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What to Eat Before, During, and After Exercise

What to Eat Before, During, and After Exercise

Whether you're a "weekend warrior" trying to stay fit or an athlete training for a marathon, what you eat can affect how you perform. Eating right can give you the edge to help energize your workout or reach that 26th mile. But which foods are best for fitness activities, and which should you avoid? With so many sports drinks, bars, powders, and supplements to choose from, how do you know which are best? Or can you skip the expensive supplements and get everything you need from a well-planned diet?

For answers to these questions and more, WebMD turned to sports nutrition expert Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, author and nutrition professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

What is the best thing to eat before exercising for energy and endurance?

Fueling exercise requires quality carbohydrates, lean protein, heart-healthy fats, and fluids. Your muscles rely on carbohydrate foods like breads, cereals, pasta, rice, fruits, and vegetables for a quick energy source. Protein is needed to build and maintain muscles and for healthy blood cells. Blood cells deliver nutrients and oxygen to working muscles.

Foods provide the gas to the body’s engine, and fluids provide the water to your body’s radiator. Without these crucial fuels and fluids, your body will have a hard time performing at its best.

Is there an ideal pre-sport or exercise meal?

The ideal pre-sport meal has five characteristics:

  1. Low fat
  2. Moderate in carbohydrates and protein
  3. Low fiber
  4. Contains fluids
  5. Made up of familiar, well-tolerated foods.

The pre-game meal is not the time to try a new food.  A grilled chicken sandwich or a slice of cheese pizza might fit the pre-game meal description, but stay clear of the fried food (including french fries), greasy burgers, and soft drinks.

Why is it so important to drink plenty of liquids during exercise?

Not only does being well hydrated improve your performance, it can save your life. Water acts as your body’s cooling system; without sufficient water during exercise your body temperature can reach dangerously high levels.

The best way to stay hydrated is to drink plenty of fluids with meals and drink about two cups (16 ounces) of water two hours before exercise. Monitor your hydration status through two simple measures:

  • Weigh yourself before and after exercise and replace lost weight with 2 cups of fluids for each pound lost.
  • Check the color of your urine. When you're hydrated, your urine will be a light straw color.


Is it better to stay hydrated with sports drinks or plain water?

Recreational athletes can drink water for hydration. But if you're exercising for more than 60 minutes in hot, humid conditions, sports drinks provide not only fluid, but carbohydrates and sodium. Sports drinks are also a good choice if you play team sports like soccer or football, especially when the temperature and humidity are high.  If you are a heavy sweater, a sports drink might be preferable to water.

Is it bad to exercise on an empty stomach, especially in the morning?

It really depends on the type of exercise -- a brisk walk or light jog on an empty stomach is fine; just drink a glass of water before heading out the door. For more intense exercise, eat some easy-to-digest carbs (a packet of instant grits, a slice of toast,  half a plain bagel, a banana, or cup of fruit cocktail washed down with a glass of water) to help provide fuel. After sleeping, the overnight fast can deplete your liver stores of carbohydrate, so a quick boost of carbs before longer exercise is recommended.

Can eating a high-protein diet help bulk up muscles?

The only way to bulk up muscles is to hit the gym and perform progressive resistance exercises. Protein can help provide the raw material to build muscle, but the protein has to be pulled into muscles through exercise. Aim to eat a small amount of protein (10-20 grams, or about 2-3 ounces of lean meat, 2 cups of low-fat milk, or a scoop of most protein powders) after each bout of weight training to give your muscles the needed building blocks.

Why do you need to eat protein or drink protein shakes after exercising?

Muscles need protein for recovery and growth, and the best time to deliver protein appears to be right after exercise. Providing high-quality protein after exercise gives your muscles the fuel and the building blocks needed for both repair and for growth.

Protein shakes and powders carry a certain allure, but your muscles don’t care if the protein comes from a hard-boiled egg, glass of chocolate milk or whey protein shake.  Whatever you choose, more isn’t better -- only 10 to 20 grams of protein is needed to provide amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to muscles.

With so many sports drinks, bars, and more to choose from, how do you make the best choices?

A good sports drink contains 14-15 grams of carbohydrate in 8 ounces. It should also contain about 110 milligrams of sodium and 30 milligrams of potassium in the same volume. But if you are exercising to lose weight, stick to water or a "lighter" version of sports drinks with fewer carbs and calories.

Look for energy bars that contain about 5 grams of protein, with some carbohydrate (preferably with more naturally occurring sugars) and very little fat. Many energy bars are just glorified, expensive candy bars, so remember that "energy" means calories and watch out for high-calorie bars. They are helpful for athletes on the go, so if you can't eat before a long tennis match, an energy bar can help.

Choose protein powders made from whey protein or milk proteins (milk protein contains two types of proteins, both whey and casein). Use them within 30 minutes after exercising to provide needed amino acids to muscles. For weight gain, use a protein drink as an evening snack.

What are gels and what role do they play in fitness performance?

Gels are good for endurance athletes but are not needed by the recreational athlete. Gels are concentrated forms of carbohydrate and can help long-distance cyclists and runners get some quick fuel during exercise. Since they are so concentrated, they should be washed down with water to avoid stomach upset.

How do you know if you're getting the right amount of calories and nutrients?

To get an accurate assessment of your calorie and nutrient needs, see a registered dietitian or a certified specialist in sports dietetics. For a quick, but less accurate assessment, try www.mypyramid.org to track your energy needs and your exercise [or use WebMD's Food and Fitness Planner].

Are there any benefits to exercising in the morning vs. at night?

The best advice is to just do it. There are no benefits to either time; it's simply a matter of personal choice.  Some people prefer morning exercise and the satisfaction that it is done without worrying that it will be squeezed out by their daily routine. Others prefer to exercise later in the day, when muscles are warmed up, and it helps revive them for the evening. The only caution may be not to exercise close to bedtime. Some experts believe that the increase in body temperature and metabolism may interfere with sleep. Exercise is great for sleep, and the National Sleep Foundation's tip for sleep hygiene suggests that in those without a sleep disorder exercise at any time is good for sleep. 

Is carbo loading a useful strategy for long-distance athletes?

Carbo loading, or stocking up on carbohydrates before a sporting event, has gone out of favor with most athletes.  Eating adequate carbohydrates during training provides muscles with all the glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate) that they need.

Athletes who exercise for longer than two hours usually consume some form of carbohydrate during exercise (sports drinks, carbohydrate gels, or energy bars) to provide additional fuel. Carbohydrate loading (also called "muscle glycogen supercompensation") should only be considered for those performing very hard, continuous exercise that lasts for 90 minutes or more, and should be done under the supervision of a sports dietitian.

What are good, healthy snacks for kids during sport activities or practice?

When it is your turn to bring the snacks, keep it simple and healthy. Let’s face it; young kids don’t burn a lot of calories in a recreational weekly soccer game, so provide healthy snacks in small quantities. Orange or apple slices; peanut butter sandwiches cut into quarters; string cheese and whole-grain crackers; and trail mix made with whole-grain cereal, nuts, and dried fruit; along with fruit juice, are good choices.

Can you lose weight without having to exercise?

Yes, you can, but the best strategy is a combination of cutting calories and exercising.  Exercise has other benefits that can help with weight loss. It improves mood and self-esteem, as well as reduces risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Exercise burns fewer calories than you might think. Walking 1 mile burns about 100 calories, and 1 pound of body fat is a storage depot for 3,500 calories. You’d have to walk 35 miles to lose 1 pound of fat. 

What changes should you make to your diet if your goal is to lose fat?

If your goal is to lose weight and target fat, you need to follow the same kind of healthy diet as above, but be sure you get enough calories to fuel your physical activity. Cut back on refined, sugar-rich foods and beverages and high-fat and fried foods, and scale back your portions to gradually lose body fat.  A combination of exercise and a calorie-controlled diet will be the most effective way to promote fat loss.


Medical_journals | by Dr. Radut