Whether you are hitting the gym for just 30 minutes or are training for a triathlon, what you eat can greatly impact your performance. The base of any athlete’s diet should consist of unprocessed wholesome foods and incorporate a mixture of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source and are crucial for endurance exercise and optimal performance – they provide fuel for the muscles and help prevent fatigue. Whole grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, legumes, and nonfat or low-fat milk and yogurt are all great sources of carbohydrates. Fruits and vegetables are also packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber, as well as phytochemicals and antioxidants which help with post-exercise recovery and muscle repair.

Protein is also a necessary component of an athlete’s diet and is critical for muscle building and recovery. Lean protein sources include white meat poultry, fish, lean beef, eggs, nuts, nut butters, beans, cheese, and soy. However, more protein does not mean better performance- so get off the high protein/low carbohydrate diet bandwagon! When it comes to animal protein, a serving should fit in the palm of your hand. Also, to stimulate muscle growth, it is best to evenly distribute your protein intake throughout the day, rather than eating a very large portion at one meal.

Fat is also an essential component of an athlete’s diet. Opt for mostly “good” fats, such as olive oil, canola oil, nuts, nut butters, and avocado. Also, aim to eat fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna and sardines) 2-3 times a week for their omega 3 fatty acids, which help decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. Limit unhealthy fats such as fried foods, fatty meats and full-fat dairy products

TIMING IS EVERYTHING! (What to eat before, during and after your workouts)

Before Exercise
Eating too much or too little before exercising may hamper your performance. Eating too much can cause you to feel sluggish or have an upset stomach, cramping or diarrhea. This happens when both your muscles and your digestive system are competing for energy to do their jobs. On the other hand, not eating before you exercise can leave you feeling weak, tired or faint due to low blood sugars.
When planning your pre-workout meals and snacks, time when you eat with how much and what you eat. Eat large meals 3-4 hours before working out and have smaller meals 2-3 hours prior. When eating close to a workout, reach for carbohydrate rich foods with a little bit of lean protein. To help prevent GI distress, avoid foods that are high in fiber, sugar or fat and foods that cause gas – all of which may cause indigestion.

During Exercise
If your workout lasts less than an hour, no food or sports drink is necessary during the run…plain old water is sufficient (see below for specific hydration tips). In fact, if your workouts are not longer than an hour and weight loss or maintenance is one of your goals, consuming calories during your workout will likely counter (and may even exceed) your calorie burn during the workout! However, if your workout is longer than an hour, then you may need to replenish with carbohydrates and electrolytes in addition to fluids during the workout—a sports drink is one suitable option here.

After Exercise
To help your muscles recover and to replace their glycogen (carbohydrate) stores, eat a meal or snack that contains both carbohydrates and protein within 1-2 hours of your exercise session. Examples of good post-workout meals and/or snacks include an appropriate portion of:

Peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich
Fruit salad with yogurt
Turkey, cheese and apple slices
Hummus on pita
Minestrone soup with crackers and cheese

Proper hydration is just as important as proper nutrition in promoting ideal performance—before, during, and after runs. While UNDER-hydration is dangerous, there are also dangers to OVER-hydration. Hyponatremia, a condition caused by over-hydration, can lead to fatigue, nausea, confusion, and possibly death. The chart below contains guidelines to help ensure that you are maintaining a good fluid balance.

TimingAmount of Water
2 hours before workout2 cups
10-15 minutes before workout1-2 cups
Every 15-20 minutes during workout1/3 – ½ cup
Immediately after workout1-3 cups*
*If concerned about whether or not you are rehydrating appropriately, weigh yourself without clothes on before and immediately after your workouts; for every pound lost drink 2 cups of water. This amount will vary depending on sweat rate, the temperature, humidity, and workout duration and intensity.
Alyse’s Advice
When it comes to eating and exercise, everyone is unique – so modify the above general recommendations with your unique food preferences and tolerances. Let your experience guide you on which pre- and post-exercise snacks and meals work best for you.

Alsye Levine MS,RD