Apr 26, 2017
Burst of Energy
Dr. Kris Clark

Many athletes ask me if they should consume energy supplements before a tough workout. I advise them that the best solution to a lack of energy is through whole foods. In a pinch, an energy supplement may work very well, but there are nutrients and vitamins in foods that are important and cannot be found in supplements.

Colorful plant foods, fruits, and vegetables contain highly potent antioxidants that supplements don’t. Broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, peaches, strawberries, and blueberries are just a few examples of foods loaded with plant chemicals that protect cellular membranes and also provide good carbohydrates for energy.

Energizing the mind and body through food takes some forethought and planning on the athlete’s part, and for many, this is tough. Keeping in mind that food must be completely digested, absorbed, and metabolized in the muscle cell to become usable energy, here are some simple suggestions:

Three hours before a workout, an athlete should eat a complete meal that contains carbohydrates, protein, and fats. A good mid-day meal would be a turkey and cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato on whole wheat bread, a salad or piece of fruit, a cup of yogurt, and a glass of milk. An example of a good breakfast three hours prior to a workout is eggs (prepared any way), pancakes with syrup or a bowl of cereal with milk, 100-percent juice or a piece of fruit, and a glass of milk.

If an athlete only has one hour before a practice or game, they should focus on foods heavy on carbohydrates because they are easily digested and available for use faster than proteins and fats. Examples include a bagel or whole wheat bread with jelly and a banana, dry cereal, a sports bar, an energy gel and a half a sports bar, or crackers with honey and jelly and a piece of fruit. All of these possibilities can also include a sports drink with carbohydrates in it.

Not long ago, an athlete on campus reached out to me for advice. Her story illustrates perfectly how the right food choices can make a big impact on performance.

It was a Friday afternoon in January and the athlete, a swimmer, was practicing with the rest of the team in Florida over the holiday break. She sent me three separate text messages listing everything she’d eaten that day, and the fourth message said, “doc–what should i eat next? we practice at 4 & thats gonna be a killer?”

I looked at the clock, saw that she had two and a half hours before practice–just enough time to eat and digest food–and called her. I recommended half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a large handful of pretzels, and at least 16 ounces of a sports drink containing at least 100 milligrams of caffeine. Her text back to me later that night read, “did so good tonight second fastest in the group including the guys love u girl thanks again.”

Carbohydrates were key for the athlete to get immediate energy. She also went into the practice session hydrated so that she wasn’t risking low energy levels due to dehydration.

Kris Clark, PhD, RD, FACSM, is the Director of Sports Nutrition and an Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University, where she coordinates nutrition planning for more than 800 varsity athletes.

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