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
- Low-fat milk
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.
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:
- Energy bars or drinks
- Bananas or other fresh fruit
- Fruit smoothies
- Whole-grain bagel or crackers with peanut butter
- Granola bars
A healthy snack is especially important if you plan a workout several hours after a meal.
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. 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. But if you're exercising for more than 60 minutes, use a sports drink. Sports drinks can help maintain your body's electrolyte balance and give you a bit more energy because they contain carbohydrates.
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.