Should you eat or fast before a workout? Is carbo-loading a good idea before a vigorous exercise routine? And what should you eat to recover from heavy physical activity?
For many of us, trying to find the right balance of healthy eating and a regular exercise routine is not easy. Figuring out what foods are most nourishing before and after a workout can be even more difficult.
But it’s important to know what types of foods can help fuel your sweat session and the right post-workout meals that help your body refuel.
Here are some expert tips on how best to nourish your body before, during, and after a workout.
Don't exercise on an empty stomach. It's important to try and eat something before you work out, regardless of what time of the day it is.
Eat a fuel-boosting snack, like a banana or rice cake, at least 30 minutes before working out. It will help you have a more intense workout by keeping your body's energy stores high.
Carbohydrates and a good-quality protein before a workout should do the trick. Some options: Oatmeal and berries, peanut butter and an apple, or yogurt and muesli.
Carbs can help enhance your performance, especially during long cardio exercises, according to researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia.
Nancy Cohen, a professor of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst recommends 1 to 4 grams of carbs per every 2.2 pounds of body weight if you are planning to exercise for longer than an hour. What does that equal? A banana has about 27 grams of total carbohydrates.
"By eating carbohydrate-rich foods that are low in fat and low or moderate in protein, you can make sure you have enough muscle glycogen as fuel for your physical activity. This might include low-fat granola bars, fig bars, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, banana, yogurt, pasta, or other high-carbohydrate foods," Cohen said.
One exception: if it's been only two or three hours since your last full meal, you can skip the snack.
Avoid pre-workout energy powders. Many of them are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and can do more harm than good.
People who have taken pre-workout mixes have reported rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, and digestion issues. Some nutritionists recommend a cup of coffee instead.
Drink during your workout. Unless you're exercising for longer than an hour, there really isn't a reason to have a snack during your workout. But you should focus on drinking plenty of water during your workout to stay hydrated.
For workouts that last more than an hour, gels that you can squeeze into your mouth or dry fruits will give you the extra calories you need.
"For endurance exercises of one to 2.5 hours, aim for 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. This will provide carbohydrates to fuel the exercise to supplement the muscle glycogen," Cohen said.
"Depending on the sport and the comfort of the individual, a range of foods or beverages could be useful here. Juices, sports drinks, granola bars, fruit, and other high-carbohydrate foods and drinks can be helpful."
What to eat after exercise. A mix of carbs and proteins makes for an excellent post-workout meal. Protein helps repair muscle tears and carbs help you maintain your energy. Stick to lean proteins, like chicken or fish, with brown rice or sweet potatoes and some vegetables for a balanced meal.
"I would always recommend having vegetables post-workout because the antioxidants and nutrients will help with recovery," Neglia said.
If you're not hungry for a full meal, a snack like yogurt or hard-boiled eggs are a good alternative.
But you should avoid protein shakes, Neglia said.
"If it's something convenient to have on the way to work, that's fine. Or one scoop in your water isn't bad. But if you're getting it on-the-go, make sure you know what's going in there. There might be too many servings of fruit or multiple scoops of nut butter. You can have it but not having a protein shake is not going to make you lose muscle," Neglia added.
What about protein bars? Again, it's important to check the labels to see just what's in them. Ideally, a bar should be under 200 calories and have only a few grams of sugar. Otherwise, it's a dessert not a snack.
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