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Food for Fitness

Photographer Rita Maas / Styling: Michele Michael
When it comes to fitness performance, how you fuel up can help you finish feeling strong.

If you really want your body to work for you when you work out-whether that's making the most of 30 minutes on the treadmill or building up to marathon mileage-feed it right. For the recreational exerciser whose typical week involves 15 to 25 miles of running or a few cardio classes, "dietary needs aren't any different than they are for the average person," says Elizabeth Somer, R.D., author of Food and Mood. But ensuring that you meet your basic needs will enhance your performance.

The High-Energy Diet

A fitness-friendly diet should get most of its calories (55 to 65 percent) from high-quality carbohydrates: vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. Your muscles run on carbohydrates, or more specifically, the glucose your body breaks them down into. Your diet should also include low to moderate amounts (30 percent or less) of primarily heart-healthy monounsaturated fats like olive oil and nuts. And it shouldn't skimp on high-quality protein (10 to 15 percent), such as low-fat dairy, lean meat, fish, and poultry. Your body uses protein's amino acids to rebuild muscle tissue that breaks down during exercise. Protein also helps to maintain your immune system.

But a lot of active people overdo protein and, in the process, cut back on carbs. "Many exercisers eat too much protein," says Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. Part of the problem may be the myth that protein needs dramatically increase with exercise. And the current focus on high-protein diets doesn't help, says Clark. "People stop having dinner starches and instead go for a second piece of chicken." If you routinely trade penne for more poultry, your muscles may lack the fuel they need.

A Vitamin a Day

For the majority of active people, consuming a variety of healthful foods covers most vitamin and mineral needs, but a multivitamin helps fill any gaps. Take one that provides 100 to 150 percent of the daily value for all nutrients, and opt for a gender-specific variety since nutritional needs (iron, for example) vary between men and women, says Liz Applegate, Ph.D., of the University of California at Davis and author of the Encyclopedia of Sports and Fitness Nutrition. Multivitamins sold in supermarkets will do just fine and are reasonably priced.

And you don't need any other nutritional supplements. Taking too much of one vitamin or mineral could interfere with the absorption of another, and some supplements, like ephedra, are downright dangerous. Even aids that seem relatively safe, such as creatine (used by athletes to delay muscle fatigue), can have such adverse effects as dehydration and muscle cramping. And their long-term effects aren't known.

Preworkout Nutrition

If you exercise frequently, it's important to eat a well-rounded diet-and to eat frequently. "If you haven't eaten all day and then work out, your body doesn't have the glucose it needs to function. You're asking your body to run on fumes, and it won't feel good," warns Somer. As a general rule of thumb, if you're going more than four hours between meals, have a snack to prevent energy levels from falling. "Sports bars are fine in a pinch," she says, "but they don't have the 12,000 disease-fighting phytochemicals found in vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains." Try "powerhouse" whole foods, including orange and green veggies and fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, low-fat milk, and soy products.

Plan to eat two to four hours before working out, and be sure to get the right mix of nutrients: lots of high-quality carbs, a little protein, and, perhaps, some fat. You'll get that in instant oatmeal topped with dried fruit and soy milk, or a whole wheat pita with hummus spread and a can of vegetable juice. If you're rushed and forget to eat, or if you exercise early in the morning, drink 8 ounces of orange juice before jumping on the treadmill. Or do what Applegate does and sip a skim latte (the milk has carbs and protein) on the way to the gym. Research suggests the small dose of caffeine may also enhance performance. While some sports-nutrition experts warn against caffeine's diuretic effects, a review published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism last year revealed that moderate amounts (one to four cups of coffee per day) do not cause dehydration in exercisers.

On the day of a major event, set the alarm so you have time for a good meal (about 400 calories) a couple of hours before your race. And make it one that you know works. Part of your training program is learning which foods fuel you best without upsetting your stomach, says Applegate. "Find out what sits well with you. Is it a small yogurt-based smoothie, or does toast with jam fit better? You don't want to worry about that detail on the day of the race."

Eating (and Drinking) on the Run

If a workout lasts less than an hour (and you've eaten properly), there's no need to eat during exercise. Hydration is your only concern, and plain old water-4 to 8 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes-will do.

But on days when you're exercising longer than an hour, pack snacks to nibble during the workout. "During exercise, the body needs carbs and water," says Clark. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates for every hour of exercise longer than 60 minutes. Certainly sports drinks and gels, such as Powergel or Gu (plus water), are fine fuel for any endurance workout, but you can experiment with other sources. "There are lots of ways to get carbs and water," says Clark. "Some people eat hard candies and water; some go for dried figs and water." Other athletes tote bananas for a quick bite on a bike ride. The key is to find a source you tolerate well during exercise, and that depends on the individual.

Finish Strong

So you've just finished your first half-marathon, and an ice-cold beer is the first thing that comes to mind. Is that the best way to recover after the race? "It's fine to celebrate, so long as you have some quality food beforehand," says Applegate. "If you've just completed a two- to three-hour run or ride, you want to get in some carbohydrates as well as a little bit of protein." The postrecovery window is 30 to 60 minutes after an event. In other words, cross that finish line and get something to eat.

Many people overlook postexercise nutrition, and that's a mistake because a postworkout meal will keep you from feeling tired and sluggish after a long race or a hard workout. During a long endurance event, you deplete stores of glycogen, the carbohydrate reserve your body needs for fuel. The sooner you start to replenish glycogen, the faster your body will recover. Plus, your muscles are most receptive to fuel right after exercise, when blood flow to them is high and glycogen-building enzymes are most active.

Studies, including one published last summer in the Journal of Applied Physiology, have shown that consuming small amounts of protein with carbohydrates may help refill glycogen stores more efficiently. But unless you're training for a big event and have trouble getting food down after long practices, you probably don't need a specially formulated recovery drink, such as Endurox R4, Applegate says. These products are geared toward serious athletes who train intensely every day. Most experts recommend protein/carb combos that come naturally in foods. It's another reason to eat a well-rounded diet.

How well you refuel after a race or workout determines how you'll feel for the rest of the day as well as during workouts later in the week. Keeping your body properly fueled will help you feel great when you hop back on the bike or take to the trail in preparation for your next race.