How to Fuel for Your Workout

If you will be meeting your triathlon buddies for a 50-mile bike ride at 10 a.m., you'll want 600 calories by 8 a.m. That's a bowl of granola with a banana and milk, or several pancakes. It's more than many cyclists tend to eat.

When and what should I eat during a long workout?

If you plan to exercise for longer than 90 minutes (be it a long run, row, bike ride or team practice), you should plan to consume not only a pre-exercise snack (to fuel the first 60 to 90 minutes of your workout) but also additional carbs to maintain a normal blood sugar.

Your brain relies on the sugar (glucose) in your blood for fuel. If your blood sugar drops, you'll bonk--lose focus, lag on energy, yearn for the workout to end, fail to get the most from your effort. Many a coach has learned that planning a mid-workout fueling session pays off in terms of happier athletes and enhanced ability to train harder at the end of a 2+ hour team practice.

While athletes in running sports that jostle the stomach may prefer to drink primarily liquid carbs (i.e., sports drink), cyclists and skiers might prefer a granola bar, dried fruit or a chunk of bagel plus water. The goal is:

  • 30-60 g carb (120-240 calories)/hour exercise that lasts 2-3 hours
    (Note: the pre-exercise snack will fuel the first hour.)
  • 60-90 grams carb (240-360 calories)/hour extended exercise

(Examples: all-day hike, Ironman triathlon, century bike ride)

Some athletes choose the convenience of engineered sports foods (i.e, Sports Beans, Clif Chomps, PowerGels). Others save money by choosing "real" foods (raisins, gummy candy) that cost less and often taste better. Both are equally effective.

When and what should I eat after a long workout?

Rapid refueling is most important for people who do repeated bouts of intense, depleting exercise. You want to rapidly refuel if you are, let's say, a triathlete who does double workouts and will be exercising within the next six hours. Your muscles are most receptive to refueling within an hour after a hard workout, so the sooner you refuel, the sooner you'll be ready to roll again.

If you have a full day to recover before your next training session or if you are a fitness exerciser who has done an easy workout and have lower recovery needs, you need not get obsessed with refueling immediately after your workout.Yet, I encourage all athletes to get into the habit of refueling soon after their workout. You will not only feel better and have more energy but also will curb your appetite. If you are trying to lose weight, a post-exercise snack can ward off the cookie monster.

To avoid over-indulging in recovery-calories, plan to back your training into a meal. For example, enjoy breakfast after your morning workout instead of waiting to eat at the office. Plan to eat dinner right after your 5 p.m. workout. Remember: You haven't finished your training until you've refueled.


Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels both casual and competitive athletes in her practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100).

For fueling help, read her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners or soccer players. See www.nancyclarkrd.com and also sportsnutritionworkshop.com.

References

  • Kerr, K. et al. Effects of pre-exercise nutrient timing on glucose responses and intermittent exercise performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 40(5 Supplement): S77

  • Joint Position Stand of the American College of Sports medicine, the American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 41(3): 709-731, 2009

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