"What should I eat?"
It's a common question that nearly everyone deals with on a day-to-day basis. For those adhering to a workout program, however, this simple question gains added importance.
Believe it or not, it's a source of stress for many who hope to maximize their workout gains. While some of us choose to gobble down a carefully chosen assortment of foods right before stepping onto a treadmill, the rest of us do the opposite — we don't eat anything before exercising.
So who is right and who is wrong?
Some of this confusion can be cleared up by first understanding how our body uses food for fuel. At the heart of the matter is a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which serves as a direct source of energy for doing cellular work in any kind of living cell.
Here's the catch: The energy from food needs to be processed in order for it to reach this usable form. This occurs slowly, mainly because of the necessary chemical reactions that need to occur in order to convert the molecules in food into ATP molecules.
So what is best to eat right before a workout? The answer to this question: nothing.
Why, you ask? Because anything you shovel down before a workout will be too late to have an impact on the levels of stored ATP needed for your working muscles.
Thus, the question we should really be asking ourselves is, "What should I be eating hours before my workout in order to supply my body with the best energy to do its job?"
No Substitute for Preparation
Preparation is the real answer. It is best to eat foods that give you the energy required for your workout.
This is not just muscle-building protein, mind you. It also means carbohydrates and foods that contain fats, minerals and vitamins. And yes, you should eat meals that have all of these nutrients together.
All right, I hear you thinking: Carbohydrates? Yes, you need carbs; carbohydrates are the body's primarily energy source. When you don't provide your body with good carbohydrates, you don't give your body its necessary fuel and you won't perform at your optimum.
But keep in mind that these carbs should be the unprocessed kinds that still have all the nutrients inside. Processed carbohydrates, such as white rice, white flour and your run-of-the-mill pasta, are usually stripped of their most beneficial nutrients.
When you eat processed foods (in other words, processed carbohydrates), your body does not receive the minerals and vitamins required to metabolize and properly use food for fuel. Minerals and vitamins are among the key factors in our bodies' necessary chemical reactions. If we don't have them, nothing works. Providing ourselves with foods that give us required nutrients is necessary to receive the energy throughout your workout, as well as throughout your day.
Timing Is Everything
Again, a reminder: No matter how healthy the food, you'd do well not to eat right before the workout — unless, of course, you savor the experience of throwing up while exercising.
When you exercise, your blood will flood into your working muscles, leaving less energy for digestion. Thus, when you eat before a workout, your body has no other choice then to deal with the digestive demand, and it has to put its energy into digesting the food. That is the issue we have here.
So how long should we refrain from eating before working out? Granted, much depends on the individual and what kind of food they eat. But in my experience, clients did best when they ate a small meal two to three hours before working out.
But even two to three hours can be too short if you eat fried, fatty foods; they might greet you during your workout program in the form of burping, heartburn and diarrhea.
Yes, food choice is very important, too. The best advice is to try to eat light and healthy, such as a plate of greens or fruits. And if you are simply starving before a workout, fruits are the best way to go; they generally stay no longer then 30 minutes in the digestive tract.
If you're thinking of a larger, balanced meal, allow five to six hours before working out. This will give your body enough time to convert the food molecules into ready-to-use molecules for the energy you'll require.
The intensity of a workout is another factor to consider. Light foods for intense workouts.
And then there is the time of day during which you choose to work out. Are you an early riser? When you work out in the morning (yes, some of us do get up and start moving at 6 a.m.), it is best to just drink water to hydrate your body after a long night's sleep. Don't forget, you most likely ate dinner 8 hours before you woke up, so you should have enough energy to get you going.
Keeping Yourself Hydrated
Just as important as proper energy from the foods you eat is proper hydration from the water and drinks you consume before and during your workout.
Sports drinks? Ah, OK, I have not forgotten about them. Sports drinks can be great during the workout to replace your electrolytes while working out. Electrolytes such as potassium, magnesium, calcium and sodium allow your body to fend off fatigue and function properly during exercise.
But one thing we all have to keep in mind is to watch out for the sugar content in sports drinks, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup. Processed sugars like corn syrup can spike your energy levels, only to set them up for a fall after about 20 to 30 minutes. This is something you will probably want to avoid during exercise, as it's best to keep your blood sugar levels even throughout a workout.
In short, the calories we get from food and drinks are workout fuel; you shouldn't be afraid of them. Just keep in mind that food should be eaten hours before you tie up those cross trainers, and be mindful of sugary beverages.
Perhaps the best advice is to be sure to pay attention to when and how much you eat before your workouts, particularly when it comes to how these habits affect your ability to exercise. This is the best way for individuals to determine what feels right for them.
Nevertheless, keep in mind that your body needs proper fuel to function at its peak level.
Stefan Aschan is the owner and founder of www.stefanaschan.com, providing nutrition and exercise programs in New York City.