Foods to Fuel Your Workout

Foods to Fuel Your Workout

Eating just the right thing before lifting weights or jumping on the elliptical trainer can keep you energized from start to finish. But what you should eat "depends on how hard and how long you're exercising," says Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Nutrition for Women. Here are her surprisingly easy ways to fuel your muscles before different workouts and—pant, pant—help you recover after you've worked your butt off.

A solid aerobics session: 30–60 minutes

"A small liquid snack 5 minutes before a run, step session, or power yoga class turns into fuel almost immediately," says Somer. Let these rules be your guide:

  • Keep it light (under 200 calories) for faster digestion.
  • The less time you have to eat before exercising, the less you should eat. You don't want stuff sloshing about in your tummy as you move.
  • Skip juice blends or energy drinks that list high-fructose corn syrup or glucose gels on the label. Both heavy-hitter sweeteners can make blood sugar levels plummet midworkout.

A few 200-calorie-and-under suggestions:

  • A blend-it-yourself 8-ounce smoothie made with fruit and low-fat yogurt, or one of Dannon's Light & Fit ready-to-drink fruit smoothies
  • Carnation No Sugar Added Instant Breakfast drink made with a cup of skim milk or light soymilk
  • A 6-ounce glass of OJ and two graham crackers

To rehydrate and keep your blood sugar stable, have some water and one of these snacks:

  • A low-fat granola or energy bar
  • A cup of low-sodium chicken noodle soup
  • A piece of fruit or a small bunch of grapes

Hit-the-wall aerobics: 60 minutes or more

You want a snack that keeps muscles supplied with a steady flow of glucose. "Just as a car sputters to a stop when it runs out of gas, you 'hit the wall' or 'bonk' if your glucose supplies are drained. Once that happens, no snack will fuel you fast enough to finish the workout," warns Somer. Before you go all out, have these:

  • Water to ward off dehydration, especially in hot weather.
  • Carbs that are high quality and easy to digest—they'll leave your GI tract quickly and supply enough glucose to fuel a long workout.
  • Protein from yogurt, milk, soymilk, or nuts to offset a rapid drop in blood sugar from eating those carbs.
  • Foods that are light (again, 200 calories) and low fat, to avoid digestive problems. If your energy dips or your legs become shaky, eat more the next time, until you hit on the right amount.

Good carb/protein combos:

  • Half of a 4-ounce whole-wheat bagel with 1 tablespoon low-fat cream cheese
  • One small slice of last night's vegetarian pizza or two-thirds cup of leftover spaghetti with marinara sauce
  • One stick of low-fat string cheese, one medium pear, and three whole-grain crackers

Recover with more water and a 100-calorie, all-carb snack like these:

  • 50 pretzel sticks
  • Half a cup Breyer's Double Churn Fat-Free Caramel Swirl ice cream
  • Half a baked potato topped with 2 tablespoons of salsa

Up to 60 minutes of gentle yoga, stretching or tai chi

A preworkout snack isn't essential for low-sweat activities—say, an hour of yin yoga or a stretch class. But if you're hungry, try a banana for potassium and two graham crackers for carbs. Wash it down with some water.

All you need is more water.

Semitough strength training: 30–45 minutes

Carbs with a dash of protein is your fuel of choice. Only serious body builders and weight lifters who pump for more than 45 minutes at least three days a week need extra protein—"most people get plenty," says Somer. If you're borderline hard core, try these 200- to 250-calorie protein-laced snacks:

  • Half a turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread and a piece of fruit
  • One handful of trail mix (nuts, dried fruit, and seeds)
  • Three whole-grain crackers with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter and 6-ounces of V8 juice

Rehydrate with water, and have the other half of that turkey sandwich—the protein helps repair and build your muscles.

For the average gym rat who does 30 minutes of weight training two or three times a week, just have a high-carb snack 10 minutes or so before you start. Here are some good options:

  • Plain, nonfat yogurt mixed with berries or applesauce
  • One tablespoon of nut butter (peanut, almond, or cashew) and one half of a sliced banana on a 10-inch whole-wheat tortilla, all rolled up, burrito-style
  • One small (2-ounce) carrot-raisin muffin and a 6-ounce glass of OJ

An all-day hike, cross-country ski or snowshoe trek

To build your glycogen stores, plan ahead:

  • For a day or two prior to your outing, eat high-carb meals of whole-wheat pasta or brown rice dishes.
  • Drink ample fluids, too—at least 10 cups a day. Before setting out, have a substantial high-carb meal of pancakes or waffles with fruit.
  • In addition to lunch, pack a couple of energy bars or some dried fruit-and-nut mix to nibble every two hours.
  • Regularly sip water or sports drinks; don't wait until you get thirsty.

Soak in the hot tub! And keep drinking water. Have a high-carb snack, such as popcorn, pretzels, a muffin or hot cocoa and a graham cracker.

Exercising regularly will not only burn off all those snacks, and more, but also it can make your RealAge as much as 9—yes, 9—years younger. And your body will be inches trimmer. Nice.

Diversify your workout routine—here's how.

Medically reviewed in December 2019.

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