Hey Laura, how should I fuel my workouts?

Kristina writes:

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve started working out really hard in the mornings. I like to get some circuit training in by doing Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred, then I usually try to get more cardio in by hopping on the treadmill, or jogging outside. The problem that I’m running into is that I’m ravenous, and a little light headed by the end. I’m drinking plenty of water (I think) throughout the workout, which makes me think that this is a food/fueling problem. I don’t like to eat before my workouts because I’m not usually hungry, and I feel better while working out if I don’t. But maybe there’s something I should eat, that will fuel my workout without making me feel weird during it. Also, I never know what I can eat after working out that will help the feeling go away/not cancel out all the hard work I just did/ fuel the muscle that I want to build. Can you help?

First of all, good for you for exercising! Secondly, I’m afraid the answer to your issue is simply going to be a matter of experimentation to find out what works for you. There are as many different theories on what works as there are people trying to figure it out. It really is a deeply personal fix.

That said, I have a couple links to smart people discussing fasted workouts. See if you can glean something useful there. You’ll notice that both of these guys are Paleo types. That’s because, in my experience, those are the people whose eating philosophy is closest to The Body As Machine, and take a more scientific approach to fueling that machine. There is less gimmickry involved. And more bacon. What’s not to love?

Mark Sisson, of Mark’s Daily Apple, is a great resource for all things Primal. He is super educated in both theory and experience. Mark’s first recommendation to you would be to become “Fat-Adapted.” That means, to change your diet so that your body starts using fat - instead of sugar - as fuel. This may or may not be an endeavor you’re willing to take; it requires a diet and lifestyle change (basically, becoming Paleo/Primal) that some people find prohibitive.

What does Mark say becoming Fat-Adapted takes? I’ll give you a summary so you can see if you want to click those links.

Ramp up your fat intake.
This will spur your body to increase fat-digesting enzymes that have likely laid rather dormant. Rather than consuming any old fat you can get your hands on, I’d stick to high-nutrient fat – from pastured animals, pastured egg yolks, butter from truly grass-fed cows, red palm oil, extra virgin olive oil – and fat with interesting properties, like MCT and coconut oil (which will ramp up ketone production). It will also “train” your mitochondria to start burning fat for fuel.

Reduce your daily carb intake to about 50 grams if sedentary, 100-150 if you are highly active. Basically, you want to reduce your carb intake relative to your body’s demands.

Avoid lean protein. Eat protein that has fat attached, as a focus on protein (rather than meat, which has both fat and protein) could lead to your body converting excess amino acids to glucose.

Reduce your workout intensity. Don’t try to get fat-adapted while you try to make the CrossFit games, start P90X, do a triathlon, or engage in anything that demands a ton of glucose. It will end badly. Instead, walk a bunch and occasionally lift heavy things. Once you’re fat-adapted, your desire to be active will likely spontaneously increase.

Be nutritionally replete. Make sure you’re not missing out on any of the common nutrient deficiencies.


Another good article I found on this subject is from one of my favorite Paleo food blogs, PaleOMG. Juli is hilarious and profane, and her recipes are really good (her Bacon Lime Sweet Potato Salad is on my menu plan this week!).

This guest post by her friend Jon, a competitive Crossfitter, might help you get a handle on What to Eat, When. He has different recommendations for pre- and post-workout fueling. He doesn’t go into fasted workout territory, but as far as recovery goes, what he has to offer could help you find your solution. If weight loss is your goal, Jon recommends eating protein and carbs post-workout, and relatively less fat (it slows nutrient absorption, and when you’re in recovery mode, your muscles need nutrients, pronto). If you’re in it for weight loss, lower your carbs and focus on protein. Don’t drink your nutrition, either. Make yourself a mess of scrambled eggs with greens, or breakfast sausage and lentils. Last night’s leftovers are usually a good choice for this morning’s breakfasts. 


Bottom line: you’ll probably have to experiment to find out what feels best to you, regarding workout fueling. I would start super small - just a spoonful of coconut butter, or a handful of almonds and raisins. Something nutrient dense that won’t jiggle around in your tummy while you run. See how you feel with just a hundred extra calories; it may be all that you need.

Hey Laura, I think... Hey Laura, how should I fuel my workouts?

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