Essential Sports Nutrition


Pre-workout: To eat or not to eat?

One of the greatest challenges for an endurance athlete is translating the fitness gained in training into a great race day result. Interestingly, far too many athletes don't compete based on repeated training-related decisions. As an example, many (if not most) athletes tend to underfuel in training and overfuel before and during race day. To feel confident for race day, you need to feel confident with your training-related nutrition decisions. Therefore, train like you want to compete.

It seems obvious that if you want to excel on race day, you should make repeated decisions in training that help you prepare for your upcoming race. Rushed and busy schedules, poor planning, misguidance from social media "experts", a complicated relationship with food and the body and unhealthy lifestyle habits make it easy to check off workouts without making significant gains in performance. Unfortunately, athletic success doesn't occur when you are a dedicated exerciser who just checks off workouts. You must give 100% into your training, which means focusing on any and every aspect that will help your body better adapt (and recover) from training stress.

Because different nutritional training methods can be used to obtain specific goals, I'm not here to tell you that you have to eat before your workout. However, I feel it's essential to focus on every way possible to achieve a high level of quality training to optimize long-term training adaptations and overall health. Despite clear benefits of pre-workout carbohydrate ingestion on improved performance, mental focus, immune system health and longevity in sport, athletes still refuse to intentionally not eat before early morning workouts. Here are the most common reasons why:
  1. I need to burn fat for fuel - In my opinion, this is the number one reason why athletes intentionally restrict/avoid consuming carbohydrates before an early morning workout. The primary science behind fasting relates to its metabolic effects - by working out on an empty stomach, fat burning is enhanced. Although there are several different approaches to manipulate the diet in an effort to train the muscles to more readily use fat as a substrate, let's put science aside for a second and look beyond a cellular level. As an athlete, your training is designed to prepare you for your upcoming event - not prepare you for a weight loss competition. Will a small difference in your body fat percentage make a significant difference in your race day performance? Additionally, training yourself to become a great fat burner doesn't always equate to being a great athlete on race day for so many factors affect your race day performance. It's unlikely that your body fat percentage or fat burning capabilities are your primary limiter for why you are unable to perform to your potential on race day. As you balance work, family/kids, training and a busy life, you must ask yourself if optimizing fat oxidation by not eating before an early morning workout is making a substantial difference in your athletic development? Keeping in mind that most athletes nullify the effects of a fasted workout by being sedentary throughout the day, skipping meals (or overeating) and skimping on restful sleep, I feel it's better to fuel to perform a quality training session. If you aren't putting effort into your sleep, eating, hydration and recovery habits, the occasional or regular fasted training session could be hurting your performance, more than it's helping.
  2. I feel nauseous and lightheaded when I eat before a workout - Whereas not eating before an early morning workout may cause a drop in blood sugar (due to low liver glycogen stores), eating carbohydrates in the hour before exercise can cause reactive (or rebound) hypoglycemia. I actually suffer from this and will often get a bit lightheaded in the 15-20 minutes before/during my workout. However, it always goes away and has no impact on my performance. Symptoms include weakness, nausea and dizziness in the first 20 minutes of exercise. Certainly one would think these symptoms would have a negative impact on performance but that's not always the case. Interestingly, some athletes are more sensitive to carbohydrate feedings than others and some athletes are more sensitive to even the slightest drop in blood sugar than others so the key is understanding your body and what works best for your body. Not eating is not the only solution. If you suffer from reactive hypoglycemia, the solution is not to skip the pre-workout meal as you need to figure out the best way to fuel for your longer sessions and upcoming events. A better strategy is to figure out what, how much and when to eat. I suggest to choose lower glycemic carbohydrates that elicit less of a glycemic response and to combine with a little fat and protein to help slow down digestion in the 90 minutes before exercise. You can also try sipping on a sport drink in the 30 minutes before exercise (continue to sip periodically throughout the first 5-20 minutes of training). Because the symptoms of low blood sugar can often be confused with low blood pressure, it's important for athletes (especially female athletes when menstruating) to focus on pre workout sodium and fluid intake as well as rehydration strategies post workout.
  3. I don't have enough time to eat before a morning workout or I have no appetite to eat so early in the morning - This makes sense. If an athlete is waking up at 4am and working out at 430am, is there even enough time to digest a meal? Should you force yourself to eat even if you aren't hungry? The answer to this question goes back to the beginning of this blog - setting yourself up for quality training sessions. If you are an athlete who wakes up at 4am for a workout, your first focus is on getting enough sleep prior to the workout to ensure an upcoming quality training session. Seven to eight restful hours of sleep is encouraged for athletes so if you are falling asleep by 8pm and can sleep restfully through the night, my advice is to push back the workout by 15 minutes to allow a good 30-45 minutes to digest a pre workout snack of 100-200 calories before a one+ hour workout. If the workout is only 30-60 minutes, you can simply sip on a 100ish calorie sport drink in the 5-10 minutes before the workout and continue to sip throughout the training session to offset depleted liver glycogen stores from the overnight fast. If you struggle to eat before a workout due to no appetite, it's worth exploring your eating patterns/choices throughout the day (and through the late evening). Ideally, you want to train yourself not to overeat in the evening so you can wake-up feeling somewhat empty in the stomach. The body's normal digestive rhythm can be trained (so can the appetite). Once again, not eating will not sure a quality training session, especially if the workout is intense or of high duration. And don't get me started on the sleep deprived athlete who sacrifices sleep in order to train....
  4. My stomach gets upset if I eat before a morning workout - Just like you train your muscles, the gut needs time to be trained. Some athletes can eat a big meal in the 20 minutes before a workout whereas other athletes feel uncomfortable by the thought of food in the belly before a workout. First off, it's important to focus on your inner dialogue and the thoughts that may be stressing you out when it comes to eating before a workout. "I feel fat, I don't like food in my belly, I need to lose weight..." can actually increase the risk for digestive distress. It's important to develop a healthy relationship with food and see food as a way to enhance your performance and health. Food is not the enemy. Not eating before a workout doesn't make you a fitter, stronger, healthier or faster athlete. It's ok to feel food in your belly before a workout.
    If you are suffering from a more serious issue such as loose stools, nausea, diarrhea, etc. a slow, step-by-step process is needed. First off, avoid high fiber/fat foods in the 6-8 hours before you go to sleep the night before an early morning workout. Secondly, make sure you are well hydrated during the day and consuming adequate fiber consumption in the daily diet to promote healthy and regular bowel movements. Next, I suggest to start training your gut by consuming a very small portion of a low residue food, like saltine crackers, applesauce or a rice cake in the 30-45 minutes before a very easy workout. As you build up a tolerance, try these foods before more intense sessions. Then, work your way up with more calories and try out different food options. Lastly, you need to train your bowels so that you can go to the bathroom before you workout, which may require that you eating standing up, move around before you start your workout, drinking something hot/warm before your workout or planning a pit stop in the first 10-15 minutes of your workout. Overtime, your digestive system should become more regular so that you are not compromised by digestive issues during your training session. Constipation, stress, poor sleep, a nutrient-poor diet and traveling through multiple time zones can through off you bowel movements so be mindful of how your body is impacted by your day-to-day lifestyle habits. 
For more information on nutrient timing, I dedicated three (very detailed) chapters to this topic in my book Essential Sports Nutrition. 


Are you struggling with pre-workout fueling?

Pre-workout nutrition advice is confusing. The main reason for so much conflicting advice and recommendations (to eat or not to eat) relates to conflicting research studies. Because of the many different study designs, using trained, untrained and elite athletes, it's nearly impossible to compare results to prescribe one general pre-exercise fueling strategy.

Interestingly, most athletes will perform better when eating a small snack before an early morning workout - regardless of the intensity and duration of exercise. However, there are reasons why athletes will struggle when eating before an early morning workout - specifically digestive issues and reactive hypoglycemia.

As a Board Certified Sport Dietitian, my practice revolves around helping athletes eat in a way that fosters improved performance in training and on race/event day. At Trimarni, our focus is to help athletes experience athletic excellence without compromising health. Therefore, when prescribing strategies to optimize performance, I'm always looking at ways where nutrition can better help an athlete adapt to training stress, reduce risk for illness and injury and enhance recovery, without compromising mental and physical health.

If you spend time wandering around social media, ask for nutrition advice from a personal trainer, browse through fitness and nutrition websites or listen to/read triathlon/running-centric podcasts or forums, there's a good chance that you've heard a lot of discussion and praise for fasted training. In other words, not eating before an early morning workout is good and eating before an early morning workout is bad.

For the average fitness enthusiast who is exercising without purpose or structure, nutrient timing advice may or may not apply. In other words, eating before an early workout may or may not benefit the fitness enthusiast as it relates to performance because the exercise regime is not designed in a way to improve performance. Therefore, health should be the focus when the fitness enthusiast is determining whether or not to eat before an early morning workout.

However, for the athlete (my population), training is likely systematically designed with careful purpose so that each workout has a clear focus in the road map to an upcoming event. There's likely great consideration for the intensity, volume, reps, sets and frequency of workouts that occur within a week and the goal is to perform consistently well while maximizing recovery between sessions. Nutrient timing plays an important role in how the body adapts to training stress. If this sounds like your type of training, dialing in your pre-workout fueling will likely benefit you when you are asking your body to perform, adapt and recover day after day for performance gains.

As for what to eat around workouts for better results, you are in luck. In my book Essential Sports Nutrition, I wrote three chapters on this topic. Chapter 3 is on fueling before exercise. Chapter 4 is on fueling during and after exercise and Chapter 5 is on fueling on rest days. I include food examples and specific guidelines for each type of workout and when it occurs. All your questions about when and what to eat will be answered in my book.

Despite knowing what to eat or that you would probably benefit by eating something before your early morning workout, there are still reasons why athletes struggle with early morning pre-workout nutrition. In my next blog I'll discuss those reasons in more detail.


A Greenville Thanksgiving

I have a lot of great memories of Thanksgiving with my family. Being with my dad, mom and brother (and often extended family) was a special time for it wasn't that often that we would all be together at the table. Since my dad passed away in May 2014, I find myself thinking of all the laughs, good food and memories that we made together as a family on Thanksgiving.

This year was low key for me and Karel. With my mom out of town, we joined the family of my friend (and swimming partner) Kristen for delicious food, stories and laughs. Kristen use to race as a professional Ironman triathlete back in the late 90's so I had a lot of fun scrolling through her scrap books as she reminisced about her past Ironman/triathlon days. 

I yummed over my Thanksgiving plate - it was filled with color and just enough (but not too much) food to leave me satisfied and feeling good in my belly. Pictured above is mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables, a wild rice mix with cranberries and my pomegranate kale mango salad. This is my 26th Thanksgiving as a vegetarian. 

Per tradition, Campy had his Thanksgiving plate. He scarfed it down in a minute and then asked for seconds. 

On Friday morning, I was itching to get outside on my road bike. With the temps barely over 30 degrees, Karel was not keen on this idea. However, he agreed to join me for nearly 3 hours. I don't think the temps got over 32 degrees but luckily we live in a very hilly area so we had plenty of punchy hills to increase our body temp. We managed ~3000 feet elevation gain in 2:46 (43 miles). Karel was grumpy about the cold weather so I made us some homemade teff banana bread when we got home. The roads were empty so it was a perfect morning to be outside - even though it was super cold. 

On Saturday morning, Kristen joined us for a 4000 yard swim at Furman. Anytime we swim with Kristen we know we will have a tough workout as she is super speedy in the water. This was the first time in a while that I felt good in the water so I was really happy with my start to the day. Karel also swam really well and was keeping up with me for the 100's (1:20 down to 1:16).

In the early afternoon, Karel and I headed out for our "long" run. We didn't run together but left around the same time. I went out on my favorite route that starts on rolling hills in the country and finishes on the Swamp Rabbit Trail through Traveler's Rest. I included a few 10 minute steady efforts after my warm-up and finished with smooth, form focused running. Surprisingly, I felt good and found a good rhythm as I listened to triathlon podcasts. 

As I was finishing my run through Traveler's Rest, I noticed that there were a lot of tents set up for Small Business Saturday. I wanted to check them out so as soon as I got home, I had a recovery shake, grabbed Campy (and Karel) and we drove a few miles down the road to check out the local small business vendors. We picked up a few items to give away as holiday gifts. Campy enjoyed a lot of butt rubs and two bags of dog biscuits. 

Since moving to Greenville in May 2014, we have tried to make it a habit to take advantage of all the outdoor activities that Greenville has to offer us in the fall. However, we seem to fail at this habit every year....until this year. We are finally sticking to our plan to hike more in the fall and to enjoy more non-triathlon activities in the fall/winter. While we are still dedicated to our triathlon training, we are making room for those extra activities to keep us outside, enjoying nature. And of course, we can't pass up an opportunity to make memories with Campy. 

Around 9am, we left our house (with our friends/neighbors Tim and Joey) to head to Jones Gap State Park to hike Rainbow Falls. 

It was a perfect day for hiking as it was sunny and in the upper 40's to low 50's. The only downside was the mud/rain that collected on the ground after a downpour on Friday evening. Thankfully, this was only a problem for the first 1/2 mile and then the route cleared up. 

This is a very technical hike that works the quads and the calves with lots of traversing over trees, stairs, rocks and debris. 

In total, this 4.85 mile hike took us 2 hours and 35 minutes. The hike goes uphill to the waterfall and then downhill back to the parking lot. We accumulated 3750 feet of elevation gain according to Karel's Garmin. 

The time passed by as we chatted our way up the hike and marveled over the beautiful sights as we hiked up the mountain. 

Campy was a true sport as he hiked the entire way up and down, jumping over rocks, trees and wooden stairs. I only carried him through a few water sections where he didn't quite understand how to jump on the rocks. His approach was to walk through the cold water. At the age of 11 years, Campy continues to impress us with his endurance, strength and tenacity. 

Because of the recent rain, the waterfall was rushing. It was a beautiful sight and well worth the technical climb up the mountain.  

Thankful for nature, our good health, friends and family, a roof over our head, access to healthy food and clean safe drinking water and Campy. 

Campy is thankful for a bed, blanket and a warm fire. 


Pomegranate Kale salad with Lemon Tahini dressing

If you are looking for tips to eating healthier or getting your diet back on track after overeating, I have one best tip for you: Meal Prep.

Before you start another busy week of life, set aside time today to prepare a few meals (or meal components). Let's get real - when you are completely exhausted, pressed for time, hungry and tired, the last thing you want to do (and will do) is spend time preparing a meal. This is why prep is key. Do the extra work now so that later, it's easy to properly nourish and fuel yourself.

I prepared a delicious salad for Thanksgiving and thought it would make the perfect prep/plan ahead salad for your upcoming week. The best part is the dressing!

Pomegranate Kale salad with Lemon Tahini dressing

6 cups rinsed and chopped kale
Seeds of 1 pomegranate
1 large mango, chopped (or 2 small pears)
1/2 cup chopped pistachios

1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup tahini
3 tbsp GF tamari sauce
3 small cloves garlic (minced)
1 tsp cumin
1/4 cup water
  1. Mix together kale, pomegranate seeds, fruit of your choice (mango or pear) and pistachios in a large Tupperware container. 
  2. In a food processor or blender, mix together ingredients for the dressing.  Pulse into smooth and creamy. 
  3. Pour the dressing into a glass jar. 
  4. When you are ready to eat your salad, serve yourself a hefty portion of the salad and pour dressing (to taste) over the salad. 
  5. Yum! 
For a balanced meal, I suggest to combine this salad with a protein of your choice and a starch/whole grain.

If you are in need of more breakfast/lunch/dinner ideas, check out my book Essential Sports Nutrition for athlete-friendly recipes. We are currently offering a Trimarni Holiday Special