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High Performance Fueling: How to Eat to Train Hard and Perform at a High Level

It was about 11AM and I asked the group of high school athletes I was training what they had eaten.


All three of them.

I was shocked.

How could these athletes come in to workout without eating anything beforehand to fuel themselves?

Then I remembered what I was like in high school. We NEVER talked about nutrition (at least that I remember). I had no idea what a protein or a carb was, and I definitely didn’t eat well enough to support the training I was doing.

If I had eaten better, I would’ve been bigger, faster, and stronger. I just didn’t know any better. These athletes were the same way when they walked in that day.

But they weren’t that way when they walked out.

What the heck is a carb, and why should I care?

I’m no electric car expert, but I do know the electric engine is relatively weak.

Electricity does the trick if you’re just put-putting around town, but when you need to punch it the engine uses gasoline because it provides more energy. Electricity doesn’t provide enough juice to accelerate the car fast enough, so the engine has to call in the big dog: gas.

Our bodies are surprisingly similar to engines. Just like an electric car has two energy sources—electricity and gas—so do we. Doing explosive activity like sprinting, jumping, and weight lifting is like putting the petal to the metal. You’re flooring it, and just like in the Prius, electricity isn’t going to cut it.

You need to call in the big dog: carbohydrates.

Carbs have gotten a bad wrap these last few years.

That was so last decade.

Carbs are your body’s jet fuel, so if you don’t have enough in your system you’ll feel sluggish and you’ll be slower and weaker than you would with carbs.

How many carbs do I need, and what types of foods have them?

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends 2.3 – 2.7 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight for non-endurance athletes like football players, basketball players, baseball players, and athletes weight lifting in the off-season. To calculate that range, take your body weight and multiply it by 2.3 and then by 2.7.

For endurance athletes, like those in cross country the distance events in track and field, 3.6 – 4.5  grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight is the NSCA’s recommendation.

But unless you’re counting your calories, or have a chef doing it for you like the pro’s do, those numbers aren’t super helpful. What is helpful is knowing what foods have carbohydrates so you know what to eat before and after workouts to make sure your body’s gas tank is full.

Just about any food that isn’t meat has carbohydrates in it. Fruits are packed with carbs, and so are grains like breads, tortillas, and pitas.

Most of the foods that get labeled “bad” are packed with carbohydrates also—candy, soda, fruit juice, ice cream, cake, pie, etc.

Obviously, there is a spectrum of healthy choices to be considered. A bowl of berries and a banana is a more nutritious option than a Snicker’s bar, even if they have the same amount of carbohydrates, because the fruit has more vitamins and minerals.

But if it came down to eating nothing or having a Snicker’s before the workout, I wouldn’t think twice about eating the candy.

And not just because I like Snicker’s bars. Because I don’t want my gas tank half empty going into a workout!

When should I eat carbs?

Eat at least half an hour before exercise. There are no absolute guidelines on how many carbohydrates to eat, but before and after exercise are the times to eat a lot of them.

Again, you want to exercise on a full gas tank—not necessarily a full tummy, but at least a full gas tank—and after exercise, when your tank is near empty, you want to refill it.

Thus, eating carbs at least a half an hour before exercise and directly after exercise ensures your body is taken care of and ready to train at a high level.

What about protein and fat?

Just about everyone knows protein is important.

Protein is what our muscles are made out of. If you want to build muscle, you have to eat enough protein.

It’s also important to our bodies in many other ways, like making sure our organs are working at full capacity.

Back to the electric car analogy: if carbohydrates are our gasoline, then fat is our electricity.

When you’re not exercising, your body is primarily using fat to fuel, just like a Prius uses electricity (not gas) when it’s going slow or idling at a stop light.

What are the healthy options?

This infographic from Precision Nutrition does a great job of showing the range of healthiness in food choices. It separates the foods into three categories—protein, fats, and carbohydrates—and shows the healthiest options (labeled “Eat More”), the least healthiest options (“Eat Less”), and the options that are in between (“Eat Some”).

This infographic is taken from this website.

What about those high school athletes we started this blog post with?

They got a little education that day.

They decided to start eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before workouts. Not the healthiest option in the world, but MUCH better than nothing. I didn’t argue one bit when that’s what they said they’d eat.

The next time they were in, two out of three them posted their second best numbers of all time in their workout.

Being properly fueled is a requirement if you want to train at your full potential. If you aren’t fueled well, you can’t train as hard, and the results you get are limited.

If you’re going to put in the time and energy to train, you may as well get the most out of it.

Even a simple PB&J could be the difference maker that takes your performance to the next level.