Updated: Nov 12, 2019
When I was in high school, my friends and I would plan all sorts of grand adventures during spring break and summer vacation. We would canoe down the Colorado River, ocean kayak off Mexico, climb and repel down cliffs, wake up early for uninterrupted surfing, and go on week-long backpacking treks in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. One year, we actually built a cartoonishly silly raft and floated down a river for a week. We were stereotypical, stupid adventurers. Trust me, it got exponentially worse once we all had our driver's licenses.
One summer, we thought it would be fun to hike up the tallest mountain in our home state of California: Mount Whitney. We prepped and planned out the trek and decided we'd spend the week backpacking and camping while we were in the Sierras. We each challenged ourselves to see who could pack the lightest backpack; we knew that it was important to pack only the essentials for successful and effective backpacking. One strategy that we relied on was to only bring a single container for water, but to bring enough water purification methods to allow us to refill our water supplies at each stream or lake on the trail. Unfortunately, our planning was about as immature as you would expect from high schoolers, and there were a handful of instances that we miscalculated the distance between rivers and had to endure long, dehydrated trails until we could refill our waters.
There were plenty of adventures that I can remember where I wasn't prepared with a sports nutrition strategy, and suffered dreaded consequences of dehydration, hunger or weakness that compromised the fun and adventure. We've all been there, and it's time we approach fitness with a little more preparation. Here are some primary steps for you to consider as you develop your sports nutrition strategy!
The first step in creating your sports nutrition strategy is to identify or calculate the amount of work you have ahead of you.
Last summer I hiked up Gray's Peak (14,278') and if I'm being honest, I was pretty scared that I wouldn't make it to the top! If it wasn't for my hiking buddies, I probably wouldn't have made it, but with their support and teamwork - I conquered that mountain!
Attributed to my successful summiting of one of Colorado's famous 14ers was my over-the-top sports nutrition strategy. I calculated the distance from the base of the trail to the summit, and the average incline of the ascent. This gave me the vertical and the horizontal components needed to complete the known calculations for energy expenditure while walking. I determined that just hiking up (one-way) would expend nearly 3500 kcals. I also knew that hunger would be suppressed at high elevations, so I aimed for a healthy and lightweight 3000 Calories of trail snacks (freeze-dried fruits high in antioxidants, high glycemic snacks and bars, multiple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, beef jerky, etc.) and a couple liters of water with caffeine powdered-drink mix. My calculated preparation gave me the strength to overcome fatigue, the settled feeling to overcome nausea, and motivation to persevere.
If you are unable to calculate the amount of Calories you're soon to expend via exercise, then there are practical ways you can roughly identify a ballpark of pre-exercise fuel.
1. How long are you going to exercise?
Exercise sessions less than 1 hour likely don't need urgent sports nutrition changes. If your workout is 20 or 30 minutes, then the food you recently ate at your last meal has likely sufficiently primed your body for fuel and physical activity.
What if you workout in the early morning before breakfast, and there ISN'T a recent meal in your system yet you're still working out for 20 - 30 minutes? I'd suggest a sipping from a sports drink during your workout, spaced every few minutes. If your workout is greater than a brisk walk intensity, then consider larger sips, and if your workout is near maximal intensities, then I'd suggest larger and more frequent sips from that sports drink to keep you well-fueled.
If your workout is greater than 1-hour in duration, like a long hike, a long run around the track or trails, or competing in a fitness competition with off and on bursts of activity stretched throughout the day, then you'll want to plan a pre-workout meal focusing on whole-food carbohydrates, such as fruits, starchy vegetables, and grains.
2. How intense are you going to exercise?
Is your workout going to be pretty light? If your exercise is going to be less than or equal to a brisk walk pace and it's less than an hour in duration, then that total volume of exercise is not going to demand too much fuel that you don't already likely have ready to go from your body's storage. Low intensity work is able to draw from stored body fats effectively, so you may not need to stress about pre-workout fuel for such low-intensity work.
Is your workout going to range from moderate to vigorous intensity? Let's define something real quick: Moderate intensity (3 - 6 METs) is around a brisk walk to a light jog pace, and vigorous intensity (>6 METs) can be satisfied at a steady jog pace ... so we're not talking about sprinting or maximal effort. Moderate to vigorous intensities are going to rely on your glucose and glycogen storage. Depending on the duration of such intense exercise, your sports nutrition strategy can vary. McArdle, Katch and Katch (2015) state: "Intense aerobic activity for 1 hr decreases liver glycogen by about 55%, whereas a 2-hr strenuous workout almost depletes the glycogen content of the liver and active muscle fibers (p 94)"
For high intensity exercise that ranges from 1 - 2 hours, consider 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram body mass 1 - 2 hours before your workout. For example, if you are 220 lbs, then you are approximately 100 kg of body mass. Thus you would eat 1 g of carb x 100 kg body mass = 100 grams of carbohydrate about an hour or two before you hit the gym (McArdle, Katch & Katch, 2013).
3. What's the temperature like?
Temperature and humidity are going to influence your sweat rate and water loss via sweat loss. Water loss via sweat is a quick way to compromise your fitness capacity. Kenney, Wilmore and Costill (2020) state: "While performing heavy exercise in hot conditions, the body can lose more than 1 L of sweat per hour per square meter of body surface. This means that during intense effort on a hot and humid day (high level of heat stress), an average-sized female athlete (50 - 75 kg, or 110 - 165 lbs) might lose 1.6 to 2.0 L of sweat, or about 2.5% to 3.2% of body weight, each hour (p 312)."
Sweat and water loss can gradually make impactful changes to the water content in your body and in your blood. When you lose water through sweating, you make it more stressful on your heart to pump your more viscous blood, cascading in all sorts of fitness limitations. "Even minimal changes in the body's water content can impair endurance performance. Without adequate fluid replacement, an athlete's exercise tolerance shows a pronounced decrease during long-term activity because of water loss through sweating. The impact of dehydration on the cardiovascular and thermoregulatory systems is quite predictable. Fluid loss decreases plasma volume. This decreases blood pressure, which in turn reduces blood flow to the muscles and skin. In an effort to overcome this, heart rate increases. Because less blood reaches the skin, heat dissipation is hindered, and the body retains more heat. Thus when a person is dehydrated by 2% of body weight or more, both heart rate and body temperature are elevated during exercise above values observed when normally hydrated (Kenney, Wilmore, & Costill, 2020, p. 401)."
4. When and what was your most recent meal?
Do you need a protein shake right before or after a workout? The answer: Maybe ... but probably not if you eat at normal intervals. The concept of nutrient timing is becoming more and more of an outdated principle, and scientists are realizing that the greater importance is nutrient availability. In other words, slamming a protein shake after a workout is effective if you're on an empty stomach, but doesn't really show much of a difference if you already have sufficient protein in your system.
If you ate a full meal about an hour or two before exercising, then you may have all the right nutrients in your system ready to rock and roll for a quality workout. The major exception to that rule would be if your pre-exercise meal is high in fat, because dietary fats slow down the absorption of carbohydrates into your blood, which could interfere with fuel utilization.
For example, if you exercise after work, then make sure your lunch and mid afternoon snacks are low in fat and provide enough carbohydrate for your duration and intensity of exercise ahead. The most challenging time of day to ensure you have nutrient availability secured is if you workout in the early morning, since waking up extra early for pre-workout foods may not be practical for your schedule.
Sports nutrition strategies can be a fun exploration of foods that work and foods that don't. Research helps to guide the way, but it ultimately comes down to your responsibility and judgement to answer this simple question: Are these foods helping me to get better?
Are you improving in your workouts? Are you getting stronger, or faster?
Another important consideration: Are you getting worse? Or feeling sluggish?
Take notes on the foods you eat, when you eat them, the conditions of the workout, and how you feel! Treat your sports nutrition strategy like a research study and collect that precious data!
Are you interested in learning more about the application and science of carbohydrates, protein and fats for your sports nutrition? Purchase the Sports Nutrition Fundamentals Series today and join our facebook community group to share your sports nutrition successes and discoveries with your peers!
Kenney, W. L., Wilmore, J. H., & Costill, D. L. (2020). Physiology of sport and exercise (7th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I., & Katch, V. L. (2013). Sport and exercise nutrition (4th ed.). Baltimore, MD: Wolters Kluwer.
McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I., & Katch, V. L. (2015). Exercise physiology: Nutrition, energy, and human performance (8th ed.). Baltimore, MD: Wolters Kluwer Health.