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Why Fueling Properly Is Definitely Not Rocket Science

Rocket Fuel by Matt Kadey
Rocket Fuel by Matt Kadey

Adapted with permission of VeloPress from Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sports and Adventure by Matthew Kadey, RD. Try free recipes at rocketfuelfoods.net.

Fueling isn’t rocket science. Dial your nutrition before, during, and after exercise with these simple guidelines.

If you’ve worked up the motivation to drag yourself off the couch for another training session, good for you—that’s half the battle. The other essential half of the workout equation is eating the right foods. Thankfully, fueling your workouts isn’t rocket science. Dial in your nutrition before, during, and after exercise with these simple guidelines.

Before (Try this recipe)

Ready to work up a serious sweat? Not so fast! Eating properly before exercise can help you work at a higher intensity for longer, resulting in greater performance gains in the long run. Here are some important tips to follow for your pre-workout nutrition:

Take a test drive. Before a big event, experiment with different types, quantities, and timing of food during your training sessions. This way you can pinpoint what works (and doesn’t!) for you. For instance, some athletes can eat a larger amount of food closer to their workouts without bringing on digestive woes.

Clock work. Aim to consume a larger meal that contains a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats 2 to 3 hours before a workout, and then follow this up with a smaller snack consisting of 150 to 300 calories 30 to 60 minutes before training. This gives you enough time to digest the meal and also provides a little pre-workout energy boost.

Not so fast. When gearing up for a sweat sesh, research suggests that opting for a lower-glycemic-index nibble before working out can bring about performance benefits. A low-glycemic snack (such as apple slices with nut butter or low-fat yogurt with berries) will raise your blood sugar more slowly, resulting in sustained energy as well as improved fat burning. You should save the sugary chews and gels for during your race or training session.

Less is more. Too much fiber, protein, and fat in your pre-workout nosh can weigh you down. That’s because these items slow down digestion and can result in digestive discomfort during exercise. So put away the bean soup or grilled steak for another time.

During (Try this recipe)

When out for the long haul, your body requires the right kind of fuel to perform its best. Here’s how to get it done:

Watch the clock. Clearly, not all workouts require carrying a feedbag around your neck. Generally, if you’re exercising for an hour or less, you should not require any supplemental calories to get you to the end of a workout. Push into the 60- to 90-minute time frame and some athletes can notice performance benefits from consuming a bit of extra energy. If you’re exercising vigorously for 90-plus minutes, however, there is plenty of research demonstrating the need for consuming calories to keep blood sugar and muscle energy reserves from dipping too low.

Go hard for carbs. To keep up the pace, seek out carb-heavy foods and drinks. Carbohydrates (blood glucose and muscle glycogen) are the preferred fuel source for high-intensity exercise, since they can be converted to energy in your muscles more efficiently than fats or protein. Also, carbohydrates are the primary fuel for your brain, so when levels sink too low, you can end up with a serious case of exercise-induced brain fog.

Do the math. For exercise sessions lasting in excess of 90 minutes, you want to aim for anywhere between 30 to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour of activity to avoid stumbling to the finish line. The exact amount needed depends on a number of factors, including individual tolerance, exercise intensity, and exercise duration.

Keep it real. Gels, chomps, sports drinks, and packaged energy bars have their place in helping to fuel your active pursuit. But there are plenty of benefits (less gut rot, better nutrition) of also bringing along some fuel that you created in your own kitchen. And as long as you’re meeting your overall carbohydrate needs during exercise, it’s acceptable if your DIY fuel of choice contains a small amount of protein and fat—but only a little bit, as these items can hinder digestion when consumed in greater quantities.

Liquid Assets. Dehydration can put the damper on what could have been a bragworthy workout or race. To stay on top of your hydration needs, make it a habit of drinking 400 to 1,000 milliliters of fluid for each hour of exercise. The exact amount of fluid you need will be dictated by a number of factors, including individual sweat rate, the ambient temperature, and the intensity of activity. If sweating buckets, also don’t overlook the importance of taking in some electrolytes during a prolonged workout. Namely, sodium to the tune of 300 to 600 milligrams for each hour of activity.

After (Try this recipe)

If you want to get the most out of your training, it’s best not to take your post-workout nutrition too lightly. Make note of these after-burn nutrition guidelines to recharge like a pro:

Better together. It’s a good idea to team up carbohydrates and protein shortly after exercise cessation—carbs are used to replenish spent energy stores, and protein is needed to help repair muscular damage and encourage your muscles to become stronger in response to training. Pair them in a 4:1 ratio following endurance exercise, and closer to a 2:1 ratio following resistance exercise Endurance athletes need carbs to replenish their glycogen stocks, and the best way to do so is to consume roughly 1.25 to 1.5 grams of carbohydrates per 1 kilogram of body weight. For the resistance athlete, research has found that about 20 grams of protein following exercise is enough to speed muscle repair and growth.

Don’t dawdle. Shortly after exercise, your body is primed to take up nutrients and distribute them wherever needed. That means you want to make it a priority to seek out recovery food before or soon after hitting the shower. Wait too long for your smoothie or other post-training nourishment and you could end up with muscles that aren’t fully recharged, resulting in poor subsequent exercise performance. So do your best to send something down the hatch within 60 minutes of finishing your workout.

Matthew Kadey is a James Beard Award-winning food journalist, registered dietitian, and recipe developer. See his work at mattkadey.com.