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Fueling Properly for Exercise

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Vegetable omelet on plate.

Imagine your body as a racecar, your training as the engine and your diet as the fuel. Fueling your body properly before and after your workout helps maximize your body’s potential. Identifying which foods and fluids work best for you can make a big difference in how you feel and perform.

Carbohydrates for energy
Carbohydrates provide a primary fuel source during exercise. Consuming adequate carbohydrates pre-workout is important to help you perform optimally during your workout. Carbohydrates also help you maintain normal blood sugar levels, prevent hunger mid-workout and provide enough energy to fuel your muscles. Carbohydrates are defined in two forms: 

  • Complex carbohydrates: Break down slowly and provide long-lasting energy which is ideal for full meals. Some complex carbohydrates can include oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potato and whole wheat bread. 
  • Simple carbohydrates: Break down rapidly and provide quick energy which is ideal for snacks and before you work out. Some simple carbohydrates can include fresh or dried fruit, Gatorade and white bread. 

As you approach your workout, the simpler the carbohydrates need to be.

Protein for repair and recover
Protein acts as the building blocks for your muscles, maintains and repairs body tissue and assists in recovery. Protein is found in a variety of food sources such as poultry, beef, fish, eggs, dairy products and beans. Current data suggests our needs range from ½ - 1 gram protein per pound of body weight per day. Protein is a critical post-workout nutrient that helps with muscle recovery. (See “Post-workout nutrition” below for examples).

Fat for endurance 
Fat provides a secondary source of energy during exercise, assists in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and helps provide fullness and satiety. The two types of fats include unsaturated and saturated. Unsaturated fat sources can include avocado, olive oil, nuts/seeds, peanut butter and salmon. Saturated fat sources can include butter, packaged goods, processed foods and processed meats. Cooper Clinic Nutrition recommends less than 10% of your diet come from saturated fat. 

Pre-workout nutrition
If you’re able to consume a meal—about 300-600 calories—three to four hours before your workout, be sure to incorporate all the macronutrients which includes carbohydrates, fat and protein, with an emphasis on carbohydrates. If you have two hours before a workout, focus on carbohydrates and protein and then 30 minutes to one hour before your workout, focus primarily on carbohydrates. You may want to limit fiber before working out to help avoid gastrointestinal upset. Try a few of these foods before your next workout:

  • English muffin with 1 Tbsp. peanut butter and a banana
  • Greek yogurt topped with granola and fruit
  • Fruit and a Greek yogurt smoothie
  • Fruit with 1 Tbsp. peanut or almond butter
  • Oatmeal with low-fat milk and fruit
  • Energy bar

Post-workout nutrition
Refueling your body post-workout is just as important as pre-workout fuel. Try to consume adequate amounts of carbs, protein and fluids within an hour following your workout. Aim to consume a 3:1 carb to protein ratio, or 30 grams of carbs to 10 grams of protein. Try some of these foods after your next workout:

  • 8 oz. of chocolate milk (this is a good option to refuel and rehydrate)
  • 3 oz. grilled chicken breast and a small baked potato
  • Hard-boiled egg and Greek yogurt
  • 2-3 egg veggie omelet and 1 cup of fruit
  • Protein smoothie with fruit and Greek yogurt or protein powder

Hydration for fatigue
Not being properly hydrated can negatively affect performance and cause early fatigue. Try to focus on fluids throughout the day, not just during your workouts. Weigh yourself before and after exercising to know how much fluid to replace. Aim for 16-24 oz. of fluid for every pound lost within two hours of exercise. Sweat consists of electrolytes, primarily sodium and lesser amounts of potassium, magnesium and calcium. Try to incorporate foods with these nutrients pre- and post- workout. 

  • Sodium: Table salt, pickles and pasta sauce
  • Potassium: Avocados, bananas, sweet potatoes and non-fat yogurt
  • Magnesium: Pumpkin seeds, almonds, black beans and bananas
  • Calcium: Non-fat milk, Greek yogurt, kale and spinach

A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist can help you create an eating plan to support your workouts and includes a balance of all three macronutrients—protein, fat and carbs. For more information about Cooper Clinic Nutrition and to schedule a one-on-one consultation, visit or call 972.560.2655. 

Article provided by Hannah Janysek, MS, RDN, LD, and Cooper Clinic Nutrition.