By Lillian D. Rozanski, MS, RDN, LDN, Sports and Fitness Dietitian, Thibodaux
Regional Health System
When it comes to sports nutrition, “when to eat” matters just
as much as “what to eat.” Focusing on the timing of nutrients
in meals and snacks is important for optimizing performance and recovery
from training. Proper nutrient timing provides energy to fuel activity,
preserves energy stores, and stimulates muscle recovery.
The body depends on two main nutrients, carbohydrates and protein, for
pre and post-activity nutrition. Carbohydrates are the main source of
fuel for most types of exercise; they keep the “engine” (i.e.
muscles) running. And the harder the engine is working, the more carbs
needed to keep going. Protein helps rebuild and repair muscle tissue,
and stops muscles from breaking down after exercise.
Pre-sports Nutrition: It Depends on Each Body
How soon before a workout should someone eat? It depends.
Eating before exercise has 3 main functions: (1) it prevents low blood
sugar and its symptoms; (2) it fuels muscles to help perform their best;
(3) it helps settle the stomach to ward off hunger. Ideally, an athlete
should fuel his or her body about 1–4 hours pre-workout, depending
on how one’s body tolerates food. Each person should experiment
to see what time frame works best. A competitive athlete needs to explore
this during training days, not on game days.
Eating 3–4 hours before activity allows plenty of time for digesting
food. The meal should be rich in carbohydrates with a moderate amount
of protein and minimal fat and fiber. Large amounts of fat and fiber can
cause an upset stomach (the last thing someone wants on a game day or
before a long run). An ideal meal would have half a plate of carbohydrate
sources, ¼ plate of protein, and the final ¼ plate of vegetables.
Examples of this would be:
- Turkey and cheese sandwich, apple, and low-fat chocolate milk
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich with banana and low-fat milk
- Low-fat Greek yogurt with berries and small salad with chicken
Eating 30–60 minutes before exercise can provide a quick source of
energy for the muscles and brain. Because the timing is pretty close to
a workout, this snack should be high in carbohydrates with little to no
protein, fat, or fiber.
Examples of this would be:
- Sports drink
- Fruit, applesauce, fruit snacks
- Granola bar
- Graham crackers
If exercise lasts longer than 1 hour, it is a good idea to fuel during
the workout. Adding a source of carbohydrates during exercise can boost
performance and improve recovery. We recommend 30–60 grams of carbohydrate
for every hour of exercise.
- Sports drink
Post-activity Nutrition: Within an Hour
The human body uses stored energy (glycogen) in its muscles to power through
a workout or game; but afterwards, an athlete needs to replenish the nutrients
lost. What to do?
Muscles are like a dry sponge, and they ready to quickly absorb carbohydrates
and protein. The two nutrients provide the ability to replenish the glycogen
lost through training, and help tired muscles rebuild and repair with
the available protein and amino acids. For best results, an athlete should
eat within an hour of completing an intense workout.
A great way to remember what and why to have recovery fuel is to think
of the three R’s:
Refuel with carbohydrates to replace energy lost during exercise
Rebuild and repair muscles with protein
Rehydrate with fluids and electrolytes lost through sweat
Examples of post-workout meals and snacks include:
- Chocolate milk and almonds
- Greek yogurt with granola and blueberries
- Chicken stir fry, brown rice, and stir-fried veggies
- Egg wrap with yogurt parfait
Wrapping It up
To summarize, a body needs carbs to fuel its working muscles. Protein helps
build and repair. Athletes will see their best results if they get a combination
of protein and carbs in their bodies 1–4 hours before a workout
and within about an hour afterwards. Last but not least, one should never
try anything new on race or game day — it is always best to experiment
during training to learn what works best for each individual body.
For more information or to schedule a nutrition consultation with a registered
dietitian, contact Thibodaux Regional Health System at 985-493-4765.