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

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

The High-Energy Diet

A fitness-friendly diet should get most of its calories (55 to65 percent) from high-quality carbohydrates: vegetables, fruits,legumes, and whole grains. Your muscles run on carbohydrates, ormore specifically, the glucose your body breaks them down into.Your diet should also include low to moderate amounts (30 percentor less) of primarily heart-healthy monounsaturated fats like oliveoil and nuts. And it shouldn't skimp on high-quality protein (10 to15 percent), such as low-fat dairy, lean meat, fish, and poultry.Your body uses protein's amino acids to rebuild muscle tissue thatbreaks down during exercise. Protein also helps to maintain yourimmune system.

But a lot of active people overdo protein and, in the process,cut back on carbs. "Many exercisers eat too much protein," saysNancy Clark, M.S., R.D., author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. Part of theproblem may be the myth that protein needs dramatically increasewith exercise. And the current focus on high-protein diets doesn'thelp, says Clark. "People stop having dinner starches and insteadgo for a second piece of chicken." If you routinely trade penne formore poultry, your muscles may lack the fuel they need.

A Vitamin a Day

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

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

Preworkout Nutrition

If you exercise frequently, it's important to eat a well-roundeddiet-and to eat frequently. "If you haven't eaten all day and thenwork 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 thanfour hours between meals, have a snack to prevent energy levelsfrom falling. "Sports bars are fine in a pinch," she says, "butthey don't have the 12,000 disease-fighting phytochemicals found invegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains." Try "powerhouse" wholefoods, 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 toget the right mix of nutrients: lots of high-quality carbs, alittle protein, and, perhaps, some fat. You'll get that in instantoatmeal topped with dried fruit and soy milk, or a whole wheat pitawith hummus spread and a can of vegetable juice. If you're rushedand forget to eat, or if you exercise early in the morning, drink 8ounces of orange juice before jumping on the treadmill. Or do whatApplegate does and sip a skim latte (the milk has carbs andprotein) on the way to the gym. Research suggests the small dose ofcaffeine may also enhance performance. While some sports-nutritionexperts warn against caffeine's diuretic effects, a reviewpublished in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and ExerciseMetabolism last year revealed that moderate amounts (one tofour cups of coffee per day) do not cause dehydration inexercisers.

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

Eating (and Drinking) on the Run

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

But on days when you're exercising longer than an hour, packsnacks to nibble during the workout. "During exercise, the bodyneeds carbs and water," says Clark. The American College of SportsMedicine recommends 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates for every hourof exercise longer than 60 minutes. Certainly sports drinks andgels, such as Powergel or Gu (plus water), are fine fuel for anyendurance workout, but you can experiment with other sources."There are lots of ways to get carbs and water," says Clark. "Somepeople eat hard candies and water; some go for dried figs andwater." Other athletes tote bananas for a quick bite on a bikeride. The key is to find a source you tolerate well duringexercise, and that depends on the individual.

Finish Strong

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

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

Studies, including one published last summer in the Journal ofApplied Physiology, have shown that consuming small amounts ofprotein with carbohydrates may help refill glycogen stores moreefficiently. But unless you're training for a big event and havetrouble getting food down after long practices, you probably don'tneed a specially formulated recovery drink, such as Endurox R4,Applegate says. These products are geared toward serious athleteswho train intensely every day. Most experts recommend protein/carbcombos that come naturally in foods. It's another reason to eat awell-rounded diet.

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