells, and muscles maintain themselves, and also as a source of secondary energy. 

  • Water: While not technically a nutrient, water is perhaps the most important substance that our bodies need for effective and pleasurable exercise. Water helps the nutrients from food get where they need to go, it keeps joints lubricated, and helps us regulate our body temperature. Without adequate hydration, exercise can be no fun (think cramps, headache, dizziness) or even dangerous. 

Timing

Finding the right balance and timing of these four ingredients is a huge part of any successful exercise regime. So what exactly should you eat before, during and after exercise? The answer, it turns out is a definitive “it depends.” It depends on what kind of activity you’re doing and on your body’s unique needs. 

  • Endurance athletes are folks like Frantseska: long distance runners, Triathletes and long distance cyclists fall into this category. For these types of activities it’s important to consider the length of your exercise when choosing what to eat. Drinking water consistently before you exercise so that you start your workout with a fully hydrated system is vital. If you plan to exercise longer than an hour, Frantseska recommends eating a snack or small meal that focuses on easily digestible carbs and protein an hour before your workout. After the first hour, she refuels her body with a small dose of carbs every 30 minutes, and continues to hydrate with an electrolyte drink that includes a small amount of carbs (i.e. sugar). Within 30 minutes of completing the workout, she suggests eating a meal that focuses on all three “macronutrients” (carbs, fats and protein), and continuing to hydrate. 

  • Power athletes practice high intensity exercise that comes in relatively short bursts. CrossFit falls into this category, as does weight training. For this type of exercise the fueling strategy is similar to endurance athletes, but with much less focus on carbohydrates since there’s no need to continually fuel your body for a long period of time. Power athletes tend to focus more on very high quality fats and proteins to keep their bodies in peak condition, with just a small amount of carbohydrates for fuel. 

  • The rest of us. Let’s face it, the vast majority of us are not athletes, but many of us are people who strive to stay fit by working out a few times a week, or staying active in our daily lives by biking to work or jogging during our lunch break. It turns out there’s a lot that us “regular people” can gain from thinking about how we fuel our bodies during exercise. Even for a 30 minute jog, If your body doesn’t have accessible fuel and adequate hydration it’s common to feel tired, and you may experience cramps, headaches or dizziness. It’s not easy to continue a workout regimen if you feel this way! For workouts lasting an hour or less, Frantseska recommends making sure you stay well-hydrated before, during and after your workout with plain water or a carb-free electrolyte drink, and eating a small snack about an hour before you work out (again focusing on easily digestible carbs and protein).

Eat What Feels Good!

The last piece of advice that Frantseska gave me is perhaps the most important. While all of the recommendations in this article are a good place to start, it is extremely important to remember that everyone is different. We all have differences in our genetics, general activity level, age, and other factors that can dramatically affect what our “perfect” exercise food regime should be. It may take some trial and error, but what’s important is that we give our bodies what they need to be successful and feel good for whatever fitness regime we choose to do.