How to Fuel for Every Workout—Short or Long, Morning or Night

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Fueling before workouts should not be underestimated. When you make the effort to properly fuel before working out, you’ll be able to go harder and longer, burn more calories and build more muscle. However, the timing and type of foods you choose are essential to making sure your energy stores are topped off to power your entire workout. Certain foods can even help jumpstart the recovery process after the workout. If your body isn’t properly fueled, not only will you have a harder time completing your workout, you’ll also dig yourself a hole as you prepare for your next sweat session.

So just what should you eat before a workout? And should your meal be the same for a morning spin class as it is for that weekend long run? While it’s true your body performs better with something in the tank, it’s important to consider the time of day and workout duration before choosing your food. Use this cheat sheet to get the most out of your pre-workout meal or snack.

MORNING SESSION OF 1 HOUR OR LESS

Early morning workouts can make it hard to find time for food — you’re already getting up early enough as it is — but your body still needs calories to be properly fueled and get the most out of your workout.

For short, intense workouts, carbohydrates are your best friends. To make sure you’re getting the fuel you need, you can either eat a carb-rich meal the night before (examples include rice, potatoes, quinoa, fruit, bread and pasta) or have a small snack with carbs in the morning before you head out (such as a banana, apple, 1/2 cup of berries, 1/2 cup of oatmeal or 1/2 of a medium sweet potato).

AFTER WORK SESSION BETWEEN 1 AND 2 HOURS

Going straight from the office to the gym? An hour before your workout, have a snack that’s rich in carbohydrates and also has a bit of protein. These options include a low-fat cheese stick and whole-grain crackers; egg whites and 1/2 cup of fruit; trail mix or peanut butter with an apple or banana.

Adding protein ensures sustained energy levels during your workout without upsetting your tummy. For shorter workouts, protein isn’t as necessary since carbohydrates are your best source of quick-burning fuel.

WORKOUTS OF 2 HOURS OR MORE

If you’re like most of us, the weekend is when you’ve planned a longer run, ride or day in the gym. For these workouts, it’s important to include a little more protein (in addition to your carbohydrate intake) to ensure sustained energy for the extended workout. Including foods like eggs, egg whites, protein powders, low-fat cheese, yogurt, lean lunch meats or nuts helps ensure you have enough energy to get you through the whole workout. Be sure to include a carb source, such as whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, fruits or veggies, in your meal or snack.

WORKING OUT WHILE TRYING TO LOSE WEIGHT

Watching your weight shouldn’t scare you away from fueling your body for your workouts. No matter the time of day or duration of your workout, have a snack with protein a half-hour to hour before you start your sweat session. Some great options include eggs with whole-wheat toast; egg whites with whole-wheat toast or fruit; peanut butter and fruit and lean lunch meat with whole-wheat crackers.

Focusing on protein before workouts is helpful for those trying to keep their calorie counts in check. These snacks contribute to daily protein goals, help sustain energy levels during workouts (so you can go longer and harder!) and keep the total daily calories down — all to avoid regressing on your progress.

Written by Kristen Arnold, the owner of Red Kite Coaching, a nutrition counseling business focusing on performance nutrition for athletes. She is also a registered and licensed dietitian with a Master of Science in Nutrition from The Ohio State University.

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