Fueling for Exercise
This is the time of year when many begin to ramp up their exercise routine. When the weather is nice it’s great to find any excuse to get outside! Exercise provides a multitude of benefits ranging from cardiovascular health, assistance in weight loss/maintenance, stress reduction, and mental clarity just to name a few. When you begin an exercise program or increase the level or intensity (ex: incorporating more High Intensity Interval Training/HIIT or begin training for a race) one misconception is that you can eat whatever you want. When your appetite increases and it’s easy to give in and feel like you’ve “earned it.”
I used to strictly be a sprinter and hated…I mean LOATHED distance running—and when I says distance, I mean anything longer than 1 mile. One day, while in an exercise class, a woman asked if I wanted to join her on a 10-mile run. I had never run longer than 3 miles in my life, but for some unknown reason, I decided to say yes. At 6am the next morning I was terrified. “What am I getting myself into?” I thought. Miraculously, once we started running, I actually felt relaxed.
A 10-mile run– relaxing? Yes! I had previously been accustomed to high-intensity cycle classes and was used to the go-go-go schedule. I never stopped to breathe. Distance running afforded the opportunity to slow down and acknowledge nature around me. I noticed flowers that I had previously missed going from appointment to appointment. I saw the sunrise, heard birds chirping, and had time to process, pray, and clear my head. These long runs quickly became my escape. I’d wake up bright and early at 5:30 and hit the ground running….literally. The problem was, having never been a distance runner; I had no idea how to fuel properly. When I first started running, my hunger level increased drastically. There were nights when I’d have TWO dinners because the first one didn’t satisfy!
I eventually learned how to eat properly throughout the day so that my evenings weren’t spent raiding my cabinets for whatever I could find.
However, I also learning that I needed to balance out my workouts. I’m the type of person that finds one thing I like and do only that. Running 10+ miles every morning was too much for my body to handle so I cut my distance in half and tried different types of exercise. I started doing HIIT and strength training to build lean muscle and work by body in new ways. I quickly learned that HIIT made me hungry. Not right away, but later in the day. I again had to learn how to eat to support my activity.
While it is natural to notice a slight increase in hunger, there are ways to fuel smarter throughout the day so that you don’t end up in my situation. The average person burns about 250 calories for a 30-min run and the same for a 30-min HIIT session, if you bump your workout up to an hour you might burn 500 calories. To put things standard slice of cheese pizza provides 400 calories.
When you approach eating and exercise, the focus should be to fuel your body with nutrient-dense foods to ensure that you have energy to power through your workouts and recover well. It shouldn’t be to replenish everything you burned off plus some.
Honestly, if you eat well consistently throughout the day, you won’t need to “carb-o-load” or drastically ramp up what you’re doing.
Most people can meet their workout nutrition needs without anything else by eating a healthy, well-balanced meal 1-2 hours before exercise and another healthy, well-balanced meal within 1-2 hours after exercise.
Duration of 60 Minutes or Less
- There isn’t a need to make any drastic changes to your diet with normal exercise. Prep your body throughout the day by making sure to eat balanced breakfast, lunch and dinner consisting of protein, complex carbohydrate and healthy fat.
- If you’re exercising for 60 min or less and it’s first thing in the morning, it’s ok to go on empty.
- Pay attention to how your body responds. If you find yourself light headed, shaky, tiring early or taking longer to recover, have a small snack consisting of a little carbohydrate and protein.
- If your exercise time falls later than 1-2 hours after a main meal, have something small with a protein and carbohydrates.
- ½ cup full fat cottage cheese or plain Greek yogurt with ½ cup berries and 1 tsp honey
- Slice of whole grain toast with 1-2 tbsp peanut butter
- ½ cup cooked oatmeal with 1 tbsp almond butter
- 1 slice of toast with 1 egg
- Protein Shake
Duration of 60-90 minutes
- If you’re exercising for longer than 1 hour, follow the previous recommendations of make sure to have an easily digested meal 1-2 hours before to ensure that you have enough “fuel in the tank.”
- Morning exercise : Have a regular breakfast such as 2 eggs scrambled with 1/2 cup veggies. Have with 1 slice of whole grain toast and ½ avocado.
- Afternoon exercise: Have a normal Lunch such as a turkey sandwich on 2 slices of whole grain bread. Instead of mayo, use ½ mashed avocado. Add any additional veggies (lettuce, tomato, sprouts, onion, etc)
- Evening exercise : Have a solid snack before your evening workout such as ½ cup oatmeal with 1 tbsp of peanut butter and ½ sliced banana. Then have a normal dinner afterwards to replenish.
- In addition to this, you might benefit from having a Gu or Gel midway through to provide readily available carbohydrates.
- Adding electrolytes such as, NUUN electrolyte tablets, to your water will help ensure that you replenish your body with electrolytes lost in sweat.
For training that is longer than two hours, follow above recommendations but you also need fuel during your activity. Precision Nutrition recommends consuming the following every hour:
- 15 grams protein
- 30-45 grams carbs
This can come in the form of liquids, gels, or even some solid food.
Some endurance athletes prefer to drink water and eat fruit and other foods to supply their energy even on really long runs. You might need to experiment to see what is best for you.
Precision Nutrition further advises that if you are exercising intensely for longer than two hours, especially in the heat, do not rely on water alone. This will decrease your performance and your recovery. And it could also cause blood-sodium levels to drop too low. This condition is known as hyponatremia, and can cause your muscles and heart to contract erratically, and can even lead to death. An electrolyte-enhance sports drink such as Gatorade or Powerade is warranted under these conditions.
Post-workout nutrition is essential for recovery, building muscle, rehydrating and fueling your body for future performance. Evidence shows that whole foods are just as beneficial as protein shakes.
If you’re not hungry, don’t feel obligated to stuff yourself immediately after. You can have a shake or wait a little while until hunger kicks in. Make sure that you don’t go longer than 2 hours after without eating something because failing to do so can slow recovery. Choosing what to eat AFTER also depends on what you ate BEFORE your workout.
- If you exercised first thing in the morning without any fuel, have a balanced breakfast within 30 minutes of finishing.
- If your pre-training meal was a small one or you ate it several hours before training, then it’s important for you to refuel your system within an hour.
- If you ate a normal sized mixed meal a couple of hours before training (or a small shake closer to training), then you waiting between 1 and 2 hours will be ok.
What to eat
If you exercise for 60-min or less, this doesn’t need to be an excessive amount of food. If a main meal falls within that 1-2 hour window, eat a normal balanced meal. If it doesn’t, replenish with a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and a small amount of healthy fat.
If you were exercising longer than 60 minutes you would benefit from having a small snack within 30 minutes consisting of carbohydrate and protein. This could be a banana with 1 tbsp peanut butter, an 8oz glass of chocolate dairy milk (non-dairy milk doesn’t have enough protein) or 1 cup of full fat Greek Yogurt with berries and 1 tbsp flax seed. After that, fuel as you normally would with a carbohydrate, protein and fat at your main meal.
The real takeaway for your exercise from ALL of this is:
Eat a combination of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fat for your main meals. Think a palm-size amount for protein and carbs, thumb-sized amount for healthy fats. Be sure that you are consuming something (either a regular meal or protein/carb snack) 1-2 hour BEFORE and 1-2 hours AFTER.
Does this seem simpler than you expected?
The reason why I found myself so ravenous when I bumped up my training was that I wasn’t properly balancing my meals! As an endurance runner, my carbohydrate needs increased. I found that by adding ½ cup quinoa to my salad with turkey and avocado at lunch in addition to a sweet potato with dinner, my energy improved.
I also found that I my morning workouts left me more hungry mid-afternoon than any other meal of the day. Therefore, I made lunch my largest meal to ensure I was replenishing. Lastly, I bumped up my healthy fats with every meal to ensure that my hunger was satisfied throughout the day. It might take a little while for you to figure out which snacks/meals work best, but hopefully now you feel more confident knowing how to fuel your exercise endeavors! Talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise program.