If you’re reading this, chances are you like to run and/or be physically active. And if that’s the case, perhaps you have some sort of workout schedule or activity game plan during the week to help keep you on task. But what about nutrition? Do you put the same kind of effort and attention into the food and meals you eat each day as you do your workouts? This might seem like a strange concept, but if you think about it, our encounters with food are far more frequent throughout the day than the time we spend running or lifting weights. If we didn’t have a game plan for our workouts each day and had to come up with them on the spot, we likely wouldn’t accomplish as much as we otherwise could if it were it all planned out (we’ve all been there before). Similarly, with nutrition, our food choices are likely to be poorer when we wait until the last minute to decide what to eat rather than plan ahead. If we compound this cycle of deciding what to eat until the last minute, day after day, week after week, month after month, it is likely to presume our health will take a serious toll.
Needless to say, planning out your day (to some extent) nutritionally is important. But what should you focus on specifically? And how do you implement it? If you have any interest in health and performance, there are a few critical nutrition components you should implement to help take you to the next level:
Consider your fuel substrate
The intensity at which we are exercising dictates whether we are utilizing mostly fat or carbs as our primary substrate. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred and most efficient fuel source, so at higher intensities, particularly when we are anaerobic (or “without oxygen”), carbs are a necessity. Fat, on the other hand, requires more oxygen and multiple steps to be converted to usable energy, making it the primary substrate for lower intensity exercise. With this understanding, it makes sense why carbohydrates are essential for performance.
Nutrient timing: Pre-workout
Understanding your primary fuel substrate during exercise leads us to proper nutrient timing surrounding workouts. If we wish to perform at a high intensity in our training or competition, it is important to supply our body with sufficient carbohydrates beforehand. Our muscles and liver can store a finite amount of carbohydrates before they’re completely depleted. Since these stores are rarely at full capacity, it’s important to fuel with carbohydrates beforehand. The timing of your food intake prior to exercise will determine the quantity of carbohydrate, as well as, to some extent, the quality or type of carbohydrate (complex vs simple). ‘Complex’ carbs provide more sustained energy but take longer to digest and process, while ‘simple’ carbs provide more immediate energy, digesting and absorbing rapidly into the bloodstream. Most pre-workout meal options should include a variety of both simple and complex sources, while smaller snack options closer to workouts should consist of mostly simple sources. When it comes to amount, this is where it can be important to trial and error for yourself to determine what your body can comfortably tolerate prior to exercise. The larger the meal or snack, the more time needed for digestion. Keeping fat and fiber content low will aid in faster digestion.