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What foods can improve my stamina while exercising?

"Stamina" is usually defined as the presence of energy that is sustainable over some prolonged amount of time. It's a term that also implies "pushing" yourself a little bit—whether it's pushing yourself in terms of target heart rate or force of exertion or extent of flexibility.

From my perspective, it makes sense to break this issue of "stamina" down into some smaller physiology-related categories. Improved stamina might involve (1) improved cardiovascular function with more efficient delivery of oxygen and nutrients via the bloodstream and maximally efficient stroke volume by the heart; (2) improved muscle function, including contraction of different muscle groups; (3) improved breathing, including improved lung capacity; (4) improved electrolyte balance to optimize intercellular communication and electrical impulse signaling during exercise; (5) improved fuel reserves and fuel reserve access, including glycogen stores in working muscles and access to fatty acids stored up in fat cells; and (6) dozens of other physiologic events that go on to allow our bodies to exercise heartily for longer periods of time.

Given these many different categories of physiologic function, can you possibly imagine any nutrient that wouldn't be essential for improved stamina? Proteins, carbohydrates, fibers, high-quality fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients are all needed in optimal amounts in order for these physiologic functions to take place in the way that increases your stamina. For this reason, from a dietary standpoint our first thought would be to make sure that your diet is meeting all of your nutritional needs across the board. You may want to visit our website section entitled "Healthy Eating For the Entire Family" (http://www.whfoods.com/specialneedstoc.php) and plug yourself into the correct age and gender group as a way of getting started with a detailed diet overview. You can also click on the link in this section for "Athletes" for some detailed information about athletic performance and diet.

In relationship to the physiologic functions described above, there are several nutrient groups you may want to focus on for improved stamina. With respect to your heart and circulation, it's important for you to optimize your intake of antioxidant nutrients, B-complex vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids. These three categories alone usually point in the direction of increased vegetable and fruit intake, together with omega-3 containing nuts, seeds, or fatty fish like salmon.

For muscle support, it is impossible to ignore your protein quality and quantity. With electrolytes, we are talking in part about the mineral quality of your meal plan. Some electrolytes are minerals—including sodium and potassium—that can be lost in substantial amounts when we sweat. (Other minerals that can also be lost through sweat include the antioxidant mineral, zinc.) While many different "electrolyte-replacement" sports drinks are available, you may not need to spend money on these drinks to ensure adequate replacement of electrolytes. In many cases, a well-balanced diet rich in vegetables, nuts, seeds, and other mineral-rich foods can provide an appropriate amount of electrolytes.

Exercise also causes loss of water through sweating and respiration. Some of the water that is lost gets taken from the blood, which can reduce blood volume. If fluid is not replaced during and after exercise, serious dehydration can result, causing an increase in body temperature and impairing heart function. Drinking water is probably the best way to replace fluids. However, some experts believe that it is also necessary to replace lost electrolytes. You'll want to focus on water intake both during and after your workout.

Glycogen is the form in which carbohydrate is stored in our muscle cells. The practice of "carbohydrate loading"—often discussed on the Internet—is a diet strategy that forces your muscle cells to store up more glycogen. However, since glycogen only becomes the primary exercise fuel when you reach about 75% of your maximum oxygen consumption capacity (called VO2 max), you're unlikely to need or benefit from this practice unless you're a high-endurance athlete or in training for some specific type of event. For the rest of us, there is no real research basis for focusing on glycogen storage as a way of increasing stamina.

It's also important to remember that the timing of meals can play a key role in your workout stamina. In general, we should always eat the most before we do the most. "Before" in this case means sufficiently earlier in time to allow the food we eat to digest and begin releasing caloric energy and nutrients that our body can use. "Catch-up" eating, in which we are famished after a heavy workout and cannot wait to get food in our stomach, is the kind of eating that might be satisfying from an emotional standpoint, but it doesn't do anything to improve stamina in a workout that took place hours earlier. Even though we have stores of nutrients waiting in reserve throughout our body, our food consumption during a meal plays a key role in our nourishment during the hours that follow. A good meal should tide us over to the next meal, and at the same time, it should supply us with peak nourishment for those activities that we are undertaking between meals. An extremely high-fat meal—with dozens and dozens of fat grams that will not even get fully emptied from our stomach for several hours—is not a good meal to consume prior to a workout. The high fat content will place too much emphasis on digestion and shunting of blood to our digestive tract. But at the other end of the spectrum, an extremely high-sugar meal—with dozens and dozens of sugar grams or grams of simple (highly processed) carbohydrates—isn't going to improve our stamina either. That simple sugar and simple carb energy will get released too quickly.

Figuring out the exact food balance and meal timing for optimal stamina is an individual goal that may take some experimenting. But in general, I recommend that you make sure to include protein-rich and fiber-rich whole, natural foods as part of your meals that precede your workouts.

Although they're not dietary recommendations, I also want to remind you of two other factors that can be important for improving stamina in a lasting ways. These include getting a good night's sleep and having a mindset that allows you to treat your meal plan and your workouts as events to which you enjoy and truly look forward.