If you’re into working out, chances are you’re into making your exercise sessions all they can be. The right footwear? Check. Comfortable, breathable workout wear? Check. Good tunes to keep you motivated? Check.
However, when it comes to nutrition, many people slack off, or are unsure about the best foods to fuel their workout. Or maybe they’re afraid of the added calories.
Toss all those notions aside. Your body needs – and craves – proper nutrition, which can replenish energy and fluid lost during a workout, help with endurance and even recovery.
What are the best foods to eat? We’ve done the research (so you don’t have to).
Eating before a workout can prevent low blood sugar, which can derail your best efforts by making you feel lightheaded and fatigued.
Registered dietitian Isabel K. Smith says to keep it really simple. Eating something low in fat, fiber and protein will make digestion easy and avoid stomachaches. Smith suggests a banana for a great pre-workout snack. Bananas supply a healthy dose of potassium, which helps to maintain nerve and muscle function. Adding a half-cup of Greek yogurt (best to keep it plain to keep the sugar levels low) gives you an added boost of protein.
Other fruits you might want to consider are apples or grapes, which provide an antioxidant called quercetin, which can aid endurance by making oxygen more available to the lungs.
The American College Of Sports Medicine offers a few other recommendations for good breakfast foods to eat pre-workout, like oatmeal with milk, fruits and nuts, turkey sandwich with fruit, cottage cheese with crackers and fruit or toast and peanut butter.
If you’re a coffee drinker, you might be doing your workout a favor: a Spanish Study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that trained athletes who ingested caffeine before exercise burned about 15 percent more calories for three hours post-exercise compared to those who took in a placebo.
Although there’s no one ideal food to eat before a workout and everyone’s tastes varies, make sure whatever you eat is low in fat and fiber and moderate in carbs and protein.
For most people, water is a fine way to hydrate during a workout. When you exercise you’re losing water through sweat and through your breath. Staying hydrated is an important factor in preventing dizziness, lethargy, cramps or weak muscles, which can occur from dehydration.
Being well-hydrated can help you work out longer and stronger, since your heart doesn’t have to work as hard pumping blood to your body. What’s more, water assists the transport of oxygen and nutrients to your muscles during exercise.
Just how much water do you need? Experts recommend drinking 15-20 ounces one or two hours pre-workout; 8-10 ounces 15 minutes before beginning, then eight ounces of water for every 15 minutes during your workout.
If you are an endurance athlete, Smith advises drinking something containing carbohydrates and electrolytes, “like a sports beverage or coconut water” (coconut water is the best choice, she says.)
The best snack or meal to aid in recovery should contain some carbohydrates and protein, says Smith, who points out the importance of protein especially if your exercise included strength training. “For most of us, 20-25 grams of protein should be sufficient” she says. For an easy and balanced protein shake, she suggests a minimally-processed and flavored protein powder blended with about a half cup of fruit. “Alternatively, if a meal will follow exercise shortly, there’s no need for an additional snack,” she says.
As for liquids, one study found that cherry juice helps recovery during strenuous exercise by reducing inflammation. Another study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that a little caffeine may be beneficial after exercise, especially for endurance athletes who perform day after day. Milk, either regular or chocolate, contains a mix of carbohydrates and protein, which can be readily used by your body for repair and growth.
Yogurt, with its balanced mix of carbs and protein, can also be a great post-workout recovery food, as can grilled chicken and mixed veggies; salmon and sweet potato; or tuna, hummus and spinach on whole wheat.