Whether you recreationally run, competitively swim, or are a ballet dancer, you do your body well by moving more. At the same time, it’s important to know that exercise places some additional nutrition needs on the body. What you eat can work in your favor – or, it could hinder your progress.
Think of your body a bit like a car. Just as you need gas to fuel your engine, you need food to fuel your body. That’s what calories are – the “fuel” – and it’s important that you don’t limit the calories you eat drastically when you are training or competing. If so, what may result includes fatigue, delayed responses, and a loss of focus. You also need not “overfuel” your body since that can lead to feeling sluggish, which may impede your performance. So what, how much, and when should you eat to help maximize your athletic ability? While the details are a little bit different for every body depending on what sport you’re in, here are some general pearls of knowledge as it relates to sports nutrition.
Throughout the day, it’s important to stay well hydrated. A quick trip to the restroom will provide insight – if your urine is golden yellow, you need to guzzle more water. If it’s clear, you’re on the right track! Water is a fantastic option for hydrating – you can infuse it with fresh herbs for more flavor and you can “eat” your water by choosing water-rich foods like watermelon, celery, chia seeds, and cucumbers.
Before the Workout
Optimal pre-workout nutrition includes staying hydrated (tote that water bottle around with you!) and making sure you’ve eaten some carbohydrates, especially if you’re working out first thing in the morning. Why is this important? Glycogen (i.e., stored carbohydrates) is the first nutrient fuel used during activity. This means that before exercise you’ll want to have foods with carbohydrates like a piece of fruit, or better yet, a fruit smoothie or pureed fruit, since liquid forms of food offer quicker digestion. Also note that carbohydrate loading with copious amounts of pasta or bagels may actually weigh you down for certain sports (like sprinting or short-distance swimming). If you’re recreationally exercising, you likely don’t need to carbo-load either. Talk to your registered dietitian to determine what’s best for you.
During the Workout
No matter the sport, staying hydrated is essential during the workout. But not so fast on that sports drink! If you’re not exercising intensely for longer than an hour, you probably don’t need those additional electrolytes or carbohydrates.
After the Workout
You guessed it, rehydrate. If needed (i.e., if you’re exercising intensely for longer than 60 minutes), consider an electrolyte replacement. Within an hour after working out, refuel with carbohydrates to help restore muscle glycogen you used during activity and eat protein to help stimulate muscle recovery and repair. Some healthy ideas combining carbohydrates and protein: mix hemp seeds with hummus and use as a dip with vegetables and whole-wheat crackers, couple an apple together with peanut butter, roast beets and serve it with goat cheese, pair together cottage cheese, slivered almonds and sliced grapes.
So Where Do Fats Fit In?
With all this talk about hydration, carbohydrates, and protein, you may be wondering: what about fat? Fear not, fat – especially essential fatty acids – can be your friend for providing a rich source of energy (remember, you need to be sure you have enough fuel!) and for helping the body combat unnecessary inflammation. Choose foods like salmon or sardines, or consider a dietary supplement with a variety of essential fatty acids, like omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. Why? It has been demonstrated that omega-3s may help to support peripheral neuromuscular function,1 muscle strength when combined with a strength-training program,2 and may help to reduce markers of inflammation after strength-training exercise.3
A balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats is important for better nutrition for athletes and recreational exercisers. Only experiment with new food and hydration strategies during your training period or in the off-season, not the day of the competition, to see what works best for you. Keep these nutrition tips in mind, and combined with a strong exercise program, you’ll be equipped to go for the gold!
Read more about our expert Tori Schmitt, MS, RDN, LD