Whether you are an active person or a competitive athlete, one of the quickest ways to improve your performance is to adjust how you eat before, during and after exercise. Not only will you maximize your endurance, you will feel better and have more energy.
What to Eat for Optimal Workouts
Ever wonder what best fuels your body for a workout? Beyond maintaining good hydration, when and what you eat can affect your performance. Maintaining your energy level may also impact how you feel during and after your workouts.
The nutrition strategies used by competitive athletes can easily be adapted to apply to all active Canadians. Meeting your energy needs with carbohydrate will help maintain glycogen stores (energy stored in muscle and liver). Protein will help build and repair muscles and tissues damaged during high levels of physical activity. So, what should you eat to feel your best?
Eating the right foods before your workout will keep you from being distracted by hunger. However, eating too much, or eating the wrong foods prior to exercise, can leave you feeling full and heavy.
What are the best fuels?
The best foods to fuel your body are
- easily digested and tolerated
- relatively low in fibre and fat
- relatively high in carbohydrates to help maintain blood glucose
- moderate in protein
You do not need a pre-exercise snack if you have eaten recently or are not hungry. But, if you need a snack, here are some great examples. [2,3]
Pre-exercise snacks: Eat one to two hours before exercise
- 1 cup of chocolate milk and 1 peanut butter sandwich on white bread
- 1 banana with 175 grams (3/4 cup) fruit yogurt
- 1 bowl of ready-to-eat low fibre cold cereal and low fat milk
- lower fat crackers and cheese
Note: Remember to drink two to three cups of fluid two to three hours before your workout to ensure you are hydrated before you start your workout.
Pre-exercise meals: Eat two to four hours before exercise
- pasta with meat sauce, salad and water or juice
- chicken breast, rice, vegetables and milk or juice
- sandwich made with sliced turkey, lean beef, chicken or peanut butter
- oatmeal with white toast and an egg
When should you eat?
Knowing your own gastrointestinal tolerance will determine how soon before exercise you can eat. The intensity of your exercise will also affect your tolerance. 
Recovery meals are important after finishing strenuous exercise. Strenuous exercise means continuous intense activity that lasts over one hour. The key word is intense. You do not have to refuel after a leisurely one-hour walk.
Recovery meals should be consumed within four hours of an event or activity.  In addition, it is important to have a small snack within 30 minutes of stopping intense exercise. The half-hour after a workout is when your body is primed to replace the stored glycogen in your muscle. When you don’t refill your glycogen stores during this prime time, your muscles may not fully recover in time for your next workout or event. This is particularly important if you have multiple events in one day, as in a tournament or triathalon, or if you have an early morning workout following an evening class.
Refuel your body with foods that contain carbohydrates and protein. Carbohydrate replaces glycogen stores, and protein repairs muscles. It’s equally as important to rehydrate after exercise. After strenuous exercise, drink 1.5 litres (6 cups) of fluid for each kilogram of weight lost. One to two cups of plain water is all you need to rehydrate following light and moderate activity.
10 great recovery snacks
- Cereal bar and drinkable yogurt
- Cereal with milk
- Chocolate milk
- Cottage cheese and fruit
- Crackers, cheese and vegetable juice
- Fruit smoothie
- Sports bar containing approximately 200 calories
- Trail mix containing whole grains, dried fruit and nuts
- Turkey and cheese sandwich
- Yogurt and fruit
Within four hours after stopping a strenuous activity, remember to consume a well-balanced meal based on Canada’s Food Guide.
What to do when you are trying to lose weight by exercising
In order to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you eat. This is called negative energy balance. If done carefully, exercise can be a great way to help you lose weight. However, young athletes should be discouraged from dieting as it can affect their growth and development.  Severely restricting energy intake in active individuals can have adverse effects when muscle is lost along with fat mass. Potential harm can be done to the brain, bone health, and reproductive, metabolic and immune functions. 
It is important that serious athletes who are trying to lose weight seek advice from a qualified health professional. Learn more about tips for weight management strategies for athletes in the joint position paper by the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine. 
For the average active person who is trying to achieve a negative energy balance, it is important to choose foods that are nutrient rich. Choosing quality foods, such as those recommended in Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide, will reduce the risk of nutrient deficiencies that can impair health and performance. 
1. Rodriguez NR, Di Marco NM, Langley S, et al. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109 (3): 509 – 527.
2. EatRight Ontario. Nutrition and Active Living FAQs (What are good snacks for before workouts?). 2011 [cited 2011 30 Jun].
3. Dietitians of Canada. Fuelling the Young Athelete. 2010 [cited 2011 30 Jun].
4. International Olympic Committee. IOC Consensus Statement on Sports Nutrition 2010. 2010 [cited 2011 30 Jun].
Article posted on September 6, 2011