What to Eat Before/After Exercise?

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We are always looking for suggestions for blog entry topics. This morning, a colleague messaged us on our Facebook page and asked us to write a piece on nutrition for student athletes. More specifically, she asked us to write about what a student-athlete should eat before and after a demanding workout.

Like most areas of nutrition, sports nutrition must be individualized. In other words, what works for your friend, teammate, brother, sister, etc. will not necessarily have you performing your best and vice versa, nor will the guidelines I outline below automatically work for you either. For that reason, I always suggest trying out a new eating routine on a practice day. Competition days are not for experimenting, but rather for eating the foods that you know from experience will have you performing up to the best of your capabilities.

In addition to individuality, other factors influence what and when we eat before exercise. Our main source of fuel during exercise is carbohydrates. Because of that, we want them to be the bulk of our intake before our workout. Their form, quantity, and combination with other foods depend on the intensity, duration, and mode of the upcoming workout.

Before a high-intensity bout of exercise, such as a cross-country race, we often need a greater amount of digestion time and a higher ratio of carbohydrates. For example, the student-athlete might have a plate of pasta with a small portion of grilled chicken at lunch in preparation for an afternoon race. If the athlete had the meal closer to race time, he or she may wish to ditch the chicken and have just the pasta, which will be more quickly absorbed in absence of the meat. Yogurt or toast with jam are other examples of small pre-exercise meals that work for some people. Someone who likes to fuel very closely to a high-intensity event might do better with a small amount of fruit or liquid nutrition, like Gatorade. Fruit juice is not ideal during this time; the high fructose content can cause gastrointestinal distress.

Before a low-intensity event, such as a long-distance bike ride or a game of baseball, people can often tolerate more well-rounded meals closer to exercise. Carbohydrate content should still be high, but more protein and fat can often be tolerated. Presence of the latter two macronutrients can also be helpful by slowing digestion and delaying the onset of hunger. Waffles with peanut butter, a burrito, or my previous example of pasta with chicken are examples of meals that can work well before an event of this caliber.

After exercise, our attention shifts from fueling to recovering. We have a short window of time (approximately 30-60 minutes) following exercise in which enzymatic activity is elevated and enables our bodies to be especially good at repairing muscles and replenishing glycogen stores during this time. For that reason, soon after exercise we want to consume both protein and carbohydrates. Examples include a small turkey sandwich, an apple with peanut butter, or yogurt.

Student-athletes often find themselves having to deal with a gap of time between finishing practice and when the family sits down to dinner, so having a post-practice snack that incorporates both protein and carbohydrates is going to be especially important. Taking advantage of this short window of time often necessitates bringing shelf-stable food that can tolerate being unrefrigerated from the time the student leaves home early in the morning to the afternoon after practice. Nuts, in combination with a carbohydrate source, such as fresh or dried fruit, often work well. Shelf-stable boxed milk or a product like Orgain, which is essentially protein-fortified milk, can also do the job.

Heavy sweaters and people who tend to lose a high amount of salt in their sweat (i.e. someone who leaves white streaks of salt deposits in exercise clothing) also need to focus on replenishing sodium. Gatorade Endurance or salted nuts, pretzels, popcorn, or tortilla chips are good options.

If you are a student-athlete and you would like individualized help with fueling yourself to perform your best, come see one of us or another registered dietitian who has expertise in sports nutrition.

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