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A nutritious diet can help provide workout fuel that keeps you at the top of your game.

Your workouts don’t have to take place under stadium lights to benefit from good nutrition just like the pros.

Whether you train for a 10K run or pump iron at the gym, eating well can help you get more from exercise. For example, eating right can help you fend off fatigue midway through a run or ride. Good nutrition can also help boost your mental focus and keep you at the top of your game, says Heather Mangieri, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Tips for fueling up

Here’s some basic advice on fueling your workouts:

Go with variety. Your main focus should be on eating a variety of nutritious foods, such as whole grains, fruits and veggies, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats, Mangieri says. This can provide you with the key nutrients you need, such as carbohydrates and healthy fats for energy, as well as protein to help build and repair tissue.

If you’re consistently eating a balanced diet, you may be getting all the exercise fuel you need over the course of the day, Mangieri says.

Fuel up by day. Starting with a healthy breakfast, get most of your food during the day, when it’s needed most. “We want to make sure we’re fueling the body for physical activity, and most of us aren’t doing our activity in the middle of the night,” Mangieri says.

Drink up. Water is essential for health and athletic performance, so getting plenty should also be an everyday goal, Mangieri says.

Don’t assume you need a supplement. A balanced diet can supply most people’s vitamin and mineral needs. Getting too much from supplements won’t improve your exercise abilities, and it could be harmful. If you have questions about using a supplement, talk to a health care professional.

When to eat

The timing of the foods you eat can play a role in performance, according to Mangieri. For starters, it’s a good idea to space out your meals and snacks. This will help ensure that you have a steady energy source throughout your workout or event.

Before exercise. Eating carb-rich foods before you exercise can help supply energy. If you hit the gym before breakfast, try eating something small, such as a banana or another easily digestible carbohydrate, 30 minutes before you start, Mangieri says. Afterward, have a balanced breakfast.

If your pre-exercise meal comes before an event that’s, say, three hours away, a larger meal can help ensure you have enough glycogen (carbs stored in muscles) to fuel that exercise. This might be useful for a marathon or long day of training, Mangieri says.

Pre-exercise meal suggestions from the academy include:

  • A lean hamburger with lettuce and tomato fixings, a side salad, and a yogurt fruit parfait.
  • A turkey-Swiss cheese sandwich with fruit and a sports drink.
  • A low-fat tuna melt, a fruit cup and fat-free yogurt.

Some people prepare several days before a marathon or other endurance sport by building their glycogen stores through carbo-loading. Generally, they increase their carb intake while gradually decreasing training.

“The more glycogen we can store, the longer we can go without running out of fuel,” Mangieri says.

Carbo-loading isn’t necessary for everyone, though.

“If endurance running or cycling is your game, carbo-loading may help you avoid hitting the wall short of the finish line,” Mangieri says. “But for most athletes and exercisers, a healthy diet will typically supply enough carb fuel.”

Midway through a workout. Water will often be the only thing you need while exercising. But for exercise or training lasting longer than 45 minutes, you might want a small carbohydrate source to head off early fatigue, Mangieri says. Options include fruit, sports drinks or carb gels.

After exercise. Strenuous exercise can deplete muscle carbohydrate stores and protein. So it’s sometimes beneficial to replenish within 30 minutes of exercise. Again, not everyone needs this approach.

“If you’re just doing a short run, recovery nutrition may not be as important as it is for an athlete participating in longer runs or two-and-a-half hours of strength-training,” Mangieri says.

But in general, if it’s going to be a few hours before your next meal, Mangieri says, you might consider chocolate milk, yogurt or possibly a mini-meal, such as:

  • Half a turkey sandwich.
  • An English muffin with peanut butter.
  • A hard-boiled egg and a piece of fruit.
  • An apple with a little peanut butter, plus a piece of cheese.

Get personalized advice

A dietitian can help you understand your calorie needs and assist with developing a sports nutrition plan.

reviewed 4/12/2013

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