We don’t always make the connection between what we eat and how we exercise. I’ve seen people use exercise as a punishment for overeating. Or use exercise as a free pass to overeat. But how about eating to exercise? What you eat affects how well you move. If you don’t include a balanced diet or skip meals, you may not have enough energy to get through a challenging workout. Or you may cheat yourself from achieving top performance. Have you ever noticed the difference when you feel on top of your workout with amazing energy versus times that you poop out halfway into the routine? Did you skip breakfast and just grab a cup of coffee?
What you eat before, during, and after a workout will depend entirely on how your body performs best. Some people feel best not eating anything before exercise but definitely need a post-workout snack. Others prefer a small snack 30 minutes before the exercise starts. You can experiment with different foods and the timing of when to eat.
If you eat a snack or meal before exercising, choose carbohydrates. Carbs break down into glucose, which digests quickly and therefore fuels the body the quickest. Proteins and fats take longer to digest, so although they can be useful to sustain energy levels later on, they should be included in small amounts. Too much fat can cause bloating or cramps if not fully digested before exercising; also a good idea to avoid too much fiber for the same reason. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests eating about 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram (kg) of body weight one hour before exercising, or 2 grams of carbohydrate per kg body weight two hours before exercising. So, for a 150-pound person, you would divide pounds by 2.2 to convert to kilograms — 150/2.2 = 68 kg x 1 gram carb = 68 gram carb, or the amount in a cinnamon raisin bagel.
How long and how intense you exercise and how much you sweat can increase or decrease the amount of pre-workout fuel you need.
If the workout is one hour or less, in most cases you won’t need to eat or drink anything special. If it is moderate to higher intensity for more than one hour, the general recommendation is based on the maximum rate of glucose absorption, which is to eat about 30–60 grams of pure, easily digested carbohydrate per hour. This might be a cup of orange juice, a sports drink, or a Powerbar gel pack.
After the workout, your body needs fuel to replete lost nutrient stores and repair cells. This could be a snack or meal containing carbohydrate and a moderate amount of protein, plus fluids and sodium, within 30-45 minutes after exercise. If you have no appetite post-exercise, try a nutrient-rich beverage like a smoothie. Carbs are needed to refill depleted glucose stores in the muscles and liver, protein is needed to repair damaged muscle fibers and build new muscle tissue, and fluids and electrolytes are needed to rehydrate. Although protein needs vary from person to person, eating about 15–25 grams of protein within an hour after exercise can help to maximize the muscle rebuilding and repair process. This equals about 3-4 ounces of meat/chicken/fish, 1 cup firm tofu, or 1 cup cooked lentils.
Examples of recovery meals/snacks that include carbs, protein and fluids:
- Protein bar with 15–20 grams of protein, 1 cup 100% fruit juice
- Smoothie made with 1-2 cups frozen or fresh fruit; 1 cup low fat milk, soy milk or yogurt; and 1 scoop of protein powder (if additional protein is needed)
- 3 ounces grilled chicken on 2 slices of whole-grain bread, baked sweet potato topped with 1/4 cup plain greek yogurt or cottage cheese, herbal tea
- Whole grain bagel spread with 2 tablespoons peanut butter and 1 small sliced banana, 1 cup 100% fruit juice
- 1 1/2 cups brown rice, 1 cup lentils, steamed or stir-fried vegetables, 1 cup low fat milk, fresh orange
Whether you sweat a lot or not, it’s important to stay hydrated throughout. Drink water if exercising for one hour or less at a low-moderate intensity, and a sports beverage if exercising longer than one hour at a moderate-vigorous intensity. After the workout, replace fluids by drinking about 16 to 24 ounces of water or a sports beverage (for longer and higher intensity workouts) for every pound of weight lost.
What works for me? A chocolate chip granola bar before exercise, a homemade beverage of 1/2 coconut water and 1/2 water with a pinch of salt during exercise if it’s higher intensity (plain water otherwise), and a high sodium snack with protein and carb after exercising like string cheese and potato chips. Because I tend to sweat a lot, my body appreciates a little extra salt and potassium.
What do you eat to exercise? What foods or beverages, if any, fuel your top performance? If you’d like more info about exercise and nutrition, check out the American Council on Exercise’s Healthy Living Blog.