Nutrition for Your Best Workout

Maybe you exercise because you want to trim your waistline or build more muscle. Perhaps you’re training for your first 5K, or you’re simply trying to be more active to boost your health. Whatever your reason for sweating it out on the road, at the gym or in the studio, good for you! You’ll no doubt be eager to know that coordinating your eating plan with your exercise routine can help you meet your goals. Properly timed nutrients deliver energy and hydration for your workouts, plus the power to heal and strengthen.

But it can be a challenge to juggle your body’s nutrient needs with your active lifestyle. Fortunately, you don’t have to let such roadblocks get in the way of your commitment to exercise.

I know I should eat something before my early morning workouts, but I’m never hungry then.
There’s a reason you should make a quick pit stop in your kitchen before you hit your treadmill or head out for your run in the morning, even if you’re not hungry yet. “The level of energy you have during exercise depends on the fuel you have in your body ahead of time,” says Andres Valenzuela, M.S., R.D.N., a nutritionist at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. Your body uses glycogen (a form of glucose, or sugar) stored in your cells for fuel. Because you fast all night while you sleep, your blood sugar levels are low in the morning and need replenishing with carbohydrates to make the most of your workout and still have energy leftover to get through the rest of your day.

It’s best to eat something an hour or two before you work out, but that’s not practical for a lot of early-morning exercisers. Try to at least eat or drink a little something 10 or 15 minutes before you exercise. “Some people can eat right before they work out and not have any issues, but many struggle if they eat that close to exercise, as your digestive system slows down during exercise to supply more blood to your extremities,” Valenzuela explains. “I usually suggest people experiment and see how they react to timing of foods.”

To make sure that you’re really pushing yourself during your early A.M. workouts, not dragging, choose a small amount of carbs. For most people, half of a banana, a glass of fruit juice mixed with water or a natural sports drink will do. (Pure juice can contain too much sugar for your gastrointestinal system to process during exercise without causing cramps or worse.)

Of course, it’s also important to hydrate. Keep a glass of water at your bedside to drink if you wake up in the middle of the night (unless you’re dealing with an overactive bladder), and down a glass of water before your workout in the morning. Although it’s tempting to drink coffee before a morning workout, keep in mind that your jolt of java is a diuretic and, for some people, it can cause stomach cramping and other unpleasant GI issues during exercise.

I’m trying to build muscle. Do I need to eat anything special?
Have you ever noticed that the smoothie bars at most gyms offer an array of protein sources, from whey powder to almond butter? Serious weight lifters know that protein is an essential ingredient for building muscle, and that holds true even if your goal is to be more toned than ripped. Protein helps the body repair muscle tissue that was damaged during exercise, healing it so it’s larger and stronger than before. If you’re hitting the weight room or doing a workout that builds muscle, such as boxing, a bar class or even hiking on hilly terrain, you’ll maximize your lean muscle gains by eating protein soon after. The best time to get your protein is right after exercise, when your muscles are primed to receive it. 

That said, most of us don’t need smoothies and sports bars that are super high in protein. “Those are excess calories that you’re getting, and your body’s not going to utilize them unless you’re doing very heavy lifting for hours,” Valenzuela says. Nuts, beans, hard-boiled eggs and lean meats like chicken and fish are excellent natural sources of protein. Chocolate milk is another a popular option, and for good reason—you’ll get 8 grams of protein for every 8 ounces you drink, and studies have shown that drinking either fat-free or 2% chocolate milk after regular resistance-training sessions may help you lose more weight on top of building more muscle. Opt for organic chocolate milk to avoid high fructose corn syrup and preservatives.

How can I keep from overeating after I exercise?
It can be frustrating to feel like you negated all the hard work you put in at the gym by gobbling down a candy bar later in the day because you were ravenous. Avoiding this common pitfall is all about timing balanced meals during the hours leading up to your workout and having a healthy recovery snack soon afterward. “Most people don’t eat properly before or after they work out,” Valenzuela says. Whether you’re skimping on meals because you’re short on time or because you think it will help you drop more weight, going without food will only backfire—setting you up for mindless gorging when you’re starving after your workout.  

The reason why most people become so hungry after exercise is due to blood sugar levels. Your blood sugar levels drop during exercise, as your muscles are bringing in excess sugar to fuel the movement. When blood sugars become low, your body will start sending out hunger signals and cravings to get the fuel it needs. “This is why it is important to also include healthy carbohydrates in your recovery snacks or meals,” Valenzuela stresses. “Not only does it help replenish the lost glycogen stores in the muscles, but it also helps stabilize your blood sugar levels.”

After exercising, a recovery snack can quiet hunger pangs and help you make better food choices all day long. (Recovery snacks are also important for healing damaged tissue and building muscle and for having enough energy for a good workout the next day.) The best snacks after a moderate-intensity routine contain 30 to 60 grams of carbs and around five to 10 grams of protein, Valenzuela says. Some good options include a quarter cup of nuts with a piece of fruit, a peanut butter sandwich or yogurt with ground flaxseeds. (Go for a cup of regular yogurt or a half cup of Greek—low-fat is a fine option for either.) Aim to get your recovery snack in within an hour your workout (sooner if you pushed yourself particularly hard).

I’m training for a distance event. What should I eat while I’m on the road?
Different training plans require different lengths of walks, runs, rides and so forth leading up to a big event, so your eating plan should change to reflect your activity levels. If you’re going to be exercising for more than an hour, it’s important that you take in a mix of carbohydrates and protein during your workout. The carbs give your body energy and the proteins help ensure your body doesn’t try to burn muscle as it works.

During a one- to two-hour workout, aim for 30 to 60 grams of carbs and 8 to 15 grams of protein. You’ll also want to keep drinking water—around 16 to 24 ounces per hour.

For a workout lasting two hours or longer, aim for 0.45 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per hour and 0.045 to 0.114 grams of protein per pound of body weight per hour. With this much activity, energy bars can be a good idea. Look for whole-food grain-based bars (made primarily from oats, for example) that have a good mix of concentrated carbs and protein and are made from natural grains, fruits and sweeteners. Electrolytes are a must for this length of workout—water alone won’t cut it (the same may be true if you sweat a lot whenever you are active). Be sure to take in 300 to 800 mg sodium per hour. Gels, energy chews and sports drinks are all good on-the-go options. Pick up your sports drinks and snacks from a natural food store, where the options tend to be less processed.

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