Updated: Jun 15, 2020
One of my favorite topics in the nutrition world is related to sports nutrition. I cannot believe its taken this long to write a blog post about it since it is by far one of the most requested topics for speaking about.
When I talk about sports nutrition related to fueling around and during your sport there are many factors that come into play. The most generic formula is what I want to talk about today but please know you are specific. The sport or activity you choose is specific and your body is unique.
I will give you some tools but its a bit of a game to see what works for you. Personally some things are pretty straight forward but even as a young, marathon running dietitian I did not have it figured out. In the early days I had quite a few sprints back to my house after eating a breakfast of Kashi cereal and going out for a run. I did not always make it back to the house in time but I’ll leave out the details. It took trial and research but I finally realized that a HIGH fiber meal before a run will cause you lots of problems…
Here are some of the most basic guidelines:
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for exercise. They are important for making the most of fat for energy. Your body can store about 1800 calories or 90 minutes worth! Carbohydrates can be eaten before, during and after exercise; typically 30 to 60 grams per hour during exercise. Two examples of this:
If you do an hour workout you should fuel afterwards with 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate which is the equivalent of a bar or a bar and a piece of fruit. This is probably the most straightforward and likely won’t cause digestive stress. If the workout was less than an hour or wasn't overly taxing you can likely get by with water and waiting until your next meal to eat.
If you are working out for longer than 1 hour you should eat something during your workout AND afterwards. This might look like eating half a bar at 45 minutes in and then eating the rest of the bar at 1 hour and 15 minutes and then continuing to take in carbs every half hour or so. This can vary greatly and would depend on how long you are going for and what you are doing. Many variables to consider but the high end of fueling would be going out for a 3 hour marathon training run while the low end would be going out for a relatively flat and non-strenuous 3 hour hike or bike ride.
When choosing your carbohydrate source you need to look at the amount of fiber. Foods with high fiber are extremely important and healthy but only AFTER the workout. If you eat a high fiber item before or during activities you most likely will have digestive issues, and most are unpleasant.
Fat is not generally used until about 20 minutes into a workout. Fat in your diet, especially healthy fats, are important for providing energy and helping to metabolize fat soluble vitamins in your body. Fat takes longer to digest in the body so it is not ideal for fueling before a workout. When fat is broken down to be used for energy it is not fast enough to be utilized.
Whether you are sedentary or very active your basic needs for fat intake remain the same. There is no evidence to support a high fat or very low fat diet can help athletic performance. For everyone 20-25% of calories should come from fat per day.
For example, if you consume about 2200 calories a day that would be about 440-550 calories from fat each day or 49-61 grams of fat. For overall health, less than 10% of your total calories should be from saturated fats.
A better trained body will use less protein for fuel. More active people have slightly increased protein needs over the average person. Protein is needed for muscle growth and repair. Regular physical training tends to reduce muscle protein breakdown and protein loss from the body. While some protein breakdown may occur during exercise, protein build-up is enhanced during recovery.
Protein needs are more specific based on your sport of choice. Endurance athletes generally need 1.2-1.4 grams of protein per kg of body weight where a strength training athlete would need higher amounts potentially up to 1.7 grams/ kg of body weight dependent on various factors.
Eating more protein does not generally mean more muscle gains. Higher protein intake is either burned for energy or stored as fat. It is much more efficient to burn carbs for energy. The higher your protein intake the higher your water intake should be to eliminate the excess nitrogen load.
Fueling your body with high protein after a workout will cause incomplete replacement of muscle glycogen and impair performance. High protein as well as high fat foods are harder to digest and may lead to feeling sluggish.
Carbohydrates, paired with protein and healthy fats are the best combination for recovery so you can repeat your favorite activities and feel good doing it!
Some of my favorite post workout snacks (or meals) include:
Yogurt, granola and berries
Banana and peanut butter
Smoothie with fruit, milk and avocado
Whole wheat crackers, string cheese and apples
Fueling your body appropriately might take a little more thought and planning but it will help you go further, jump higher and lift heavier in the long run! I didn't touch on fueling up before a workout because I find this to vary greatly from person to person. Please reach out if you would like more specific nutrition answers for your body.