Add Fuel to Your Workout
What you eat and drink—before, during, and after the event—affects your performance and your health.
Food and fluids fuel exercise. Deciding what to eat or drink for peak performance can be complicated, though, especially in a marketplace crowded with 500 brands of energy drinks alone.
Your body needs more than 50 nutrients, and you should be getting them well before the day of a tough workout. Follow a sensible, balanced diet to help your body meet any physical challenge (see A Diet Fit to Try below). If you do that, and you don’t expect to exercise more than an hour a day, you should be fine without special food measures. The body stores enough carbohydrates to power your muscles for at least 90 minutes.
But if you’re facing a physical activity of more than 60 to 90 minutes, consider what you eat and drink before, during, and after you exercise. That can help keep you moving comfortably.
Fluids may matter most. Dehydration can strike quickly and make exercise difficult if not dangerous. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to drink. By then, dehydration may have begun already.
While every person responds to food and drink differently, here are some guidelines.
Two to four hours before exercise, eat a meal that includes carbohydrates. Your body converts carbs into energy for muscles. Foods high in carbs include pasta, bread, and fruits.
Experiment with the timing of meals to find what works best for you. You probably shouldn’t eat a large meal less than an hour before intense exercise. If you do, you may experience nausea, cramping, or stomach pain. You might also want to avoid fried and fatty foods, which are hard to digest.
In the two hours before exercising, drink 10 to 14 ounces of fluids. Then, 10 to 15 minutes before exercising, drink another 10 ounces.
Water can keep you hydrated, and it’s the best choice pre-exercise. Once you begin to sweat, though, you slowly lose electrolytes—elements that help supply water throughout the body. Water alone doesn’t replenish them.
Sports drinks can help replace electrolytes as well as carbs. Energy drinks, which often contain as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, aren’t a good option. While it may make you feel more alert, caffeine makes you urinate more, so energy drinks may actually cost you fluids.
Unless you’re going to exercise for more than 60 to 90 minutes, you probably don’t need to eat during your activity. If you do, stick with carb-rich, easily digestible snacks such as bananas, gels, or energy bars.
As you exercise, you lose a lot of water through perspiration. Drinking 7 to 10 ounces of water or a sports drink every 15 to 20 minutes can help you replace that fluid. Shoot for the high end of that range during a strenuous workout in hot weather.
Postexercise, you want to rehydrate fully and replace lost carbs and electrolytes. Electrolytes only make up about 1 percent of perspiration, but for a long activity that adds up. You should drink 8 to 16 ounces of a sports drink or water with foods that help your body retain that fluid.
Carb-rich snacks such as crackers, pretzels, or nuts provide sodium, a key electrolyte (along with chloride) lost during physical exertion. Other foods also provide these electrolytes and others lost in smaller concentrations, such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Salty foods such as a dill pickle or tomato sauce can help replace sodium and chloride. Spinach can provide magnesium and calcium. Yogurt contains potassium and calcium. You might want to sprinkle a bit of salt on your postexercise meal to help with the loss of sodium and chloride—particularly if you experience cramping, a sign of sodium loss.
Recent research has shown that more exotic drinks can help pre- and postexercise. A study of British cyclists found that cherry juice, full of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, can limit muscle damage done by exercise. Another British study showed that nitrate-rich beet juice can improve sports performance by reducing muscles’ oxygen use.
But those studies don’t mean you should start guzzling quarts of cherry or beet juice. They simply show the importance of food and drink in performance. So mind the menu before, during, and after exercise to get the most out of activity.
A Diet Fit to Try
A diet that includes the three major food groups is the best way to keep your body moving.
Between 55 and 60 percent of your calories should come from carbohydrates, with an emphasis on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Only 10 to 15 percent of those calories should be simple carbs like sugars. No more than 30 percent of your calories should come from fat. The rest should be protein.
For information about a balanced diet, see the government’s food recommendations at www.choosemyplate.gov.