Food as Fuel

Athletes are keenly aware of the fuel aspect of food, especially when it’s running out. And they are familiar with the instant rejuvenation a little fuel can give when they’re running on empty.

Pre-Exercise: Food That Gets You Going

Eating before an exercise routine is essential, but it should be planned carefully. Too much food too close to the activity can give you nausea, cramps, or worse. The sloshing feeling in your stomach can also be distracting. It’s best to give your food time to digest.

The best pre-exercise eating plan begins two to three hours prior to the activity. A light meal high in complex carbohydrates and some protein is ideal. A bowl of cereal, a peanut butter sandwich, a baked potato with cottage cheese, or a bagel are all good choices. Avoid fat, because it is hard to digest, and it stays in the stomach longer.

Thirty to 60 minutes prior to your workout have a piece of fruit or an energy bar. These last-minute carbohydrates can help boost energy to get you started.

Some athletes take a bite of simple sugar foods just before heading out the door. Experiment with this, because some people cannot handle the spike and dip in blood glucose during their sport.

So, how much food do you actually need for your workout?

  • Calorie needs for training vary, but they generally hover around 17–20 calories per pound for maintenance, and 16–17 calories per pound to lose body fat.

  • Protein needs for training range between 0.5 and 0.6 grams per pound. Carbohydrate needs for training are 3–5 grams per pound, and more for higher-intensity endurance sports.

  • Fat needs for training are about 0.5 grams per pound, or the balance of your calories after protein and carbohydrates.

  • Fluid needs for training vary too, but are generally 1 quart (32 ounces) for every 1,000 calories, plus additional fluid for exercise, from 2–5 quarts depending on the intensity.

Caffeine before exercise is not recommended. It is a diuretic, which can cause dehydration. It can also cause nausea, muscle tremors, or headaches. The effects depend on your personal habits, and your level of addiction.

During Exercise: Electrolytes and Carbs

The electrolytes sodium and potassium are salts that can carry an electrical charge. Cells rely on them to carry impulses for muscles and nerves. You get plenty of electrolytes in your food, so regular daily exercise does not require electrolyte replacement. But with constant, vigorous activity for over an hour, as in long-distance running, electrolyte replacement can be beneficial.

The sports drink phenomenon of today all began in the 1960s with a football coach at the University of Florida. He was concerned that his athletes ran out of energy during practices. University doctors came up with a beverage that combines sodium, potassium, and carbohydrate with water to combat the loss of vital fluid in the Florida heat. The drink was a success, and soon teams from all over the country were ordering the Florida Gator’s drink. Today, it is on the sidelines of every major sporting event as Gatorade.


Endurance athletes need more than the boost they get from a sports drink. Carbohydrate gels, candy, and even soda pop are common mid-event glucose boosters. The burst of energy they provide helps delay the “bonk.” Elite athletes will sometimes pop a glucose pill close to the finish line for an extra edge.

Sports drinks are everywhere, and they are marketed relentlessly. But there is no reason to consume this high-calorie, high-sodium drink on a regular basis. It is certainly not something to drink simply to quench thirst.

If you are a serious athlete, sip a sports drink every 15 to 30 minutes throughout your activity to maintain a constant energy level. Look for a sport drink with less fructose. This sugar causes bloating and cramping in some, and can delay water absorption, which makes exercise feel harder.

After Exercise: Food for Recuperation

Exercise takes its toll on the body. Athletes are often injured, and the body’s motions wear away at joints, bones, connective tissues, and muscles. Proper nutrition is vital to immediate recovery from exercise as well as long-term strength and stamina.

After exercise, fluid is the first thing your body wants and needs. Drink 20 to 24 ounces for every pound lost during your exercise session (this requires you weighing yourself before and after). Within the first 15 minutes after exercise, get some carbohydrate to begin restoring glycogen. A glass of orange juice is perfect.

Muscle glycogen synthesis, the conversion of carbohydrate to glycogen for your muscles, is greater immediately after exercise, and for about 45 minutes. Within that time frame you should consume 100–200 grams of carbohydrates. This immediately begins to rebuild your glycogen stores for later. After two hours your body’s ability to convert carbohydrate to glycogen is reduced by 50 percent.

Protein is also needed after exercise to begin rebuilding muscle tissue damaged by the wear and tear of your sport. In addition, protein helps improve water absorption, which improves muscle hydration. Consume 25 to 50 grams of protein within the 45-minute window.

This 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, plus water, is easier to digest, and faster to absorb, when taken in liquid form. Smoothies and specially formulated sports drinks are ideal.

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