According to Francis, foods containing carbohydrates are the most important item to help fuel the muscles and to ensure you don’t “hit the wall” during heavy exercise or competition. “Eat a well-balanced meal two to four hours before training and then a small snack prior to training if it has been three or four hours since your last meal,” she said. “The snack should be mostly carbohydrate with a small amount of protein and fat. These take longer to digest and you don’t want to keep digesting foods while you’re training.”
If you are strength training, she recommends including about 10 grams of protein along with carbohydrates to maximize your workout. A great snack example would be cheese and crackers.
A common choice of fuel before exercising is mixing water with a pre-workout supplement made up of a combination of different forms of caffeine, like green tea. While pre-workout supplements do give you a bit of a pump, some people get jittery or sick from drinking them. “I would just stick to food. It may be hard getting started, but your workout should give you a pickup anyway,” Francis said.
Some people complain of feeling sick if they eat before exercising. Francis said people in this situation should try to eat foods that are bland and low in fiber such as a piece of white toast with honey, or crackers. Liquids like Gatorade or a smoothie are also a good choice. “Sometimes liquids are better tolerated than solid foods because they tend to digest more quickly,” she said.
After a workout, you need to eat a combination of foods that have both carbohydrates and proteins. Francis said one of the best recovery foods is chocolate milk because it has protein from the milk as well as extra carbs from the chocolate. Other options include yogurt with fruit, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a smoothie made with fruit and yogurt or even a sports bar. Avoid foods high in sugar because they’re high in calories, but don’t have nutritional value.
Timing is just as crucial for an ideal recovery as what you eat. Francis said the body will replenish the nutrients most efficiently within 15-60 minutes of working out or finishing a competition. Athletes should try to at least have a snack or recovery drink within that time period and follow up with a balanced meal later on. She said even if you aren’t hungry, making sure to replenish in that time zone is important – especially if you’re participating in multiple games or intense workouts across multiple days.
Francis said there are all kinds of health food myths in regards to sports nutrition, but many of them have to do with protein intake. She said although your body needs protein to recover, you really only need about 10-15 grams of protein after a workout. Most shakes have 25-30 grams or more of protein. “Instead of spending all the money on those specialty drinks and products, you can get the same benefits from eating foods,” Francis said. “If you’re weight training, I would recommend 10 grams of protein before and another 10 grams of protein after you work out. A cheese stick or a glass of milk for protein before a workout would be sufficient.”
Many store-bought protein shakes or smoothies have a lot more calories than consumers think. “People don’t realize how many calories are going into the drinks they’re making or buying, so there’s potential for a lot more calories than desired there,” Francis said.
“The recommendations I’m giving are more for athletes – people who are really working out hard. For the average person like me, I just take what I usually eat and divide it up before and after my workout,” Francis said. “Usually people think because they’re working out, they can eat a lot more. This is why people end up overeating easily.”
Ultimately, Francis said she doesn’t believe in the idea that there are good foods and bad foods – it’s more of a focus on quantity. Ideally, you want to choose food from the main five food groups and try to get a bit of each of those in a meal after a workout. Avoid overeating by dividing the amount of food you usually eat instead of increasing the amount.