Whether you're eating for endurance or snacking for strength training, it’s not always clear what is best to put into your body. Moreover, “what’s healthy on a regular basis is not necessarily a good choice for the race course, or even for a workout,” explained Barbara Lewin, RD, a sports nutritionist who works with professional athletes. No need to worry: Follow these expert guidelines on how to build and time snacks and you’ll power through with high-octane energy.
If you’re tackling aerobic exercise (hiking, biking, HIIT), when you eat is just as key as what you eat.
Fuel up: Choose a pre-workout meal that’s low in fat and sugar, moderate in protein and high in carbs, like a smoothie made with almond milk, banana and berries. Have it 60 to 90 minutes before your workout: “The meal should be digested to provide fuel to the working muscles,” Lewin said. “The last thing you want is to step onto the treadmill with a full stomach.”
If your cardio session is less than an hour long, you don’t need to snack again during, noted Abby Langer, RD, a dietitian in Toronto and owner of Abby Langer Nutrition.
Recover from it: After your workout, your body has a 20- to 30-minute “metabolic window,” when your muscles absorb nutrients most efficiently. It’s important to replenish during this time frame so your body maintains its energy supply. Prioritize carbs and protein, advised New York City nutritionist Leah Kaufman, RD: “A snack with this combination will help aid muscle recovery and reduce soreness.”
Opt for something small, like a cup of chocolate milk; one study found that cyclists shaved an average of six minutes off their ride time when they drank low-fat chocolate milk after training, as opposed to sports drinks and zero-calorie beverages. Within an hour, you want protein and electrolytes; try a protein smoothie made with coconut water, suggested Kaufman. We like Zico Natural Coconut Water ($23 for a 12-pack of 11.2-oz. cartons; amazon.com).
Eat a balanced meal with carbs and protein an hour or two before you hit the weights—and have plenty of liquids on hand for the workout. Carbs help prevent muscle breakdown and fatigue, while protein helps regulate growth and repair, said Marie Spano, RD, sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks.
Fuel up: Stick to water for sessions under an hour; choose a sports drink if you’re lifting for longer. “The carbs in the sports drink will give you extra energy,” explained Spano. For a quick drink that replenishes electrolytes, try the fruity, dissolvable Nuun All Day drink tabs ($23 for four tubes of 15; amazon.com). Pop them right into your water bottle.
Recover from it: Protein holds the healing power your body needs now, says Kaufman: “Our muscles undergo tears and stress that can be repaired only by the amino acids in protein.” Sip a water- or almond-milk-based whey protein shake containing 20 to 25 grams of protein within an hour. If you prefer a solid source of fuel, have a bar. Clif Builder’s Protein Bar ($18 for a box of 12; amazon.com) packs 20 grams of protein. (At 270 cals, it’s best for after high-intensity sessions.)
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Prepping for a race
Training for a 5K, 10K, or marathon? Practice your race menu.
“Eating exactly what you plan to have on the day of the race will be beneficial in seeing how it affects your energy and stomach,” Kaufman said.
Fuel up: The night before race day or a hard run, Langer suggested grabbing a meal that’s lower in fiber and fat but high in carbs—so, yes, pasta works, but you don’t have to carbo-load with a vat of spaghetti. The morning of, have a small, carb-filled breakfast, like a white bagel (you read that right!) with almond butter and a banana. If your race time is under an hour, you shouldn’t need to worry about drinking while you’re running. For longer events, Langer recommended downing 3 to 6 ounces of fluid every 20 minutes and 30 to 60 grams of carbs every hour; energy gels are convenient on the go.
Recover from it: A general rule is to drink 16 ounces of fluid for every pound you sweat off during your run (you can tell by weighing yourself right before and after). For more intense weeks of training, Lewin advised drinking 4 ounces of tart cherry juice twice a day to help with recovery and reduce muscle damage and inflammation. Research confirms that cherry juice is a smart move: In a small study published by the American College of Sports Medicine, trained athletes who drank it twice daily for a week before and two days after intense strength training returned to 90 percent of their normal muscle force in 24 hours, compared with only 85 percent when they didn’t drink it.
Energy gels: Try GU Energy Gels, $1.50 each; rei.com (0 grams protein, 5 to 10 grams sugar, 20 to 30 grams carbs). Reserve these for midway through a high-mileage run or bike ride, when glycogen replenishment is needed.
Protein powders: Try Jay Robb Whey Protein, $38 for a 24-oz. bag; amazon.com (20 to 25 grams protein, less than 5 grams sugar, less than 5 grams carbs). Add 1 scoop to unsweetened coconut milk along with ½ cup of frozen berries.
Sports drinks: Try Gatorade Endurance Formula, $33 for 32 oz.; amazon.com (0 grams protein, 10 to 20 grams sugar, 10 to 30 grams carbs).
Protein bars: Try Quest Protein Bar, $24 for a pack of 12; amazon.com (20 to 25 grams protein for strength training, 10 to 15 grams for cardio or HIIT workouts, less than 5 grams sugar, 20 to 30 grams carbs).