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Fuel your fitness: What to eat before, during and after exercise

A bowl of nuts and dried fruit.

Sept. 1, 2023—Do you love to bike or hike in the great outdoors? Are you a stalwart weekend softball or tennis player? Is running or working out at the gym your passion?

To perform your best, start with the best fuel for your body. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has tips for getting the right nutrients to give your workout an energy boost.

Gear up with a pre-game meal. Three to four hours before your activity, eat a balanced meal, such as:

  • A veggie omelet, whole-grain toast and a side of fresh fruit.
  • Whole-grain oatmeal or cereal with low-fat milk, almonds and a banana.
  • Grilled chicken on a whole-grain bun with a green salad.

Go the distance with trail mix. Dried fruits and nuts (either loose or in energy bars) have concentrated carbs for energy as well as protein and other nutrients. You can choose a salty mix if you sweat a lot or if it's very hot. Plus, trail mix has what it takes if you're avoiding animal-based foods like dairy, eggs or milk.

Go, bananas!. Packed with carbs and potassium, these self-packaged fruits help your muscles use fuel efficiently.

Amp up your PB&J. Peanut butter and jelly on whole-grain bread or crackers has the carbs and proteins to keep you going too. Allergic to peanuts? Try almond butter. Choose sunflower seed butter if you're allergic to tree nuts.

Avoid high-fat foods. Fried fast foods and fatty desserts take a while to digest, which can slow you down.

Stay hydrated. Water and sports drinks will help you avoid muscle cramps, joint pain, fatigue, slow reaction time and decreased focus. Drink 4 to 8 ounces of water every 15 minutes for the first hour of heavy exercise. Then switch to a sports drink. These drinks can replace the electrolytes (sodium) and the carbs you've lost through sweating. They can also replace muscle energy. Low-fat milk rehydrates you, with the added benefits of protein and calcium.

Post-game pro tips

Snack about 30 minutes afterward. Rebuild muscles and replenish energy stores with protein- and carb-rich snacks, like:

  • Low-fat chocolate milk.
  • A low-fat milk or yogurt smoothie with frozen fruit.
  • String cheese and an apple. (Keep dairy and other perishables cold with an ice pack.)

Keep hydrating. If you lose weight after working out, that's a clear sign of dehydration. After exercise, drink 16 to 24 ounces of water to replenish each pound of weight lost. And drink more during your next game or workout.

Nutrition matters

What you eat can affect your workout—and your overall health. You can find more tips on how to eat well in our Nutrition health topic center.


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