So you signed up for that half marathon, have a big soccer tournament, registered for a cyclocross bike race, or planned a two-hour power hike up a mountain. You’ve got some intense exercise in your future. Besides training to make sure you’re in good physical shape for your activity, you need to fuel your body for it. But what should you eat, how much, and when?
Read on to learn key strategies for fueling your body for peak workout performance.
Load up on carbs
While as a rule nutrition experts do not recommend carbo loading, preparing for strenuous exercise presents an exception to that rule. Women’s Health Magazine explains that consuming complex carbohydrates like those that come from whole grains provides a steady release of energy to your body throughout a workout. Good options for sources of complex carbohydrates include food like a whole grain bagel, steel cut oats, a piece of whole grain bread, or whole wheat pasta.
But grains aren’t the only source for carbs that provide good energy for workouts; fruits are, too. Bananas rank high on the list of great pre-workout foods. In a Men’s Fitness article, Dr. Louise Burke, head of Sports Nutrition at the Australian Institute of Sport agrees, noting, “They’re nature’s power bar.” That’s because according to SELFNutritionData, one medium-sized banana offers 105 calories, with almost all of those coming from carbohydrates for quick energy. Plus, that same banana has 422 mg of potassium, a nutrient that’s important for nerves and muscles.
Runner’s World emphasizes that eating carbohydrates is particularly important for prepping for endurance workouts like distance running. That’s because the body stores carbohydrates as glycogen, the source of energy that your body can most quickly and easily access.
Consider consuming some form of a whole grain food for slower energy release combined with fruit for more quickly released energy.
Supply muscles with protein
In the past, fitness experts used to tell you to eat protein after a workout to rebuild muscles. These days, many fitness and health experts advise eating lean protein before and after a workout. In a WebMD article, nutrition expert Christine Rosenblum, PhD, RD, explains why eating lean protein prior to a workout is a good idea: “You need protein for your muscles and for your blood cells, which bring nutrients and oxygen to your muscles.” Active suggests that consuming protein during a workout may prevent some of the muscle damage that often occurs during intense exercise.
Greek yogurt is a great source of protein, and when you add some sliced banana, you’ve got an excellent pre-workout snack. A slice of toast with some lean roasted turkey or chicken can also be a great way to fuel your workout.
Ix-nay to sugary and fatty foods
Men’s Fitness cautions against eating sugary foods or raw sugar because while you may get an initial rush of energy—with sustained exercise, that rush can turn into a sugar crash. In addition, the article warns that because fat leaves the stomach slowly, eating fat-filled foods prior to a workout can cause you to feel more sluggish than energized. That may be because, as Runner’s World points out, your body has to work a lot harder to convert it into usable energy.
How and how much to eat
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that eating too much food too close to the time of your workout can lead to not-so-desirable results—a minor stomach cramp if you’re lucky, but full-on upset stomach if you’re not. Generally speaking, the closer you are to your workout time, the less you should eat.
If you eat a full-on, more complete meal, wait at least two to three hours before working out, according to Pop Sugar. The same article goes on to say that if it’s been a while since you’ve eaten, a small snack of about 200 calories an hour before your workout will give you the energy you need.
For more endurance-based workouts, like running a half-marathon or marathon, Runner’s World advises carbo-loading a few days before, but to slow down on the amounts the night before the race. Active also recommends that runners protein-load “during and after workouts, late in the day, and during the offseason.”
What foods do you eat to get the most from your workout? How much do you eat, and how soon before you work out do you eat? I’d love to hear what works for you.
Here’s a recipe to power your workout—my Sundried Tomato with Quinoa and Almonds salad. It’s got plenty of protein and carbohydrates from the almonds and quinoa, and a single serving actually has more potassium than a banana.