LPM Staff

Fuel up for fitness

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Like many “recreational athletes,” I like to get my exercise in first thing in the morning – earn my day, so to speak. Not one to eat breakfast right away, I’ll drink a cup of coffee with a little cream and sugar, then hit the bike trail or take a power walk for 30-40 minutes, something to get my heart rate up and work up a good sweat.

Then I come home and make a custom smoothie with a high-protein chocolate shake (30 grams), blend in a half-cup of soymilk, a dollop of almond butter and lots of ice. Mmm, delicioso. It’s like having dessert for breakfast.

This works for me, but I wonder if it’s the best way to maximize my workout?  Should I be giving my body nutrients before I exercise so I don’t burn the little muscle I have? What about all that protein – is it too much all at once?

No, yes and no. 

According to Raphael Calzadilla, a certified trainer with the American Council on Exercise (fitbyraphael.com), my pre-workout cup of coffee is most certainly not cutting it. 

“The worst thing someone can do … before or after a workout, is not eat,” says Calzadilla. “It’s important to view food as fuel for the body that will both propel your workouts and help you to recover immediately after.” 

Calzadilla says that working out on an empty stomach (going three or more hours without eating), causes blood sugar to drop. “It will affect the quality of the workout from a physical and mental standpoint,” he says. 

What and when to eat and why

Calzadilla says what and how much you eat before a workout is important, and depends on the type of workout and the intensity. For example, if you haven’t eaten for three hours and want to do a 30-minute cardio workout, then a small snack is sufficient about a half hour before the workout. If you’re weight training with intensity and adding cardio on top of that, then he suggests a scoop or two of protein powder and a banana or oatmeal about an hour before heading to the gym. 

Protein helps to build muscle tissue that has been impacted during weight training sessions. “After a workout, it’s important to give muscles a good supply of protein,” says the personal trainer of 20 years. Good carbohydrates are also important. This means whole grains, fruits and vegetables, not a Coke and a bag of chips.

Delve into the intricate science behind nutrition and fitness and get taken on a head-spinning ride of information about protein, carbs, glycemic index, insulin processing and metabolism, pro athletes versus recreational athletes and many other factors. Throw in the avalanche of new products on the market that promise to maximize your muscle mass and supply you with essential amino acids, antioxidants, minerals, etc., in an 8-ounce can, bar or powder, and you’ll be dizzy when you get off that ride. It’s all so complex.

But one common goal for most people who exercise is to build or maintain muscle, and one crucial element to do this is an essential amino acid called leucine, which is found in most protein drinks. Leucine is the key amino acid that stimulates muscle protein synthesis.

Quick fact: Amino acids link up to build different types of protein and play a big role in metabolism. Of the 22 amino acids, eight are considered “essential,” because we mere mortals have to supply ourselves with it from an outside source: food. Our bodies can’t create essential amino acids via other chemical compounds. 

Two papers published in the September 2011 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported on how leucine affects protein synthesis; that is, how cells build proteins in recreational athletes after working out. 

Scientists measured how the body absorbs the leucine in one, big dose of whey protein (25 grams) compared to ten smaller doses of 2.5 grams after exercise, and found that downing the protein all at once increased muscle protein synthesis more than the smaller doses over a period of time.

The deduction? The best time to refuel your body with protein is right after working out or in the “post-activity recovery period,” when it seems leucine has the most affect on stimulating muscle growth. 

But humans cannot live on protein shakes alone. Leucine can be found in other foods like soy protein, almonds, oats, peanuts and wheat germ.

Calzadilla suggests eating low-glycemic carbs (fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts) and quickly absorbed proteins (like whey or egg whites) before you exercise, allowing 30 minutes to an hour of digestion before you get started. If you don’t have time to spare, have an apple and a handful of nuts or string cheese to get fueled up for fitness. 

For your post workout, eat high-glycemic carbs (a banana or baked potato) and protein (fish or poultry are best) within a half hour after working out to help your body recover. 

Burn fat, not muscle

Although studies have shown that working out on an empty stomach burns more fat compared to eating before a workout, “what most people don’t realize,” says Calzadilla, “is that not eating before a workout also burns more muscle tissue compared to eating prior to the workout.”  

A person’s entire nutrition and fitness regimen needs to be taken into consideration to know if they’re likely burning fat rather than muscle. “If someone doesn’t eat before their workout and also consumes excessively low daily calories on a consistent basis, then they can definitely lose muscle,” says Calzadilla. Normally the body will use stored glycogen or carbohydrates when starting a workout and “contrary to popular belief,” he adds, “the body doesn’t compartmentalize in such a way that you’re only burning fat [or] only burning muscle.”

Fuel up, folks, and burn that fat.  

Fun with protein

Delicioso as it is, the same protein drink every day can get old. I’ve asked a few of my recreationally athletic amigos to share their own protein recipes. Go get that blender, you weekend warrior you.

Ben’s post-run smoothie
2.54 oz packet of vanilla
Met-Rx Complete Protein
1 cup berry yogurt
1 cup fresh berries
8-10 oz 2% milk
8-10 oz water
1 banana

Tammy’s whey-good shake 
1 scoop of Muscle Milk whey protein powder
1 cup of frozen fruit (mango, pineapple, papaya or strawberry)
1 handful of spinach/greens
A shake of cinnamon and water or green tea to blend it all together

Ed’s vegan protein shake
Tomato juice
Water
3-4 cups fresh spinach
Squeeze of lemon
1/8-1/4 tsp cayenne pepper to taste
2 tbs olive oil
1 scoop Garden of Life raw protein
Himalayan salt to taste

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