May 21, 2015
Eating for Exercise

Whether a newbie gym-goer or avid exerciser, you are an athlete. As an athlete, your sports nutrition plan (or lack thereof) can drastically impact the way you train, perform and recover. Having balanced meals and snacks will maximize your athletic training potential and help you hit personal goals, be it toning down, gaining muscle, or managing a healthy weight. But as sports nutrition requirements vary from person to person, it is important to understand the type, timing and quantity of fuel your body needs to succeed. 

Knowing the Basics
In nutrition terms, energy equals calories. Without an adequate amount of energy, you will not be able to support your exercise routine. On both training and recovery-days, your body requires an appropriate amount of energy to avoid losing too much muscle, or storing too many calories as fat. Energy needs differ depending upon your height, weight, age, exercise routine and goals. However, one thing remains the same: every athlete requires balanced meals that contain all three macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat), in addition to snacks that contain both carbohydrate and protein.

The Pre-exercise Meal or Snack
If you think you’ll get better results without eating before exercising, think again. A pre-workout meal or snack will boost performance during a workout and prevent fatigue and light-headedness, which are symptoms that arise from low blood sugar levels. If your motivation for exercising is to shed body fat, eating pre-workout will help provide the fuel you need to exercise harder and burn more calories!

The best type of fuel to consume before a workout is rich in carbohydrates, which are quickly absorbed by the body. Along with a carbohydrate, a little protein and fat have also been found to boost long-lasting energy during a workout; however, it is important to minimize the quantity of these two macronutrients. It is also necessary to reduce fiber (especially in the 1-2 hours prior to exercise). This is because protein, fiber and fat reside in your stomach for longer periods of time and can cause gastrointestinal discomfort during a workout if over consumed.

How much and when you consume your meal or snack matters. Chart 1 is a quick guide to help establish your pre-workout fuel needs. It takes some trial and error to determine the right fueling foods and regimen, and similar to training for a competition or event, practice to see what works best. Additionally, depending upon your level of training, age, gender, intensity of exercise and type of activity, your caloric needs might vary. Consult with a Registered Dietitian to establish personalized energy requirements for exercise.

Time Before Exercise

Grams of Carbohydrate

(per pound of body weight)

Food Examples
Less than 1 Hour* 0.5 grams per pound

1/2 cup cooked oatmel with 1/2

med size banana + 1/2 cup raisins

2 Hours 1 gram per pound

2 slices whole wheat bread

with 1 tbsp peanut butter + 1 large

sliced banana

3-4 Hours 1.5 grams per pound

2 cups pasta with red sauce

+ ground turkey, veggies +

grated cheese

 *If food is not an option with an impending workout, a diluted sports drink during exercise will suffice.   

The Post-exercise Meal or Snack
The goal of the post-exercise meal or snack is to replenish depleted muscle and glycogen stores (glycogen is the form in which our bodies store carbohydrate). During a workout, we unintentionally damage our muscle tissues and deplete glycogen stores – oddly this is a good thing, since the tissue damage is what allows our muscles to become stronger and better toned. But we need to refuel appropriately in order to repair the tissue damage, which helps improve recovery-time and avoid potential soreness or injury.

There are specific macronutrients that achieve these goals post-workout: carbohydrate and protein. We might know that by consuming protein, your body has the ability to repair muscle tissue damage. But we might not realize that protein alone cannot stimulate muscular growth. Carbohydrates, consumed in conjunction with protein, will elicit the best muscular response. This is because carbohydrates stimulate the release of a hormone called insulin, without which we couldn’t build back muscle or replenish glycogen.

Like everything in the field of nutrition, “consuming more” is not necessarily better and won’t speed up recovery or build more muscle. Approximately 20-30g of protein post-exercise is all the body needs to assimilate protein-muscle synthesis. Carbohydrate needs vary from person to person, based on height, weight and type of activity. For example, an athlete training predominately with High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) focused workouts might require less carbohydrate than the athlete training for a half-marathon.

Between 30-45 minutes is the prime time to consume your post workout meal or snack. Professionals call this time-frame the “window of opportunity” since important enzymes are at their height during this period to assimilate protein and carbohydrate into the tissues for recovery. With recovery nutrition, hydrating during and post-workout is also a key element of sports nutrition planning.      

Chart 2 provides sample post-workout ideas, based again on our 150 lb athlete. For personalized recommendations, a Registered Dietitian is the best resource to assess nutrition requirements for exercise.   

Time After Exercise

Equation to Determination grams of

carbohydrate and protein

Food Examples

(for 150lb athlete)

30-45 minutes*


[your weight in pounds] X 0.5

grams of carbohydrate = grams of

carbohydrate required post-



[your weight in pounds] X 0.1-0.2

grams of protein = grams of protein

required post workout

- 16 oz chocolate milk +

protein or energy bar

- Protein shake + fruit and


- Turkey sub + side salad

with dressing

- 3 scrambled eggs + 2 slices

of toast with jam


*This is the “window of opportunity,” the prime time to stimulate repair of tissues

Putting it all together
Like a well-oiled machine, your body is adept at utilizing nutrients if those nutrients are available. In other words, if you eat the right types of foods in adequate quantities, your body will do the hard work for you. True athletes realize their sports nutrition regimen is just as if not more important than their actual training regimen when it comes to achieving the goals they are looking for long-term. 

ACSM Position Stand: Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: March 2009 – Volume 41 – Issue 3  

Written by Marissa Beck

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