nutrition advice for fueling your workouts from a registered dietitian
First, let me preface this by saying that I’m not a Sports Dietitian and that if you’re seriously training for something, I would always recommend finding a sports-specific RD in your area who can cater to your personal needs.
That said, there are some nutrition basics that I think could be helpful for those of you who are training for various races this Fall like I am!
What to Fuel With: The two things most important things to consider with regards to workouts are carbohydrates and fluids.
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the main fuel for muscles so carbs are key for workouts. The body takes carbohydrates (which are made of glucose) and converts them to a substance called glycogen (the storage form of glucose). Glycogen is stored in our muscles and is what the body calls upon to burn during longer workouts when more energy is needed.
Fluids: Getting enough fluids on a day to day basis is very important, and getting enough before, during and after a workout is just as critical (especially if you’re working out in the summer heat!). Everyone’s needs for water are different. General recommendations are to consume eight 8-oz. glasses of water per day. This may be enough for some people while not enough for others. Most people can manage their fluid intake simply by drinking when they’re thirsty while others need a bit more of a push. The best way to monitor your hydration status is to pay attention to the color of your urine (dark yellow urine is generally an indication that you are dehydrated and could stand to up your intake).
While getting enough carbohydrates and fluids before and after your workouts is really important, if you are working out for an hour or more, you should consider replacing them during as well. People often turn to sports drinks, energy gels or chews in this instance. While you can absolutely use those if they work best for your body during activity, you can also utilize real food (bananas, dried fruit, baby food pouches are a few options that could work well).
A Note on Protein: I think there’s a common misconception that an excess of protein is needed in order to build muscle, but that’s actually not the case. Most people eating a well-balanced diet likely get enough protein without supplementing with things like powders and high protein bars. Protein intake does not equal muscle growth. Muscle growth comes from eating a well-balanced diet and putting your muscles to work. Getting enough overall fuel is very important for muscle growth because if you’re not taking in enough energy, your body will eventually start to break down its own muscle in order to fuel workouts. So working out and under eating actually has the opposite effect.
Timing Your Fuel & What to Eat:
While it can be tempting (especially if you workout early morning), it’s not recommended to workout on an empty stomach – especially if you’re working out for an hour or more.
Pre-Workout: Pre-workout fuel is about making sure your body has what it needs to get through your workout. In an ideal world, you would eat 1-3 hours before your workout begins (everyone is different, so try a couple different timeframes to see what works best for you). This way your body has time to digest the food you’ve eaten so you’re able to avoid any potential cramping or other GI issues that may occur as a result of eating too close to the start of your workout. Additionally, allowing your body time to digest the food you’ve eaten means that when you workout, your body can simply focus on fueling the workout, rather than trying to digest food at the same time.
Try these pre-workout:
- Whole grain PB&J
- Fruit & nut trail mix or bar (such as KIND)
- Whole grain cereal and milk
- Whole grain mini bagel with peanut butter and banana
- Oatmeal with fruit
Post-Workout: Post-workout fuel is all about replenishing what you lost during your workout as well as aiding the recovery process. Carbohydrates and fluid ensure you’re replacing what you’ve lost while protein is important for aiding the recovery process (rebuilding and repairing muscles). Aim to eat about 20-30 minutes after your workout.
Try these post-workout:
- Yogurt (which provides both protein and carbohydrates) with granola and berries
- Turkey sandwich on whole grain bread
- Hummus and whole grain crackers
- Egg & cheese on whole grain bread
- Smoothie made with fruit, milk or yogurt
How Much To Eat:
In general, unless you’re an elite athlete or training for extreme competition, your usual balanced diet should be enough to keep you well-fueled. It’s more important to be smart about how and when you’re fueling than focusing on how much you’re fueling with. Listen to your internal hunger and fullness cues – they will let you know if you need more or less.
Obviously these are general rules and everyone is different. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try out different things to see what works best for YOU. Working out those kinks during training mean that come race day, you’ll be more than ready. Above all, listen to your body because it knows what you need best!4