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A good workout is only a meal away

Nobody wants a workout that’s only somewhat effective. When you exercise, you’re looking to get the most out of it. If you’re going to put in the effort, you want to burn off that energy, get the best “runner’s high” or lose that stubborn weight

But exercising is a bit like driving your car. For the best results, you need high-quality fuel. At the same time, you need to make sure you have enough fuel—you’ll hurt yourself if you’re running on empty all the time.

“Preparing for a run requires much more than a steady diet of protein bars,” said Kaitlin Gill, a clinical dietitian at Geisinger. “Protein bars can contain high levels of sugar and calories, which can lead to a less-effective workout. Eating healthy, well-portioned meals can make your run much more efficient and leave you feeling better afterward.”

Here are three simple, healthy ways to fuel your workout.

Stay hydrated all day

If nothing else, the most important aspect of preparation for any workout is to stay hydrated. Water is vital for exercising, and you lose water while sweating and going to the bathroom. If you use up too much of your fluids without replacing them, your body will start to suffer.

Dehydration can severely hurt your body. Dehydration can lead to loss of coordination, muscle fatigue and heat exhaustion. Additionally, it can put a strain on your kidneys and increase your risk of kidney stones.

Your urine is one sign you’re dehydrated. The color of normal, hydrated urine should be somewhere between clear and pale yellow. Darker, more concentrated urine means you’re dehydrated.

“Make sure to stay hydrated all day, every day, regardless of your activity level,” said Gill. “This means drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water every day. On top of that, be sure to drink before, during and after exercising. Watch how much you drink while exercising, though. Too much water can cause stomach discomfort.”

If exercising for more than an hour, consider including a sports beverage to replenish electrolytes and provide needed carbohydrates.

Eat complex carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the best fuel for working muscles. In fact, carbohydrates account for 50 to 60 percent of energy used during a moderate to difficult endurance exercise. 

However, once those carbs have been used up, the body will shift to fat and muscle stores for energy and start breaking down your muscles for fuel, which is counterproductive for your workout.

The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how much certain foods affect your blood sugar. Simple carbs like sugar, honey and white breads spike your blood sugar, so they are high on the GI. These carbs give you a quick boost but can also make you crash. Complex carbs like soy, black beans and whole grain bread have a gradual effect on your blood sugar—they are low on the GI. They give you the sustained energy you need for exercising.

“Complex carbs take longer to digest, so you shouldn’t eat a huge bowl of whole wheat pasta immediately before a big run,” said Gill. “The night before a workout, eat complex carbs like whole wheat pasta. During the day, eat smaller portions of carbs like a bowl of oatmeal or sweet potatoes. Stop eating complex carbs two to three hours before your workout. Thirty minutes before working out, eat a small, simple carbohydrate like a banana or an apple.”

Go easy on the protein

When it comes to lifting weights, no word creates as much buzz as “protein.” There’s always someone at the gym with a protein bar or protein shake nearby. Supplements try to pack in as much protein as possible, and protein powders are sold in huge jugs. People associate protein with a good workout.

Inside your body, protein is used to build and repair tissue and support the immune system. Because of this, protein is a last-resort energy source. Extra protein is stored as fat and requires more effort to digest, which can pull oxygen away from your muscles during exercise. 

Protein does help rebuild your muscles after exercising, however. After your workout, have a serving of lean protein and carbohydrate like chicken or turkey on a whole grain wrap —this will help build your muscles for your next workout and replenish used carbohydrate stores.

Talk to your doctor, dietitian or personal trainer about a diet that’s best for you. They can make recommendations that take your medical considerations into account.

Kaitlin Gill is a clinical dietitian at Geisinger. To schedule an appointment, call 800-275-6401.
Man eating protein bar at the gym