Before Exercise

I am forever amazed at how little people eat and drink before and during exercise. For example, while on a four-hour 60-mile (96 km) group bike ride, I have observed people who "ride to eat" rather than "eat to ride." They salivate while describing the "reward" they are going to eat after the ride. One woman complained how tired she'd get two hours into a ride— and then added that she'd never eat or drink much on a ride other than a few bottles of sports drink. She preferred to hold off until the postride feast. She thought she was tired because she hadn't been training hard enough (not because she had run out of fuel). Other riders complained about how parched they were by the end of the ride.

My message to those cyclists and to all athletes and everyday exercisers is this: Just as you put fuel in your car before you take it for a drive, you want to put fuel in your body before you exercise. This preexercise snack or meal will help energize your workout. Preexercise fuel has four main functions:

  1. It helps prevent hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and its symptoms of light-headedness, needless fatigue, blurred vision, and indeci-siveness—all of which can interfere with top performance.
  2. It helps settle your stomach, absorb some of the gastric juices, and ward off hunger.
  3. It fuels your muscles, with both carbohydrate that you eat far enough in advance to get stored as glycogen and carbohydrate that you eat within an hour of exercise, which enters the bloodstream and feeds your brain.
  4. It gives you the peace of mind that comes with knowing your body is well fueled.

Yet many people purposefully exercise on empty because they believe that exercising without having eaten beforehand enhances fat burning. True, but they assume that by burning more body fat, they will lose more body fat. False. To lose body fat, you need to create a calorie deficit by the end of the day. Whether you burn carbohydrate or fat is of less importance. The truth is you'll be able to exercise harder and burn more calories if you eat a preexercise snack. The harder exercise might contribute to the desired calorie deficit. See chapter 15 for more information on appropriate methods to lose weight.

Many people are also afraid that preexercise food will result in an upset stomach, diarrhea, and sluggish performance. Of course, eating too much of the wrong kinds of foods can cause intestinal problems (and I will address that issue in this chapter), but embarking on an exercise session when you are underfueled certainly results in sluggish performance. Morning exercisers who work out before breakfast, in particular, need to be sure they have fueled themselves adequately.

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