It’s weird to post about what I eat pre- and post-workout as I haven’t actually run a full on stressor since just before my “injury” put me down, but I’m under sponsorship obligation to do so regardless. Ok, not really, but since the question was asked, I don’t mind answering. Not to mention, my diet isn’t that drastically different when I’m not putting in the preferred mileage compared to when I am, save a few depression induced root beers, homemade cookies and pints of soy ice cream episodes. Anyways, specifically I was asked about early morning pre-workout foods, because there is that issue of wake-up hunger, but also that disaster of feeling overly full during a difficult workout such as a long run or intervals.
My running schedule, personally, has changed since I got a job that requires early morning hours and therefore I don’t get to run in the morning but 2 days a week, even though that is my preferred time to run. I like feeling light before a run and knowing that I don’t have a lot of food digesting while my innards get jostled around a bit. I just run better when it’s the first thing on my daily agenda. Regardless, I do get to run early a couple days a week and despite the difference in the run, either a long run consisting of 20 miles, sometimes with a dose of speed thrown in, or just an easy 10 to 12 recovery run, my eating habit is pretty much the same, which is to say…not much.
The body does a good job of digesting the previous days contents overnight, so my main concern has always been about getting rid of the excess. For me, 1 cup of coffee usually does the trick. 1 and a half if I have a little trouble. I know drinking a hot cup of coffee before a run sounds like a turn-off for some people, but any hot liquid usually gets things going. Also, there have been a number of studies that have shown increased performance when an athlete drinks a cup of coffee within an hour before a run. Plus, when you are getting out the door early, a cup of coffee isn’t going to be heavy enough to be noticeable during the run…it’s just hydration is all, which is, of course, not a bad idea. Just make sure you visit the boys/girls room before you head out….trust me.
Depending on the type of workout I don’t just go out with a cup of coffee, unless it is just a simple easy run. If it’s a long run or something with both distance and speed I always put something in my system, not because I feel I need it right then, but because 90 minutes into the run that hunger feeling will hit and then the workout starts to go downhill. In order to avoid that I always fuel up with a good mix of primarily carbs and a touch of protein to get that satiated feeling. This, for me, means either 1/2 an english muffin (or bagel) with peanut butter (sometimes with margarine too…don’t knock it, it’s tasty!) or a full english muffin with peanut butter. That early in the morning, it just doesn’t give that overly full feeling, but will help sustain you later in the run. The carbs are the initially firing energy and the protein is for muscle strength and that “full enough” feeling. Also, I’m of the school of thought that you shouldn’t necessarily carbo-load just before a run. Carb intake is important for an athlete on a consistent basis, but “loading” I save for races. I do this because when you train on a diet of normal nutritional intake, you essentially train the body to run on the energy stored and then to burn body fat. If you carbo-load consistently, your body only responds to the carb energy and burns that through and through, leaving the body’s excess and fat to remain intact. If you leave the tank less than full the body will burn through the carbs and then begin burning the body’s fat and utilize that as an energy source, which has both endurance benefits as well as weight-loss benefits. What you DON’T want, however, is the body to burn through carb energy, then fat energy and finally have to rely on muscle. When you get to that point, you’ve burned off all the healthy energy and started destroying your muscular systems, which drop your immediate performance goals and force you to rely on extended recovery times while your muscles build themselves back up, cutting into crucial training time. The goal is to burn energy and burn fat, but not expend so much that you’ve burned into muscle…just ask most marathoners how that feels.
I know it’s difficult to head out into a run or workout when you feel depleted and weak, but I’ve actually found that such a feeling in the stomach tends to be more of a false hunger than an actual deficiency. Look at it as your body following an expected routine and just giving you the high-sign that the routine has begun, but know that you can skip that part of the routine or stave it until later. I’ve actually found that once you actually start running, depending on the type of workout, the hunger that was nagging at you since you woke disappears as soon as you start turning over your legs. Whatever hunger I feel prior to a run is quickly forgotten as soon as I start running. Sometimes, when I’m finished with work, I’m completely famished and feel like I can barely ride my bike the 9 blocks home and I’m still facing a 10 mile run and my instinctual urge is to eat as soon as I walk in the door, but I know that will have unpleasant consequences during the run. Cramps, heaviness, bloating, etc. However, even with the feeling, as soon as I start in on the run it goes away and I’m running on stored food energy from earlier in the day and any body fat that might be needed. Of course, when I get home I’m all ready for a solid dinner, but it wasn’t like I was stumbling over myself with fatigue while out on the run. You just have to trust the body to perform when the time comes, and the meal can come later.
Ultimately, my advice, when it comes to eating before a workout is to go light. Make sure you’ve eaten properly the night before or in the morning if your workout is later in the afternoon/evening and the energy you need for the run will be there. It may not feel like it at first, but it will be there once you start in. Your muscles might be fatigued from earlier workouts in the week, but no amount of eating is going to fix that.
Then there is eating after the run. During the workout you’ve used up carb energy and stressed your muscle fibers to the point that you’ve created microscopic tears in your muscles. It sounds bad, but that’s the process of growing. It’s like when The Hulk gets huge and rips his shirts at the seams, but if you were to then come and sew more fabric into the ripped portions, he could wear it again. Then if he grows again and rips the crap out of it, you sew more fabric back in. That’s what happens to your muscles during exercise. You tear the fibers and the protein you take back into your body through foods generates the cell growth that fill in those tears, effectively making your muscles bigger. If you aren’t getting enough protein (which is difficult to do..not get it that is) then you have nothing to fill those muscle tears with and the muscle doesn’t repair or get bigger. You just sit around in pain for awhile. So, after a run you have two concerns, replenishing the carbohydrates you burned during the run and rebuilding muscle fiber tears with protein. It has been shown that the body is most responsive and most absorbent of these nutrients within a 1/2 hour window of exercise, so it’s incredibly important to ALWAYS take in something just after a run. The recommended ratio is a 4 to 1 carb to protein intake, but don’t stress over the math of it all and don’t limit yourself to concentrating solely on carbs and proteins…there are many other nutrients that help recovery and growth as well (potassium, calcium, etc.).
With this in mind, after a run, after I’ve cooled down for a bit and performed some light stretching I go straight to the fridge for liquid replenishment and nutrient replenishment. If I’m lucky Michelle has made me an awesome smoothie with fruit, soy milk, peanut butter, and flax meal or almond meal or something of the like. Sometimes she’ll add a hemp protein powder or something into it, but not consistently (that stuffs expensive). I just make sure to have some peanut butter with whatever I eat afterwards, whether that’s a smoothie, a banana, or what have you. If I have a Clif Bar around I’ll eat one of those as well since they contain a solid 4 to 1 ratio, but usually I need something more substantial. Smoothies really are great as they digest quickly, are easy to get down and nutrient dense. If you don’t have the patience for a smoothie, then a sports drink of some kind (only AFTER a run) and a banana with some peanut butter is pretty sufficient until you get a solid meal in later.
So in a nutshell (I prefer pistachio thank you) I suggest eating light (if at all) before a run, despite the hunger in your belly (run it away!) and post-run eat a substantial snack with appropriate nutrient ratios to replenish your system before eating a solid meal, whether that is breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Oh, and always make it vegan, for ethical reasons if not nutritional.
I hope this helps.
Quick status update
I’m still plugging away at my strength exercises and doing a back and forth rotation of cycle training or cycle training and running on grassy terrain. The leg is feeling stronger and doing better, but I still have a ways to go as I feel it swell after my runs. Fortunately it’s not to the point that it keeps me from running, but I still have to take it slow as I build the leg up. I hope this is progress, but it’s still too early to tell. At least I’m getting out there and releasing that emotional pressure. I hope for continued positive reports for you (and me!).