BEFORE YOUR WORKOUT
It’s important to fuel up on easy-to-digest carbs, plus a little protein and fat if you are going to be moving for a long time. If you have a meal within two hours of starting your workout and you don’t feel hungry, you are probably good to go. If you need a pre-workout boost, try having a small snack that’s mostly simple carbs (think ½ English muffin with a tiny bit of peanut butter or half a banana) about 60 minutes prior to exercise to keep your energy up all workout long.
DURING YOUR WORKOUT
During short bouts of exercise (less than a half-hour), it usually isn’t necessary to take in any fuel. However, for longer stretches of movement, fueling can be really important. Along with staying hydrated, certain foods can keep your electrolytes in check and keep your muscles moving the way you want.
To boost your energy during endurance activities, recent research suggests that carbohydrate blends (foods containing fructose and glucose) may be superior to straight glucose. But before you reach for a sports drink, consider honey: like sugar, it naturally has equal parts fructose and glucose, but it also contains a handful of antioxidants and vitamins. (The darker the honey, the more disease-fighting compounds it contains.) If you are going to be on the go for a while and need something portable (say, for a long-distance run), go for the single-use packets of honey, sold at most major grocery stores. This will allow you to take your fuel on the go without having to spend the money on expensive sports gels.
For most of us, plain water is plenty to keep us hydrated (except during a very long or intense bout of exercise). More often than not, you do not need to splurge on sports drinks or coconut water. Try drinking 7 to 10 ounces for every 20 minutes of exercise, per the American Council on Exercise. However, if plain water doesn’t do it for you, drinking flavored water while you’re working out might make it easier to stay hydrated. In one study, people given flavored water while exercising drank more than exercisers given plain water. Choose wisely, though: some brands deliver as much added sugars as soft drinks, while others use artificial sweeteners to cut the calorie load.
The hard part is over: you have finished your workout. But that is not where performance stops. Recovery eating is important for moving toward your goal and even forwarding off soreness and inflammation. After a workout, be sure to replenish with a mix of protein and carbs. For optimal recovery, enjoy a snack, like Greek yogurt, hummus and vegetables or turkey and cheese slices with bread or crackers, within 30 minutes of ending your workout. When you are able, opt for whole foods over highly processed protein bars and shakes. Contrary to popular belief, your muscles repair themselves and grow during recovery, not during exercise. So even if you have a post-workout snack, aim to have a full meal with vegetables, whole grains, a healthy fat and a lean protein within two hours to sustain your energy and help your muscles rebuild.
If your workout lasts an hour or more, have a glass of milk or chocolate milk. The carbohydrates in it will help replenish the energy stored in your muscles (called glycogen stores) and aid in muscle recovery — more so than a carb-only drink. Don’t like milk? Substitute with a post-workout snack of a banana and peanut butter or Greek yogurt.
If you are really looking to focus on recovery, tart cherry juice may be a good option. It delivers antioxidants that mop up the harmful free radicals produced when you exercise. And research shows that a daily dose of cherry juice may help ease inflammation that causes sore muscles. A 2010 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that runners who downed 24 ounces of tart cherry juice (about 480 calories) for seven days before a long-distance race and again on race day reported fewer aches afterward than runners who drank a placebo. Skip the juice right before or while you’re exercising, though: fructose, the primary sugar in fruit, takes longer to digest than other sugars.