Moving for fun · Sports nutrition

Sports Nutrition – what to eat before and after a work out

Miami Marathon 2015
Whether you are a professional athlete or a recreational fitness enthusiast – you would achieve better results with proper fueling before the event/work out session and eating for recovery after.

Have you ever felt like you’ve hit a wall during a particularly exhaustive endurance exercise, like running or cycling for a while? This phenomenon is often referred to as “bonking” – a feeling of a sudden lack of energy, lightheadedness and weakness of the limbs, overall fatigue. This happens due to depletion of glycogen – your body’s storage form of glucose – its main energy source. On average, we typically have about 500 g of glucose in our bodies: 400 g in muscles as glycogen, 90-95 g in the liver as glycogen as well, and 5 g in the blood. Think of glycogen as an animal form of starch – almost like the plant starch, branched energy-rich molecules stored with water and phosphates. Each gram of glycogen holds on to approximately 3 grams of water, which is why glycogen depletion and low-carb diets lead to rapid weight loss, but don’t be fooled – it’s all water loos, which is easily “regained” after a carb-rich meal. Well, enough biochem for today, let’s move on to the fueling tactics.

That 500 g of glucose in your body would last you about 90 min of endurance exercise – such as running, cycling, cross-training or a combination of different workouts. That means, if you are going for a quick run/ride/yoga class, lasting less than 90 min and NOT first thing in the morning – you will probably be just fine without needing a snack right before or during it. Still, gauge yourself – if you are hungry, eat something. However, if you are doing it in the morning – you might need to fuel up a bit, here’s why: your body uses up your glycogen stores to supply energy to your glucose-most dependent organ – brain and other organs in your body as well. You’d think you are just resting at night, but your organs keep on working, even though at a lower metabolic rate – but they still need energy to ensure your restful sleep. Still, it’s very individual and your energy needs will depend on a couple factors: the timing and composition of your last meal and how easily you are able to utilize fat for energy. A quick bout of exercise in the AM on empty stomach may benefit you in teaching the body to oxidize fats for energy, thus improving overall fat utilization and managing weight. The key word here is QUICK – 15-30 min; longer “hungry” workouts may result in muscle breakdown and greater stress burden on your body.

If you ate a pasta dinner at 9 pm the night before – you’d probably have enough energy to last you a 45-60 min jog first thing is the morning. If you didn’t, then below is a plan:

Guidelines: pre-exercise fueling

  • Low fat and low fiber composition – to avoid GI distress and shorten digestion time
  • Glucose + fructose – for faster assimilation and utilization
  • 2:1 carb to protein ratio – about 30-45 g of carbs and 10-15 g of PRO having a total of 160-200 cal.

Meal/Snack examples:

  • oatmeal with fruits and some nuts
  • PB&J sandwich – 1 Tbsp PB a toast of your choice
  • 2 rice cakes with 1 Tbsp of almond butter and sliced banana
  • yogurt with fresh or dried fruits
  • granola bar
  • ½ baked or roasted sweet potato with 1 tsp butter
  • rice pudding
  • low fiber cereal with milk (if you tolerate it ok) and ½ banana slices


If you are racing – eat 3-4 hours before the race a total of 300-600 cal, mostly carbs, followed by a snack (30-45 min before the race) from the list above or whatever you come up with that is close in composition. Don’t try anything new – eat foods your body is used to and won’t throw you a fit.

Guidelines: Post-exercise recovery meal:

  • eat within 30 min after you finished exercising – to avoid muscle break-down and “bonking” – the one we discussed above;
  • 3:2 carb to protein ratio – to refuel your body with energy and rebuild worked-out muscles – 40-50 g of carbs + 15-20 g of PRO for a total of 200-300 cal;
  • drink water – adequate amounts of it, especially if you live and exercise in hot and humid conditions, like here in Miami. I tend to be one of those people who needs to be reminded to hydrate, otherwise I get a headache and overall feeling of malaise.

Meal/snack examples:

  • chocolate milk/non-dairy milk (perfect combo of 3:2 carb:protein ratio)
  • high density nutrition bar (like Cliff)
  • smoothie with protein powder, milk/non-dairy milk and fruits
  • turkey sandwich on whole grain bread
  • egg sandwich
  • Greek yogurt with fruits and nuts

It’s also helpful to keep a diary of your progress – you can easily pin-point foods that suit you well and those that are not so helpful or cause you some undesirable symptoms – like bloating and such. Hope this helps and please leave a comment on pre- and post-exercise snacks that work best for you.

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