Meal Planning for Workouts – Best Foods To Fuel Your Muscles


With many of you training for marathons, bike tours or other big sporting events this spring, you may be wondering, “What’s the best fuel for my workout”? Should I eat before, during or after the big race? Studies show what you eat can impact performance both during your event as well as after. There are a few “rules of the road” when it comes to fueling for fitness.

First, consider your exercise goals. If your plan is to do intense exercise for over 60 minutes, such as running a marathon, biking over 20 miles or practicing football, it is best to eat something easily digested that includes protein as well as carbohydrate to maintain energy. The idea is to provide enough fuel to power muscles without straining your stomach. By eating before a workout, you prevent lactic acid production, which occurs when muscle is broken down and used for calories. Many athletes call this “hitting the wall” where your muscles have lost all their juice and continuing to exercise is just a struggle. Combining high carbohydrate foods (fruit, dairy, grains, starches) with protein (eggs, cheese, nuts, lean meat) help maintain glycogen stores during exercise.

If your goal is to lose weight and your workout is less than an hour or less intense, studies show that exercising on an empty stomach will facilitate more fat loss. Don’t do what many dieters do and chug down a protein shake. While it’s easily digested, it may contain a significant number of calories, which can hinder weight loss. If you absolutely have to eat before exercise, keep your snack within 150-200 calories to support weight loss. If you’re not concerned with your weight, a light snack may prevent cramping, but is not mandatory.

food-fuel-protein-shakeEasily digested carbohydrates are best to provide energy and prevent “hitting the wall”, without gastrointestinal distress such as gas, abdominal pain and bloating. Avoid high fiber and high fat foods before working out such as a burger and fries or a bowl of bean soup!

Below are a few examples of simple snacks to eat before your workout:

  • Apple and peanut butter or a light cheese stick
  • Low fat cheese and saltines (avoid whole wheat crackers)
  • A bowl of Cheerios with skim or 2% milk
  • Animal crackers and yogurt
  • Turkey roll up on a tortilla
  • English muffin with peanut butter
  • Protein shake made with protein powder, frozen berries and milk
  • Trail mix with nuts, Cheerios or Chex cereal and dried fruit
  • Yogurt with a banana

Many people ask about sports bars and drinks. Are they worth the money? The benefit of bars and liquid gels is mainly convenience. You can stuff a few in your tiny running shorts pockets if necessary. Their nutrient content varies; some are high carbohydrate while others are higher protein. Some good options for pre-workout snacks include Lara bars (110 calories and 14 grams of carbohydrates) or for more intense and longer exercise, try Clif bars (180-230 calories, 44 grams of carbohydrates and 8-9 grams of protein). Sports bars containing over 250 calories may be used for recovery post workout. These may be higher in fat, so check out the food label before indulging.

Food is not the only consideration prior to exercise. Don’t forget to hydrate before, during and after your workout at the rate of 4-8 ounces of water every 15 minutes. Water is best for most moderate exercisers and calorie free “sports drinks” can also be used. If you’ve ever spent any time on a marathon course, you will notice the plethora of Dixie cups strewn about from the hydrating stations. Thankfully, they are cleaned up after the event! Full calorie sports drinks containing carbohydrates and electrolyte replacements are beneficial for more intense events such as half or full marathons, but will only add extra sugar to your diet if you’re not exercising for a long period of time.

After your workout, eat something within 1 hour to replace glycogen stores. Studies show including BOTH carbohydrate & protein enhances glycogen repletion, making your next workout easier. Remember to consume 2-3 cups of plain water after a workout to stay hydrated.

Below are some meal ideas after your workout:

  • Black beans and rice (or quinoa)
  • Chicken & vegetables over brown rice or whole wheat pasta
  • Whole wheat spaghetti and meatballs
  • Low fat Triscuit crackers, 1 light cheese stick and fruit
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread
  • Salad with chicken or fish and a side of potatoes, crackers or bread
  • Tuna or turkey sandwich on whole wheat roll
  • High fiber cereal, milk & fruit
  • Scrambled eggs, toast and fruit

Research has shown that chocolate milk (yes, you read that right) is one of the best things to drink after a long workout or competition. The combination of simple sugars (chocolate) and protein is easily digested, refuels muscle glycogen quickly and it also tastes great!

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About Author

Lisa Andrews

Lisa Andrews has been a dietitian in Cincinnati since 1990. In addition to her clinical experience counseling patients and teaching weight loss classes, she has also worked as a professional writer, speaker and nutrition consultant. See my profile page for more information!

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