Don’t think that, just because you’re not an elite athlete, you don’t need to fuel your body for exercise. Eating the right mix of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals and, yes, even some fat helps you exercise longer, more comfortably and even at a more challenging level than you would if you weren’t paying attention to your diet. Proper nutrition pays off in other ways too: it helps your body adapt to exercise, improves body composition (which is one of the reasons you exercise in the first place, right?) and reduces the risk of stomach upset during exercise.
Start With Your Tank on Full
The results of more than four decades’ worth of research are unequivocal: Eating breakfast is the healthy way to start the day. After going eight hours — or more — without food, your body needs to refuel, ideally within an hour or two of awakening. “If you skip breakfast, your brain and muscles don’t get the energy they need to sustain activity for the whole day,” says Tara Gidus, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Skipping breakfast not only makes it hard to rev up for what’s ahead, it also increases the risk of overeating later in the day. According to the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), eating breakfast is one way to help maintain a healthy weight. Nearly 80 percent of the people involved with the NWCR, who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept the weight off for one year, regularly eat breakfast.
Healthy Eating on the Go
When it comes to fueling up for exercise, low-fat foods rule. “You’ll feel more energized if you avoid simple sugars and anything greasy,” says Gidus.
Gidus has some go-to power foods, which she recommends not only for their nutritional content, but also because they taste good and are easy on the stomach. The last thing you want during a tennis match or a kickboxing class is an upset stomach. If you like to exercise during your lunch hour but find you don’t have time to eat and work out, consider keeping some of these grab-and-go foods on hand. That way you can eat something nutritious before you head to the gym.
- Juicy fruits, such as grapes, strawberries, blackberries, oranges, blueberries and raspberries. All of these are full of nutrients, are easy to digest and their natural sugars give you a quick boost.
- Trail mix with dried fruit. Nuts are a great source of protein (and essential nutrients) and will give you sustained energy. Dried fruits offer quick sugar for an immediate pick-me-up. Dried fruits are also easier to travel with than fresh fruits, but go easy: Eating more than a handful can cause stomach upset and diarrhea.
- Nut butter and fruit spread. Most grocery stores carry single-serving packets of peanut butter that don’t need to be refrigerated and are easy to keep in your gym bag. You can slather nut butter (make sure there are no added sugars or hydrogenated oils) on an apple, crackers, or a slice of whole-grain bread. If you don’t like peanut butter, try almond or soy butter. Try a fruit spread instead of a sugar-packed jelly or jam.
- Cereal. Choose varieties that are easy to eat dry and contain whole grains. The complex carbohydrates give you more staying power than the simple sugars. Skip the sugar-coated stuff and anything with sugar early in the ingredient list. Look for at least six grams of fiber per serving.
- Crackers. 100% whole-grain varieties have complex carbohydrates and won’t make you feel full and heavy. Combine with a stick of low-fat cheese for a more sustained boost.
- Low-fat string cheese. Single servings of mozzarella or cheddar are filling and easy on the stomach.
- Granola bars or fruit bars. They’re more palatable than most energy bars. Coat a granola bar with a nut butter for a sustained boost if you’re taking, say, a 90-minute hike or going on an extended bike ride.
Bananas are an excellent choice for on-the-go eating — they even come with their own biodegradable packaging! And with their combination of glucose, fructose and sucrose (for easily accessible energy) and soluble fiber (which helps your body absorb that energy steadily), it’s no surprise that bananas are the snack of choice at such events as 5K walks and triathlons. Some other reasons to go bananas:
- Bananas are fat-free fuel.
- One banana contains about 30 grams of carbohydrates to fuel your muscles and central nervous system.
- The potassium in bananas helps your body maintain fluid balance needed in blood and tissue.
- A banana contains 20 percent of the daily recommended allowance of vitamin B6, which, among other things, helps your central nervous system function normally.
After a Tough Workout, Refuel
On the days that you exercise for more than 90 minutes, your body is in what’s called an “accelerated metabolic state.” If you don’t want to feel like you drove into a brick wall the next day, try to eat within about 30 minutes of finishing your workout, advises Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, the director of sports nutrition and performance at the University of Miami Sports Medicine Program in Florida. A mix of carbohydrates and protein will do the trick. “The carbs replace muscle glycogen, and the protein helps prevent muscle breakdown,” she explains. A good recovery snack option, from the American Dietetic Association: graham crackers with peanut butter, low-fat chocolate milk and a banana.
Hydrate for Health
Advertising for sports drinks — a multibillion-dollar business — is so pervasive and convincing that you might think you’re risking your health if you don’t consume one on every jog or bike ride. But actually, for moderate exercise, all you really need is water — which, ideally, you’re drinking throughout the day, including while you exercise. The American Council on Exercise recommends drinking 17 to 20 ounces of water two hours before exercise and then another seven to 10 ounces of “fluid” (water or a sports drink, depending on how vigorously you’re exercising) every 10 to 20 minutes during exercise. During a high-intensity, one-hour workout, you can lose more than a quart of water, so be sure to replace it!
During intense workouts that last 60 minutes or more, you might want to switch to a drink that replaces calories, sodium and potassium — either a flavored water or a sports beverage. (The reason to replace sodium and potassium — those infamous electrolytes — during intense exercise is to offset the salt you lose in sweat and maintain fluid balance, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.) Just be sure to keep an eye on how many calories you’re consuming: Some sports drinks contain as many as a soda!