What to Eat Before, During, and After Exercise

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Good nutrition is critical to fueling your exercise and it can be a balancing act to get it right.   Eating too much at the wrong time can cause stomach cramping or undesirable weight gain for those trying to lose weight.  Not eating enough can leave you short on gas, with muscle cramps or worse yet, injured.

There are three different times that you need to fuel: before, during and after exercise.  Each is equally important if you want the experience to be enjoyable and get the highest payback for your efforts.

Before Exercise

Wait at least 2-4 hours after eating a meal to exercise depending on what and how much you have eaten.  While it’s hard to focus if you exercise hungry, you also don’t want undigested food in your stomach.

The best pre-exercise meal should be hydrating and rich in carbohydrate, moderate in protein while relatively low in fat and fiber.  Here’s the science behind the recommendation:

  • Solid foods take approximately 1-4 hours to pass through the stomach, whereas most liquids will empty in 20 minutes.
  • Foods are made up of carbohydrate, protein and fat.  Fat takes longer to digest than protein, and carbohydrates digest the fastest.  Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that slows everything down in the stomach by absorbing water and delaying the rate at which food leaves the stomach.  Too much fiber, found in whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains, may cause cramping in the intestinal tract.
  • When you exercise blood is channeled away from the stomach to working muscles and organs.  Anything remaining in the stomach when exercise intensity rises becomes very uncomfortable and highly distracting.

Enjoy these simple fueling suggestions:

  • 1 cup water plus 1 cup low fat milk and a whole grain bagel topped with peanut butter or low fat fruited muffin and string cheese.
  • 1 cup of water plus 1 cup 100% fruit juice and a turkey sandwich with peaches canned in natural juice or grilled chicken on a bun with mandarin oranges.
  • 1 cup water plus 1 cup low fat milk and a medium-sized pasta or rice based meal with a side of green beans or baby carrots.

Learn what your body can tolerate too. While some of you might enjoy a moderately sized traditional meal before exercise, others may do better with 2 cups of liquid and a sports bar.


During Exercise

Many people make the mistake of rehydrating with electrolyte drinks whenever they exercise.  Unless it’s a really hot day or the humidity is high, tap water is the perfect beverage to keep you hydrated when you exercise for less than an hour.  It’s also free, portable and the environmentally friendly choice.

For those of you who do need to fuel for extended play, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends:

  • 3-8 ounces of water every 15-20 minutes when exercising < 60 minutes
  • 3-8 ounces of sports beverage every 15-20 minutes when exercising > 60 minute

They also recommend that you periodically measure your sweat rate.  This can be done by weighing yourself before and after exercise to get an idea of how much fluid you lose.

It’s important to try and minimize this loss because body fluids help maintain the brain to muscle communication and blood flow with oxygen, electrolytes and nutrients for strong muscle contraction. Staying within 1 percent of your starting weight means you’ve properly hydrated during exercise.  Rehydrate with 2 cups of fluid for every pound lost.

What to Eat Before During and After Exercise

After Exercise

Refuel within 30 – 45 minutes of exercise.  This is when your blood flow is the greatest and muscles are like a sponge, soaking up fluid, electrolytes and nutrients that you’ve exhausted in your workout.

  • For the exerciser who is looking to lose weight, I recommend backing up their workout into a meal so that they replenish but don’t compromise the calorie deficit they need to lose weight.
  • For the recreational exerciser who works out three to four times per week trying to maintain a basic level of fitness, I recommend they focus on rehydrating with water or one cup of low fat chocolate milk.
  • For the athlete who is training to prepare for their next athletic event, I recommend a 3:1 carbohydrate: protein ratio. The carbohydrate is used to refuel muscle glycogen (energy) stores and the protein helps rebuild muscle tissue.  They may also need to include a salty snack to replace electrolytes.

My favorite recovery snacks include a:

  1. Low fat Greek yogurt with a couple tablespoons of granola or oats and diced fruit
  2. Bowl of cold cereal and low fat milk
  3. Tall glass of low fat chocolate milk
  4. Bowl of soup with crackers
  5. Whole grain toast with an egg.
  6. Graham crackers with peanut butter and low fat milk
  7. Smoothie made with ½ cup Greek yogurt, ½ cup low fat milk and ½ cup berries.

If you have more questions on how to properly fuel before, during and after exercise, contact a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.  They are the experts in providing science based nutrition answers for all of your exercise needs.  Go to www.eatright.org and click on “Find the Expert” in the upper right hand corner.  In the meantime, have a great workout!

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