Eating and exercise go hand in hand. When and what you eat can be important to how you feel when you exercise, whether it's a casual workout or a serious athletic competition.
Here are five tips for eating and exercise to help maximize your exercise and athletic performance. Just keep in mind that the duration and intensity of your activity will dictate how often and what you should eat and drink. Running a marathon demands more energy in the way of food than does walking two miles — but whatever your exercise, you'll benefit from paying attention to your meals and snacks.
1. Eat a healthy breakfast
If you exercise in the morning, get up early enough to eat breakfast — that may mean one to two hours before your workout. Most of the energy you got from dinner the previous night is used up by morning, and your blood sugar may be low. If you don't eat, you may feel sluggish or lightheaded when you exercise. If you plan to exercise within an hour after breakfast, eat a lighter breakfast or drink something to raise your blood sugar, such as a sports drink. Emphasize carbohydrates for maximum energy.
Good breakfast options include:
Whole-grain cereals or bread
100% fruit juice
Bananas or other fresh fruit
If you're not a fan of eating in the morning before you work out, try a sports drink or have a bigger bedtime snack the night before. And remember, if you normally have coffee in the mornings, a cup or two before your workout is probably OK. Just don't try any foods or drinks for the first time before a workout, or you risk an upset stomach.
2. Size matters
Be careful not to overdo it when it comes to how much you eat before exercise. The general guideline:
Large meals: Eat these at least three to four hours before exercising.
Small meals: Eat these two to three hours before exercising.
Small snacks: Eat these an hour before exercising.
Eating too much before you exercise can leave you feeling sluggish, or worse, with a case of diarrhea or stomach cramps. Eating too little may not give you the energy to keep you feeling strong throughout your workout. If you're an early riser who goes to the gym on the way to work, you won't have enough time between leaving home and arriving at the gym to really digest a full breakfast. Your pre-workout snack is going to have to be really light. On the other hand, if you're working out in the middle of the afternoon, your workout is going to be fueled by your choices at lunch and you'll have a couple of hours to digest your food before hitting the gym. That means a different pre-workout meal from the one you might choose if you were scrounging around the kitchen at 5:30 a.m. on the way to the track. The closer to your workout, the more you want to focus on eating carbohydrates rather than fat or protein. Carbohydrates are digested in the small intestines, whereas fat and protein are broken down in the stomach. This means cramping and indigestion are more likely when you work out with a belly full of fat- or protein-rich foods.
The rule is this: The less time until the workout, the less you should eat. This makes sense: It takes time to digest food, so you don't want to scarf down a huge breakfast right before getting on the treadmill. Those planning to run the marathon on Sunday usually eat a huge dinner on Saturday night. But those planning to go for a three-mile jog at 5:30 a.m. may be fine with just an orange eaten about 20 minutes before.
3. Snack well
Most people can eat small snacks right before and during exercise. The key is how you feel. Do what works best for you. Snacks eaten soon before exercise probably won't give you added energy, but they can help keep up your blood sugar and prevent distracting hunger pangs.
Good snack options include:
Bananas or other fresh fruit
4. Eat after you exercise
To help your muscles recover and to replace their glycogen stores, eat a meal that contains both protein and carbohydrates within two hours of your exercise session if possible. Research says the best window of opportunity for refueling to begin is within 30 minutes of exercise. If you aren't hungry after your workout, drink juice or a sports drink to provide replenishing carbohydrates.
Good post-workout food choices include:
Yogurt and fruit
Peanut butter or meat sandwich
String cheese and crackers
Nuts and dried fruit
A regular meal with meat, starch, and cooked vegetable or salad
5. Drink up
Don't forget to drink fluids to help optimize your exercise and workouts. You need adequate fluids before, during and after exercise to help prevent dehydration. To stay well hydrated for exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends that you:
Drink roughly 2 to 3 cups (0.5 to 0.7 liters) of water during the two to three hours before your workout.
Drink about 1/2 to 1 cup (0.12 to 0.23 liters) of water every 15 to 20 minutes during your workout. You may need more the larger your body is or the warmer the weather is.
Drink roughly 2 to 3 cups (0.5 to 0.7 liters) of water after your workout for every pound (0.5 kilogram) of weight you lose during the workout.
Water is generally the best way to replace lost fluids. Just be careful of the amount of sugars in the sports drink and opt for those lower on the scale. Or you may want to try coconut water which is much higher in potassium.
Let experience be your guide
When it comes to eating and exercise, everyone is different. So pay attention to how you feel during your workout and your overall performance. Let your experience guide you on which pre- and post-exercise eating habits work best for you. Consider keeping a journal to monitor how your body reacts to meals and snacks so that you can tweak your diet for optimal performance. And remember, the best food to eat before a workout depends on when you're going to eat it.