Eating and Exercise: 5 Tips to Maximize Your Workouts

By Rick Reigle DPT

Eating and exercise go hand in hand. When and what you eat can be important to how you feel when you exercise, whether it’s a casual workout or a serious athletic competition.

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Here are five tips for eating and exercise to help maximize your exercise and athletic performance. Keep in mind that the duration and intensity of your activity will dictate what and how often you should eat and drink. Running a marathon demands more energy in the way of food than does walking two miles.

1. Eat a Healthy Breakfast. If you exercise in the morning, get up early enough to eat breakfast — that may mean one to two hours before your workout. Most of the energy you got from dinner the previous night is used up by morning, and your blood sugar may be low. If you don't eat, you may feel sluggish or lightheaded when you exercise. If you plan to exercise within an hour after breakfast, eat a lighter breakfast or drink something to raise your blood sugar, such as a sports drink. Emphasize carbohydrates for maximum energy. Good breakfast options include:

  • Whole grain cereals or bread
  • Low fat milk
  • Juice
  • Bananas

If you're not a fan of eating in the morning before you work out, try a sports drink or have a bigger bedtime snack the night before. And remember, if you normally have coffee in the mornings, a cup or two before your workout is probably OK. Just don't try any foods or drinks for the first time before a workout, or you risk an upset stomach.

2. Size Matters. Be careful not to overdo it when it comes to how much you eat before exercise. The general guideline:
  • Large meals: Eat these at least 3-4 hours before exercising
  • Small meals: Eat these at least 2-3 hours before exercising
  • Small snacks: Eat these 1 hour before exercising

Eating too much can leave you feeling sluggish, or worse, with a case of stomach cramps. Eating too little may not give you the energy to keep you feeling strong throughout your workout.

3. Snack Well. Most people can eat small snacks right before and during exercise. The key is how you feel. Do what works best for you. Snacks eaten right before exercise probably won't give you added energy, but they can help keep your blood sugar stable and prevent distracting hunger pangs. Good snack options include:

  • Energy bars or drinks
  • Bananas or other fresh fruit
  • Yogurt
  • Fruit smoothies
  • Whole grain bagels or crackers with peanut butter
  • Granola bars

A healthy snack is especially important if you plan a workout several hours after a meal.

4. Eat after you exercise. To help your muscles recover and to replace their glycogen stores, eat a meal that contains both protein and carbohydrates within two hours of your exercise session if possible. If you aren't hungry after your workout, drink juice or sports drink to provide replenishing carbohydrates. Good post workout food choices include:
  • Yogurt and fruit
  • Peanut butter or meat sandwich
  • String cheese and crackers
  • Nuts and dried fruit
  • A regular meal with meat, starch, and cooked vegetable or salad
5. Drink up. Don’t forget fluids to help optimize your workouts. You need adequate fluids before, during, and after exercise to help prevent dehydration. To stay well hydrated, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends that you:
  • Drink about 2-3 cups (0.5-0.7 liters) of water during the 2-3 hours before you workout.
  • Drink about 1/2 -1 cup (0.12-0.23 liters) of water every 15-20
  • minutes during your workout. You may need more the larger your
  • body and the warmer the weather
  • Drink about 2-3 cups (0.5-0.7 liters) of water after your workout
  • When it comes to eating and exercise, everyone is different.

So pay attention to how you feel during your workout and your overall performance. Let your experience guide you on which pre- and post-exercise eating habits work best for you. Consider keeping a journal to monitor how your body reacts to meals and snacks so that you can tweak your diet for optimal performance.