Sports Nutrition: Fueling Before and After a Workout
“What should I eat before a workout?” is one of the questions I receive most frequently. While I love the field of nutrition and being a nutrition professional, I understand the confusion! With social media telling you one thing and research saying another, it can be hard to determine what is true and what to apply in your own life. Whether you’re looking to do a resistance routine, intense practice, or a race, keep on reading and you’ll gain clarity to fueling before and after a workout. While there is ultimately no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition (because everybody is different) these are general guidelines that are tried and true for many athletes.
1. Light Workouts – Jogs, yoga, etc.
A light workout is still a workout which means fueling for it is still important! Eating a snack that’s a pairing of carbs and protein 30-45 minutes before your workout will help you maintain energy for your workout. Carbs are important for energy and protein stores are important for your body’s healing.
Snack ideas include:
- Apple slices with peanut butter
- Yogurt with granola
- Cheese and crackers
What to avoid:
You don’t need to eat a heavy carb load for lighter workouts. Eating a large, complex carb-heavy meal close to a lighter workout can cause stomach pain and bloating during exercise. You also don’t need any specific post-workout protein/carb meal or snack for a light workout if you’re eating regular meals. But, if you’re feeling fatigued or hungry, go grab a snack!
2. Heavy Cardio – Sports tournaments, longer runs, intense workouts
The purpose of fueling before and after a workout of this intensity or duration is to ensure you have enough energy to perform your best and to help you recover effectively. Carb loading is something that most athletes are aware of. Carb loading ensures your energy (i.e. blood sugar) won’t fall in the middle of a big athletic event or competition. This requires building up your carbohydrate stores or glycogen stores.
What most people don’t know about building your carbohydrate stores is that it is more complicated than just eating a carb-rich meal the night before a long workout or race day. In reality, it is more beneficial to start carb loading a few days in advance. This helps build better glycogen stores. These stores are pockets of glucose next to your muscle fibers. They provide energy for muscle movement and contraction after you burn through your immediate energy stores. A few days out from a long-distance race or tournament, start incorporating more carb-dense foods such as pasta, rice, tortillas, bread, etc. to increase your carb intake.
Types of snacking for heavy cardio:
- Sugary snacking! It’s important to eat throughout several hours of activity. To use a metaphor, you don’t want your tank to be on empty. In fact, you don’t want it to get anywhere close to empty! The best way to avoid an energy crash is to eat foods that are primarily “simple carbohydrates.” “Simple” means it’s easy for your body to break down into energy. Try sugary snacks such as fruit snacks, granola bars, or sports gels like Gu Gel* to maintain your energy. We suggest testing these out before a race since some people get upset stomachs from them!
- Salty snacking! If you’re sensing a theme of snacking with heavy cardio nutrition, you would be right. If you’re running for several hours, you’re sweating for several hours! This means your body is losing water and salt, so make sure to hydrate. This can mess with your body’s electrolyte balance and energy levels. Snacks like pickles, sports drinks, or a few salted almonds can help replenish the salt you sweat out.
- Recovery foods! A mix of complex carbohydrates and protein (and some fat!) in a snack or a meal is the best combination for your body’s recovery process. Ideally, you should eat a meal within 2 hours of completing your event. In addition, antioxidants are very beneficial for recovery. Antioxidants are in most fruit and veggies, but especially darker fruits (e.g. cranberries, cherries, blueberries, and pomegranates), and can help reduce muscle inflammation and help your body heal quickly. Sports dietitians will often give athletes cherry or pomegranate juice to help with soreness.
3. Interval Style – Sprints, CrossFit, HIIT workouts
Maintaining proper carbohydrate stores to last you through the bursts of energy you expend with interval training is important. Eating a meal with complex carbs a few hours before of your interval workout is ideal. This means whole grain pasta, a sandwich on whole-grain bread, etc. which will help “fill your gas tank” with energy reserves to help you push through the stop-and-go training. In addition, eating a snack of “simple carbohydrates” an hour before your workout give you an extra boost of energy. This could be a granola bar or peanut butter with a banana.
Eating a protein/carb-dense snack within half an hour of finishing a workout is ideal for your body’s recovery. The balance of protein and carbohydrate is so important and it is what your body needs to recover most effectively. Eating at least something within half an hour of working out is key because your body starts to repair itself from the stress of being active. Having the proper nutrients available makes it easier for your body to do its job.
4. Strength Training
Fueling before and after a strength workout is a little different than a cardio-focused workout. You still need a mix of protein and carbs for pre and post-workout meals (and fat!) to be most productive with your strength workouts and recovery but the ratio is a little different. You don’t need to build your carb stores as much and you need a little extra protein. Eat a snack within an hour of working out but don’t focus as much on carbs as you would before a run or sprint workout.
Protein is key for a good recovery after a resistance workout. Protein is most important for repairing all the little muscle tears that occur when you lift. Eat protein within half an hour of finishing your lift for the best recovery. Nuts, hard-boiled eggs, turkey roll-ups, or protein bars are some snack ideas.
Fueling your body for workouts doesn’t have to be hard or complicated! Yes, there are different nutritional needs based on the type of activity. A distance runner has different needs than someone who mostly lifts weights. But overall, a few factors are consistent. Drink a lot of water and eat plenty of meals and snacks that are balanced in fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Eating before and after your workout helps maintain energy and helps your body function best!
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If you have any questions about fueling for an activity or sport, contact us or call us at 301-474-2499 to meet with one of our wonderful dietitians for personalized nutrition help!
Rebecca Bitzer loves to empower Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) and their clients. Co-author of Welcome to the Rebelution: Seven steps to the nutrition counseling practice of your dreams and Taste the Sweet Rebellion: Rebel against dieting.