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Eating for Your Best Workout

 

Whatever you do, don't do this.

Whatever you do, don’t do this.

Today’s post about eating for your best workout is courtesy of a special guest writer, Alyse Levine, MS, RD, who is a LIVESTRONG.COM nutrition advisor and founder of NutritionBite LLC.

Whether you’re hitting the gym for 30 minutes or are training for a triathlon, what you eat can greatly impact your performance. The base of any active person’s diet should consist of unprocessed, wholesome foods and incorporate a mixture of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

What to Eat for Workouts

Eat your carbs. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source and are crucial for endurance exercise and optimal performance. They provide fuel for the muscles and help prevent fatigue. Whole grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, legumes, and nonfat or low-fat milk and yogurt are all great sources of carbs. Fruits and vegetables are also packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber, as well as phytochemicals and antioxidants that help withpost-exercise recovery and muscle repair. Basically, they’re fuel for you!

Protein packs a punch. Protein is also a necessary component of an athlete’s diet and is critical for muscle building and recovery. Lean protein sources include white meat poultry, fish, lean beef, eggs, nuts, nut butters, beans, cheese and soy. However, more protein does not mean better performance, so get off the high protein-low carbohydrate diet bandwagon! When it comes to animal protein, a serving should fit in the palm of your hand. Also, to stimulate muscle growth, it is best to evenly distribute your protein intake throughout the day, rather than eating a very large portion at one meal.

Do not fear fat! Fat is another essential component of an exerciser’s diet. Opt for mostly good fats, such as olive oil, canola oil, nuts, nut butters and avocado. Also, aim to eat fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna and sardines) two to three times a week to get a good dose of omega-3 fatty acids, which help decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. Limit unhealthy fats such as fried foods, fatty meats and full-fat dairy products.

When to Eat It

Before exercise. Eating too much or too little before exercising may hamper your performance. Eating too much can cause you to feel sluggish or have an upset stomach, cramping or diarrhea. (Um, not fun!) This happens when both your muscles and your digestive system are competing for energy to do their jobs. On the other hand, not eating before you exercise can leave you feeling weak, tired or faint due to low blood sugars. (Also no picnic!)

When planning your pre-workout meals and snacks, time when you eat with how much and what you eat. Eat large meals three to four hours before working out and have smaller meals two to three hours prior. When eating close to a workout, reach for carbohydrate-rich foods with a little bit of lean protein. To help prevent GI distress, avoid foods that are high in fiber, sugar or fat, and foods that cause gas—all of which may cause indigestion. (Again, not fun.)

During exercise. If your workout lasts less than an hour, no food or sports drink is necessary—plain old water is sufficient (see below for specific hydration tips). In fact, if your workouts are not longer than an hour and weight-loss or maintenance is one of your goals, consuming calories during your workout will likely counter (and may even exceed) your calorie burn during the workout! However, if your workout is longer than an hour, then you may need to replenish with carbohydrates and electrolytes in addition to fluids during the workout (a sports drink would work).

After exercise. To help your muscles recover and replace their glycogen (AKA carbohydrate) stores, eat a meal or snack that contains both carbohydrates and protein within one to two hours of your exercise session. Examples of good post-workout meals or snacks include an appropriate portion of:

  • Peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich
  • Fruit salad with yogurt
  • Turkey, cheese and apple slices
  • Hummus on pita
  • Minestrone soup with crackers and cheese

Drink up. Proper hydration is just as important as proper nutrition in promoting ideal performance—before, during and after exercise. While under-hydration is dangerous, there are also dangers to over-hydration. Hyponatremia, a condition caused by over-hydration, can lead to fatigue, nausea, confusion and possibly death. The chart below contains guidelines to help ensure that you are maintaining a good fluid balance. You can monitor your water intake (and your food and fitness activities!) with MyPlate, a calorie and fitness tracker on LIVESTRONG.COM.

Water Timing

TimingAmount of Water
2 hours before workout2 cups
10-15 minutes before workout1-2 cups
Every 15-20 minutes during workout1/3 – ½ cup
Immediately after workout1-3 cups*

*If concerned about whether or not you are rehydrating appropriately, weigh yourself without clothes on before and immediately after your workouts; for every pound lost drink 2 cups of water. This amount will vary depending on sweat rate, the temperature, humidity and your workout duration and intensity.

When it comes to eating and exercise, every Fit Bottomed Girl is unique, so modify the above general recommendations with your unique food preferences and tolerances. Let your experience guide you on which pre- and post-exercise snacks and meals work best for you. Happy eating! —Alyse Levine

A big thanks to Alyse for the tips! —Jenn

FTC disclosure: We often receive products from companies to review. All thoughts and opinions are always entirely our own. Unless otherwise stated, we have received no compensation for our review and the content is purely editorial. Affiliate links may be included. If you purchase something through one of those links we may receive a small commission. Thanks for your support!

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3 Comments
  1. Lesley says:

    Do you have any suggestions for early-morning exercisers? I like to get my run in before it gets too hot, but I find it hard to decide how to fuel my body – after all, I can’t eat 2 hours ahead of time!

  2. Mimi says:

    I sometimes run in the morning or spin etc. I just eat about 200-250 calories depending on how intense and long my workout. Oatmeal and fruit, a vita top and yogurt, a protein bar with or without fruit. No problem working out after eating something that small…..

  3. Anita says:

    The very first thing I do every morning is drink a glass of water before I even get out of bed. (Insulated container with some ice, and it’s still cool by morning.) It’s like I make a deal with myself, “You don’t have to get up yet. You just have to sit up and drink your water.” Then I’m fine for an early morning workout, as long as I eat right after. My favourite breakfast is a banana and peanut butter. I scoop out the peanut butter and spread it bite-by-bite.