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Fueling Your Workout

by Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom

I’m often asked what’s the best way to keep your body fueled during exercise. The answer depends on both the intensity of your exercise as well as the duration of the activity.

While many of us feel like professional athletes – we often overestimate the energy going into our physical activity – and our need for extra energy (calories). A lot of sweating is not a reliable index of a heavy workout. And neither is the time spent doing an activity. An easy rule of thumb for activities lasting one hour or less? Drink plain water, and skip the extra fuel (from sports drinks or other sources).

If you’re engaging in longer, more intense activities lasting longer than an hour – activities like biking, running, hiking, and singles tennis – you’ll need to hydrate, along with adding some extra carbohydrate calories and electrolytes (like sodium and potassium). This is easily achieved with a traditional sports drink like Gatorade or Powerade.

Additional protein might be needed to refuel your muscles as well, from depletions in amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in muscle during intense exercise. A glass of low-fat chocolate milk, or a ready to drink protein shake are both easy and convenient choices for a post-work out fluid and protein boost. You might also opt for a post-workout sports drink, containing carbohydrates and protein.

Be honest with yourself when it comes to your intensity and duration of physical activity. Stick with water for the first hour – and if you go beyond that, add a sports drink. For more intense workouts, keep your protein intake up.

Get to know your body – and you’ll be able to get a better sense of when it’s time to refuel. The benefits and enjoyment of physical activity are optimal when you pay attention to your “drink tank”, and keep it filled with the right fluids!

For questions about your specific personal nutritional needs during exercise, check with an exercise physiologist, or a sports nutritionist for advice.