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Feeding Your Inner Athlete

What should you eat before you workout? Unless you're a professional athlete, you don't have to plan your meals with a calculator. All that's needed is a sensible and varied diet comprised of the major food groups — carbohydrates for quick energy, protein to rebuild muscles, and fat for long-term energy.

Nevertheless, caloric needs vary greatly between a 100-pound runner and a 200-pound bodybuilder. Calculating the increased energy requirements needed to get you out the door can seem complicated, and poor choices may lead to poor performance.

Beyond the Food Pyramid

We asked two leading sports nutritionists — Susan Kleiner, author of "Power Eating," and Carol Coughlin, author and spokesperson for the Massachusetts Dietetic Association — how they rate the Food Pyramid as a tool in helping structure a daily fitness-friendly diet.

According to Kleiner, it has some good broad-brush concepts, but there is one change she makes specifically for athletes. "Athletes need to think of sugars as separate and distinct from fats. The Pyramid groups them together, but they aren't metabolized in the same way by our bodies. I think of sugar as the other carbohydrate for athletes." Coughlin agrees that the Pyramid is a good starting point — especially for someone new to good nutrition — but stresses that loose interpretation can lead to disaster. "After all, technically French fries are a vegetable."

Don't Confuse Hunger with Thirst

You're feeling a bit drowsy as you head for your afternoon aerobics class. Instead of stopping for coffee on the way, grab a bottle of water instead — you could be dehydrated. A sure-fire way to ruin a workout, dehydration can cause nausea, headache, and muscle cramps during exercise.

Kleiner recommends drinking water if your goal is weight loss and sports drinks if your goal is performance. She suggests eight to 10, eight ounce servings of fluid a day, "and that's if you're just lying on the couch!"

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Fueling Up for Fitness

"Some people just don't like to eat breakfast, while others can tolerate some juice and toast. Do what feels right," says Coughlin. "If you are working out during your lunch hour, you probably have to settle for something quick. Don't worry, just try to eat better at dinner."

  • Eat light, about 1/2 hour or more before any workout-morning, mid-day, or evening — so that your body isn't diverting blood to your digestive tract to digest the meal, it's using it to help get oxygen to your muscles.
  • The best bet is a serving of carbohydrates with a bit of protein and maybe a little fat, like: a bagel with peanut butter, cold cereal with milk, half a sandwich, a glass of juice and some pretzels.
  • If you are going to exercise for a prolonged period, say an hour or more, bring along a sports drink or piece of fruit for during your run, bike ride, or other activity.
  • If you are just doing a short aerobics class or short session of weight training, what you eat matters less than what you drink; the most important thing is to get enough fluid.

This article was contributed by Andrea Rouda

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