For most athletes our ability to fit in quality workouts is limited by work, family, and life obligations as well as meal-times. If your workout window falls too early in the morning, at lunch or late into the evening you may risk feeling unmotivated by hunger. We’re less driven to exercise when our stomach’s are not satiated. But eating before exercise can cause digestive distress. For busy athletes, fueling for the “hour of power” is truly a fine art to master.
Strava athletes Kristin and Galen Burrell, (a speech language pathologist and an architectural lighting designer) work from home, have two little kids and their usual work schedule of conference calls, web conferences, client meetings and design sessions become intertwined with nap, family, trail and meal-times.
How do these two busy parents find time to juggle it all?
“We take shifts to fit in runs,” says Kristin. “One person wakes and runs early then we all eat breakfast when they return. The other wakes later with our children, we all enjoy breakfast together, and then the other will run mid-morning or whenever it fits.”
Their schedule may sound complex, but the solutions the Burrell’s use to find time to fit in and fuel their runs are quite simple; below are three straightforward strategies you can use to ensure you’re powered up when it matters most.
Plot Your Plan of Attack
Review your schedule the night before to determine when you’ll aim to fit in a workout. Then, plot meals and snacks to suit the timing of your workout. This may mean you need to spend some extra time to pack a lunch or prepare a snack without any at-work preparation or a take-out pit stop (and so you can, um, fit in a shower too?!) Since Kristin schedules her workout mid-day while the children nap, it’s important for her to eat a bigger breakfast so her body has had a chance to digest by the time she heads out. “I have coffee and breakfast (a bowl of oatmeal, or muesli, maybe a waffle) around 8am,” she says.
“My run is usually about 1:00pm so mid-morning (11am or so) I’ll have a quick and easy snack…something like nut butter on a sliced banana or graham crackers. Then, I’ll make and eat lunch when I return, typically a hodgepodge of what sounds good from the fridge; usually it’s some veggies, a grain and probably protein. Also, chocolate. Always chocolate.”
Make it work for you: Make sure to carve out time to prepare — and eat — a proper meal at before and a small, balanced snack after your workout. Learn what your body needs and plan ahead.
Get Powered Up
The snacks and meal you plan will be determined by what your caloric needs will be, the type of workout you’re executing and the types of foods you enjoy and have readily available. To do this, ask yourself these two questions:
Are you hungry? Did you eat breakfast within 3 hours of your workout? A mid-morning snack may not be necessary. But, if you ate breakfast very early and are working out later in the afternoon a snack is crucial for fueling a quality training session.
What type of workout are you doing? For high-intensity efforts, you’ll likely want to eat an early, balanced breakfast and then a very light, easy to digest snack that your body can assimilate quickly later in the morning before you head out. “If I’m feeling hungry before and I’m worried about my energy on the run, I might take a bite of granola bar to take the edge off as I’m headed out the door, but definitely want to end my run hungry and don’t want to start with my body focusing on digesting instead of running,” says Kristin. Then, when you return, plan to consume a recovery meal heavy in carbohydrates with some protein and fat (to replace glycogen stores and to help your body rebuild, and keep you sated for the remainder of the day).
Perhaps instead you’re headed out for a tempo run or a steady-state effort. Because your intensity will be lower, you may be able to eat a more substantial snack but you’ll want to consume it early enough that your body can digest it. A banana with almond butter or small handful of carrots and hummus eaten at least 30 minutes before your run would be good choices. For these lower-intensity sessions, your recovery meal needn’t be so carbohydrate heavy as your glycogen stores likely won’t be nearly as depleted. In this case, choose something fresh, clean, and healthy that has a nice balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
Make it work for you: Consider how hungry you are and think critically about the type of workout you’ll be doing. Your body requires different nutrients to fuel a high-intensity workout than it does a steady state or lower-intensity workout. No matter what sort of workout you’re doing, have a balanced breakfast at least 1.5-2 hours before you plan to workout.
Learn Your Needs
The secret to “Hour of Power” success lies in learning what your body needs, evaluating the time and effort you can put into meal and snack preparation, and then planning your meals and snacks around those needs. Once you know your preferences, and the nutrients you need to power your workouts, you can diversify your real food options. Any food is capable of fueling your “Hour of Power,” if your body agrees with it. If your option is the entire cornucopia, then, how do you choose what meals and snacks to prepare? Kristin and Galen agree that this has more to do with intuition than prescription. “We are not very precise with our fueling strategies, rather we rely on intuition and cravings to guide us to what feels right,” says Galen. “There is an element of experience that comes into play as well, because over time you learn from mistakes and what works and doesn’t work for your body — what to eat, and when to eat it.” Kristin agrees, “We don’t really talk about foods being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ This works for us because while we like to spend loads of time talking about food and eating it, and what we are eating isn’t really that complicated. Our style of cooking is kind of a mix and match game according to what’s fresh at the market or what one of us might be craving.”
And the Burrell’s are onto something; just the same way that your sense of thirst indicates that your body’s electrolyte and water balance is off, listening to the foods you’re craving can give you intuitive information about what nutrients your body needs as well. “If I’m craving meat, then I probably need the protein and iron and then I will incorporate some high-quality steak or lamb into dinner that night.” Listening to the cravings for fat (a big bowl of macaroni and cheese!) or carbohydrates (that beautiful pastry in the coffee shop) are important too; your body needs fat, and complex carbohydrates to replace glycogen, rebuild and recover from your workouts.
Make it work for you: Don’t listen to the “should do’s” when it comes to nutrition. Experiment with different foods and with timing your snacks and meals. Listen to your body’s cravings and respond to them. And remember there are no “bad” foods, just bad food habits.
Pre-run meals: Many athletes digestive systems agree with a schedule where they eat a hearty meal roughly 1.5-2 hours before they exercise. You want this meal to contain a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat so it sticks with you through the morning and until you have a chance to fit in your workout. Looking for some ideas? Try:
— A hearty bowl of oatmeal
— A small bowl of yogurt, granola and fresh fruit
— Banana with nut butter
Pre-run snacks: Depending on how sturdy your stomach, the workout you’re about to complete and your caloric needs, this snack can vary. For most athletes, this is a small, but nutritionally packed bite consumed at least 30 minutes before exercise. Something like:
— A small handful of crackers or apple slices with cheese
— A small handful of carrots or fresh bread with hummus
— Avocado Toast
After: There are few better feelings than coming home from a run or a ride feeling hungry for a meal. There’s something about that hunger that completes the cycle of a healthy active lifestyle. That said, learning to listen to what your body is craving is your best way to learn what sort of meal to recover with. Regardless of what you’re craving, aim to consume your post-workout meal within the first hour after activity, when your body is hunting to resynthesize glycogen and refuel muscles. Make that meal a well-balanced one, with some complex carbohydrates, protein and fat as well as lots of color.
— A big bowl of Delicata and Kale Salad w/orzo and chicken
— A bowl of soup with toast (like this Cambodian Lemongrass + Noodle Soup, or your favorite Chicken Noodle)
— A kitchen sink salad, with fresh vegetables, quinoa and eggs (or whatever you have in the fridge)