Chances are you're not training for the Olympics, but if you exercise regularly, take a cue from elite and professional athletes regarding how to eat to gain the most from every workout. Sports nutritionists encourage the following strategies for eating before and after exercise depending on when―morning, noon, or after work―you exercise.
Challenge: Fit in exercise and breakfast before work.
Strategy: No matter what time of day you exercise, your muscles need carbohydrates as fuel, says University of Pittsburgh sports nutritionist Leslie Bonci, R.D., the dietitian Pittsburgh Steelers football players seek for advice. And because you've had nothing to eat all night, your body needs fuel before exercising in the morning. Make it something "that's fairly easily digested" so that it doesn't feel heavy in the stomach, says Bonci. She suggests eating a small carbohydrate-rich snack about an hour before you work out.
If you're up too early for that, Seattle sports nutritionist and author Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., suggests drinking a glass of hot cocoa at bedtime the night before. That way, your muscles will have stored a little extra fuel for the morning.
Best food choices: "I'd advise you to divide your breakfast calorie allotment so you have something light, primarily a carbohydrate that will fuel your body for exercise first, and then have a more substantial breakfast after exercise," says Bonci. All you need before exercise is 100 to 200 calories, mostly carbohydrates with a little protein and fat, such as our Fruit and Yogurt Shake. That's enough to see you through a workout that lasts up to an hour. After exercising, have the Breakfast Fig and Nut "Cookies" or a couple of Warmed Stuffed Peaches with a glass of skim milk. If your morning workout is vigorous, you may also want something right after exercising. "There is a lot of research suggesting that after exercise simple carbs facilitate the body's ability to recover more effectively," Bonci explains. Have a handful of whole-grain toasted oat cereal (such as Cheerios), a sports drink, or a glass of orange juice. Once you are back at home or the office, sit down to a small, satisfying breakfast.
Challenge: Have enough energy to exercise before you eat lunch and not become ravenous afterward.
Strategy: You've eaten breakfast a few hours earlier, and the body has those nutrients digested, absorbed, and ready to be used, says Kleiner, though you could have a light snack with protein and carbohydrates before you work out. And you should plan to eat something immediately after. "Don't blow 45 minutes showering and changing before eating," says Kleiner, or you're more likely to overeat at lunch. "You need to have something in your gym bag to eat right away. Eating immediately after working out helps maximize your exercise by increasing calorie burn and building more muscle." Follow that with a meal that's a good balance of carbs and protein.
Best food choices: Chocolate milk is great post-workout fuel. "One study compared chocolate milk with a high-end recovery sports drink, and they were both equally effective," says Kleiner. A carton of yogurt works, too. Or have some crackers with that and a piece of fruit, she adds. "This is also the time to indulge a sweet tooth," Kleiner says, because the sugar will help muscles to recover. So stop by the coffeehouse for a skim-milk latte with a shot of flavored syrup. Once you're back at work, dig into a healthful lunch with complex carbs, protein, and healthy fats, like our Blue Cheese and Beef Roll-Ups.
Challenge: Exercising when you're beginning to get hungry for dinner.
Strategy: Since lunch was four or five hours ago, "eating something in the afternoon is critical," says Bonci. "Otherwise, you may overshoot your calorie allotment at dinner."
Best food choices: String cheese with whole wheat crackers or half a Peanut Butter-Plus Sandwich are good afternoon snacks, says Bonci. Or try our Cheddar-Parmesan Biscotti with a milk chaser. If you don't have time for a snack before exercising, Kleiner suggests nibbling a little something afterward while preparing dinner. A handful of nuts, for example, will quell your hunger enough that you won't overeat at supper. For dinner, prepare dishes with lean protein and complex carbs, like our Fajita Turkey Burgers or grilled fish with rice and a tossed green salad.