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Food Before, During, and After Exercise

Find tips on what foods to eat before, during, and after your workout.

Food Before, During, and After Exercise

This section investigates favorable food choices for your pre-event meal, plus the recovery foods to help your body bounce back after an intense workout. It also lays out the guidelines for fueling your system throughout prolonged periods of exercise.

Pre-Event Meals

Let me begin by saying that the most outstanding meal before your sporting event won't make up for a week's worth of potato chips, French fries, and cookies! With that in mind, study the following guidelines and help make your pre-event meal a “winning beginning”:

  • Make your large meal (approximately 600–800 calories) at least 3– 4 hours prior to an event. This will provide adequate time for your food to digest. ( You don't want to feel heavy or nauseous, or have indigestion, while you're running around on the field.)
  • Stick with carbohydrate-rich foods and moderate amounts of lean protein. The carbs are both loaded with energy and easy to digest. Avoid eating a lot of high-fat stuff; it takes much longer to leave your stomach, and you don't want food bouncing along for the ride.
  • Avoid super–high-fiber foods that can cause annoying stomach gurgles, or send you running to the bathroom right before kickoff.
  • Also limit gaseous foods such as beans, brussels sprouts, grapes, broccoli, and anything else you think might give you a gassy stomach.
  • Liquid meals are also fine, especially if you have “pre-game jitters” and can't stomach solid food. Some athletes prefer liquid supplements because they don't leave you feeling as full as a large meal of equal calories does. In fact, they leave your stomach quicker than solid food.
  • Also, lay off the salt. As you read in Reducing Salt in Your Diet, some people tend to retain a lot of fluid, which can lead to puffiness and discomfort.
  • Never eat something completely new before an important competition. Always test it during training and see how it settles in your stomach.
  • Reduce the size of your food intake as you approach the time of your event. For example, 3– 4 hours before, you can have a large meal (approximately 600–800 cals); 2–3 hours before, you can have a smaller meal (approximately 400–500 cals); and less than 2 hours before, you can grab some lighter snacks (cereal bars, fruit, flavored rice cakes, fruit juice, yogurts, and so on).
Is there really
such a thing as “winning meals” or “winning foods” that can enhance your performance?

Yes! You see, if a particular food or meal makes you mentally feel at your best, then for you, that is a winning meal.

What time is your sporting event? Which meal will be your pre-event send-off: breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Check out the sample menus and get an idea of the foods you should choose. Keep in mind that you should always have a well-balanced, carbo-rich meal the night before, especially because on game day, you might get fidgety and lose your appetite.

Ready-Made Menu

    Breakfast: (for a late-morning or an early-afternoon competition)
    Bowl of cereal with low-fat milk
    Sliced bananas
    Toasted whole-grain English Muffin with peanut butter
    Glass of orange juice
    Lunch: (for a late-afternoon or evening competition)
    Turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread
    Salad with light dressing (or veggie soup)
    Frozen yogurt with sliced strawberries
    Water Dinner: (for an early-morning or any-time-the-next-day competition)
    Grilled chicken
    Pasta with marinara sauce
    Broccoli and carrots
    Fruit salad
    2 fig bars
    Glass of skim or 1% low-fat milk

Fueling Your Body During Prolonged Endurance Activity

Some sports are so lengthy they require feedings throughout the event, to help supply your body with glucose when glycogen stores are running low. For example, marathon runners (and other endurance athletes, such as soccer players) need to eat about 30–60 grams of carbohydrate per hour, which translates into a mere (but important) 120–240 calories. Although it's a minuscule amount, these calories should be spread out over each hour. The simplest method is to drink one of the popular sports drinks during the event. You can hydrate and “carbo-hydrate” your body at the same time.

Recovery Foods

Now for the last piece of the puzzle—the aftermath nourishment. First, understand that recovery foods are not just for recovering after a competition or game. They're equally important after practice as well. In fact, athletes who regularly train long and hard should replace emptied glycogen stores, fluids, and potassium lost through sweat on a daily basis. What's more, carbohydrate and fluid repletion should begin immediately, within 30 minutes after exercise, to promote a quick recovery. Sound unrealistic? Just grab a fruit juice or sports drink while you make your congratulatory “high-fives.” When you can focus on a real meal, enjoy whatever you fancy; just make sure to include the following essentials:

  • Plenty of fluids: water, fruit juice, sports drinks, soups, and watery fruits and veggies (watermelon, grapes, oranges, tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers).
  • A lot of carbohydrate-rich foods: pasta, potatoes, rice, breads, fruits, yogurts, and so on.
  • Adequate lean protein.
  • Potassium-rich foods such as potatoes, bananas, oranges, orange juice, and raisins.
  • Do not attempt to replenish lost sodium by smothering your food in salt or by popping dangerous salt tablets. A typical meal, moderately salted, supplies enough sodium to replace the amount lost through sweat.

As you have read, food can make or break your athletic performance. While training hard is incredibly important, you'll never reach your full potential without paying close attention to balanced food choices. Remember to focus on the right mix of carbohydrate and protein, and preplan your pre-event and recovery meals. You'll feel great, and you'll have more energy and strength for a winning performance.

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