If you’ve worked up the motivation for another sweat fest, good for you — that’s half the battle. The other essential half of the workout equation is eating the best foods for your sport of choice. The path to improved performance and staying lean is much smoother if you nail your nutrition needs for before, during and after exercise. Here’s how to dial in your sports nutrition to maximize your workout returns.
The Core Principles
Preworkout: Pumping fuel into your body before your workout can give you a much-needed burst of energy so you’re ready to perform at your best.
During workout: Hoping to get more out of your epic workouts? Be sure to add fuel to your gas tank so you can keep on motoring.
Postworkout: Smart post-training eats help maximize your recovery, making you stronger and faster in the long run.
What you need: A growling tummy and sagging energy levels are not conducive to a bragworthy workout. And when you aren’t able to pump iron or perform burpees full blast, there is less chance you’ll experience optimal physique gains. As long as you took in a well-balanced meal a couple of hours beforehand, a light snack of 150 to 200 calories should suffice to keep you energized on the gym floor. Including some pre-lifting protein in that snack can work to limit muscle damage during your workout. In fact, there is data suggesting taking up to 10 grams of branched-chain amino acids mixed with water before resistance training can lead to less muscle soreness and even quicker recovery time.
Good eats: String cheese and a handful of grapes, a rice cake with low-fat ricotta and almond butter spread on banana slices
What you need: Most lifting or CrossFit sessions aren’t long enough to warrant taking in extra calories during exercise. Drink water and rely on your preworkout fuel to keep you going strong.
What you need: Tossing around the iron and punishing sets of box jumps damages muscles; taking in protein afterward helps build them back up and switch on muscle protein synthesis. And that’s key for a more toned and stronger physique. Aim for 20 to 30 grams of high-quality protein shortly after shelving the weights. To replenish energy stores, consume about the same number of carbs as protein — say, a carb-to-protein ratio of 1:1 to 2:1.
Good eats: Greek yogurt topped with berries, a protein shake, jerky and a handful of dried cherries
Extra credit: Of all the amino acids that make up protein, leucine is the most important for switching on muscle protein synthesis in response to training. Whey protein powder, ricotta cheese, beef and poultry are reliable sources of leucine.
What you need: When gearing up for some serious training in the pool or open water, the right preworkout fuel can help stymie the premature fatigue that results in less fitness gains and calories burned. But opt for lower-glycemic eats. These will raise your blood sugar more slowly, resulting in a steady stream of energy as well as improved fat burning. Reach for a 150- to 300-calorie snack with at least 60 percent carbs about 45 minutes before jumping in. And down a couple of cups of water for better pre-hydration.
Good eats: Apple slices with nut butter, low-fat yogurt with diced pineapple and a small energy bar
What you need: Generally, if you’re swimming for an hour or less, you shouldn’t require any supplemental calories to get you to the end of a workout. But if your thrill is marathon swims, you should consider surfacing on occasion for a carb-rich fuel to keep those swim strokes strong. (Roughly 20 to 30 grams of carbs during each fueling period should suffice.) If in the throes of a triathalon, the post-swim transition is a good time to fuel up in preparation for the tasks ahead.
Good eats: Gels, sports drinks, dried fruit and chews
What you need: Eat within 60 minutes of exercise cessation, and make it about a 3:1 carb-to-protein ratio to refill your glycogen stores and kick-start muscle repair. That can be a snack containing 40 grams of carbs and 15 grams of protein.
Good eats: Hard-boiled egg and banana, cereal and milk, and quinoa with canned tuna
Extra credit: Modern science shows that probiotics can help bolster immunity in endurance athletes like swimmers and runners. Eat fermented foods, including yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and tempeh.
What you need: A little bit of nutrition before pounding the pavement or tackling treadmill intervals can help top up your energy reserves so you can work at a higher intensity for longer, resulting in greater performance gains overall. To go strong from the get-go, reach for a 150- to 250-calorie snack consisting of about 75 percent carbs taken 30 to 60 minutes before a run.
Good eats: Plain instant oats topped with dried cranberries, a rice cake with hummus and Medjool dates stuffed with nut butter
What you need: Most runs lasting less than 90 minutes can be fueled on water alone, but anything longer requires extra energy to keep you from coming to a standstill. Running is hard on the digestive track, so bring along easily digested foods that will give you 30 to 60 grams of carbs for each hour of activity. Carbs (in the form of blood glucose and muscle glycogen) are the body’s preferred fuel source, and a supply of them will keep your muscles from zeroing out. To stay on top of your hydration needs during endurance workouts, make it a habit of drinking 2 to 3 cups of fluid for each hour of exercise.
Good eats: Sports drinks, gels, chews and boxed raisins
What you need: Running causes more muscle damage than cycling or swimming, so protein needs are slightly elevated to stimulate the repair process. Your post-run nosh should contain at least 20 grams of protein. Refuel smarter by also consuming twice that amount of carbohydrates to start restocking spent energy stores. The harder the run, the more you need to carb up.
Good eats: Yogurt topped with muesli, a ham and cheese sandwich, and rice cakes topped with canned salmon
Extra credit: Research shows that honey mixed with water can promote recovery in runners by improving hydration and restocking glycogen — your main energy reserves when working hard.
What you need: Whether you’re venturing into the great outdoors or a high-tempo Spin class, a pre-exercise nibble provides your working muscles with an extra energy source so you can go hard from the get-go. For easier rides, eat 150 to 200 high-carb calories about 30 to 45 minutes before hopping on the saddle. If you’re going to go hard and long, bump this up to 300 calories. As with all endurance exercise, avoid too much slow-digesting fiber, fat and protein pre-ride to sidestep stomach woes.
Good eats: Mashed sweet potato topped with pumpkin seeds, half an English muffin topped with almond butter and fresh berries
What you need: Push into the 75-minute or longer time frame on your bike and you’ll likely perform like a champ and steer clear of the dreaded bonk by consuming extra energy to keep your blood sugar and muscle energy reserves from dipping too low. Forget the protein bars and go instead with carb-heavy items that offer up 30 to 90 grams of carbohydrates for each hour of saddle time. Take any fuel with water to help dilute the sugar concentration and prevent GI distress. A low-sugar electrolyte product like Nuun can be helpful to slip into your water bottle for especially sweaty Spin classes.
Good eats: Banana, energy bars, chews and Fig Newtons
What you need: Following a hard ride, think of your body as a dry sponge ready to soak up recovery nutrients. Recharge your body with a postworkout snack or meal containing roughly a 3:1 carb-to-protein ratio. Because cycling can tax your energy reserves, aim for 1 to 1.25 grams of carbs per kilogram of bodyweight. And chug back 2 cups of water for every pound you shed during exercise.
Good eats: Pasta with meat sauce, pita with hummus and a berry smoothie
Extra credit: Nitrates have been shown to increase exercise tolerance by lowering the oxygen cost of working out. Beets are Mother Nature’s nitrate powerhouse, so a couple of hours before endurance exercise, drink a cup of beet juice or a concentrated beet powder like Healthy Skoop mixed with water.
What you need: If you’re heading out for an ambitious hike, grab a pre-tramp snack that provides about 300 calories consisting of quality carbs and a bit of protein to stave off the hunger monster and also give your legs a little extra gas.
Good eats: Peanut butter on toast, small wrap with sliced ham and muesli with milk
What you need: When out for the long haul, your body requires some fuel to help you push farther down the trail or bag a summit. The moderate pace of most hiking is easier on your digestive system, so it can handle more complex foods than when in the throes of other endurance activities like running. So be sure to reach for your feed bag every hour or so during your forest bathing to avoid cueing up muscle fatigue and brain fog.
Good eats: Trail mix (duh!), homemade energy bars and balls, dried fruit, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich
What you need: Recalibrate your system by seeking out protein to help repair the muscle damage associated with striking the ground and carbs to start building back the energy stores you spent hiking up a storm. As with running, seek out foods that give you about a 2:1 carb-to-protein ratio. If it was a particularly sweaty hike, allow for extra liquid and a shake of salt to replenish sodium.
Good eats: Cottage cheese with mango, chicken with brown rice and toast with sliced hard-boiled egg
Extra credit: Mega-healthy omega-3 fats, which dampen inflammation in the body, may hold the answer to less muscle pain after impact exercises like hiking and weightlifting. Get what you need by eating at least two servings of fatty fish like sardines and salmon each week.