Ever eat right before working out and feel like you may hurl? Or, not eat enough before going to the gym and feeling dehydrated, tired, and/or dizzy? Both have probably happened to all of us at one point or another.
Eating before, during, and after workouts is important to be able to perform activities and get the most out of your workout. In this blog, I’ll address sports nutrition for the “typical” exerciser- the person who works moderately to vigorously for about 45 minutes to an hour. (If you are an elite athlete -working out for 2+ hours/day- you may need more than what is recommended here and it is best to seek help from a registered dietitian if you have questions.)
If you haven’t eaten in a few hours (or if you’re rolling out of bed in the morning to exercise) you want to have a snack less than an hour before exercise. It is best to eat a snack that is high-carb and low-fat so that you don’t get hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and it’s symptoms (fatigue, dizziness). This type of snack will give your body immediately available carbohydrates to use during exercise. Some examples include banana, crackers, dry cereal, popcorn, juice, and yogurt.
It is best to avoid high-fiber foods because these foods require a long time for digestion and can cause cramping and stomach distress.
It is also important to give yourself time for meals to digest. If you eat a full meal, you want to give yourself 3-4 hours before working out. A smaller meal takes between 2-3 hours, and a snack- one hour. So, if you’ve eaten a full meal an hour ago, you may want to wait another hour or two before getting to the gym.
Unless you’re working out for over an hour or in a very hot climate, WATER is the BEST OPTION to avoid dehydration. If you don’t stay hydrated, losing >2% body weight through sweat, you can become dizzy and lethargic.Water is typically enough to keep you going during a work out lasting less than 1 hour, because it isn’t until after 1 hour that glycogen (carbohydrate storage units) gets depleted. How much water depends on how much you can stomach. For some people, drinking 24 ounces does not bother them. For others, drinking 8 ounces is the most they can intake. At the minimum, you want to aim for 8 ounces.
If you are working out for 1+ hours, you’ll want to take in beverages that are 6-8% carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores.
It is important to recover your glycogen stores after working out. To do this, eating a high-carb snack within 45 minutes to 1 hour after ending exercise is best. Outside of that 1 hour window, it becomes harder to recover glycogen stores. In fact, if you’re an elite athlete and working out for 2+ hours a day, it can take 48 hours to recover your gylcogen stores! A good post-workout snack is made up of mostly carbs and can include fiber, protein, and fat. Some examples are: hummus, carrot sticks, and pita; trail mix; whole wheat crackers with cheese or peanut butter; yogurt with granola; and fruit.
Besides recovering your glycogen stores, these snack examples also maximize muscle repair because they include protein. Research shows that protein after a workout helps to rebuild damaged muscle tissue, but does not build muscle mass. So, if you eat a high-protein post workout snack you may just end up eating more calories than you need over the course of the day, and that extra protein will turn to fat- just like any other extra calories from carbs or fat that you intake.
Clark, Nancy. Sports Nutrition Guidebook. 4th Ed.
United States. National Institutes of Health. 1996. The Role of Dietary Supplements for Physically Active People: Exercise and Protein Supplements, Robert Wolfe.
United States. National Institutes of Health. 1996. The Role of Dietary Supplements for Physically Active People: Carbohydrate Supplements as Potential Modifiers for Physical Activity, by W. Michael Sherman.