Food for Fuel: Basic Rules of Fueling for A Successful Workout
Updated: Mar 15, 2022
As a girl who grew up on Recreational League Sports, half-time snacks, and bottles and bottles of gatorade, it was ingrained in me at an early age that physical activity meant you needed snacks! But how many snacks?
What kind of snacks?
How should we properly fuel our workouts?
And with sports drinks getting such a bad rap for all the sugar they contain, how do we know if a product that is being marketed to us as “enhancing workout performance” is actually doing that?
This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive dialog on sports and performance fueling, but there are some basic guidelines that I use and that I use with my clients to ensure that they are properly fueled for their workouts so they can reach their goals.
I’ll break down these guidelines into 3 Categories: Content, Timing, Considerations.
#1: Fuel for your goal.
If you have a strength or muscle building goal, then you want to ensure you are consuming enough protein to aid in protein synthesis (the formation of muscle.)
Muscle is made of protein, therefore the food of making more muscle is more protein.
That being said, protein intake should be prioritized by every individual regardless of goals as protein is the #1 determiner of body composition and because since we lose muscle mass as we age, we want to ensure we are preserving whatever muscle mass we have.
The current research supported recommendations for protein intake are:
Team Sports: 0.6g-1.5g per pound of bodyweight per day.
Strength/Muscle Building: 0.7g-2.0g per pound of bodyweight per day.
Endurance: 0.5g-1.0g per pound of bodyweight per day.
Alternatively, if you are participating in or have endurance building goals, you will want to be most mindful of carbohydrates in your fueling as carbohydrates are the primary fuel source of the body and are more quickly depleted during endurance sports.
The current research supported recommendations for carbohydrate intake are:
Team Sports: 1.5-3.0g per pound of bodyweight per day.
Strength/Muscle Building: 1.0-2.5g per pound of bodyweight per day.
Endurance: 1.5-5.0g per pound of bodyweight per day.
Fats are used as a fuel source when carbohydrates are used up.
Take-Away: Fueling before and after your workout with easily digestible sources of carbohydrates and protein can help improve performance and body composition when done consistently.
#2: Timing You Fueling
It should seem obvious, but if you want to have plenty of energy to endure a strenuous workout or sporting activity then you need to make sure you are fueling before your workout with enough time to allow your body to digest the fuel so it can be ready to use.
Fueling post workout is just as important as it aids in recovery and also signals to your body that rest and recovery can begin.
Intense workouts place the body in a stressful state. It’s a good and beneficial stress, but it is a stress nonetheless and fueling in adequate timing after your workout helps to signal to your body that the stressful period is ending, you are not starving, and that it is okay to relax and be at ease.
Timing of your meals before a workout depend a lot on what that meal is as some foods are digested more quickly than others.
For a general rule, eating in a window of 4 hours to 30 minutes before your workout ensures that the food is digested and available to be used as energy for your workout.
After your workout, current research indicates that eating a recovery meal consisting of mostly carbs and protein within the first 3 hours is most beneficial for recovery.
Limiting fats after a workout is recommended as fats delay the digestion of carbohydrates and as carbs are the main source of fuel for your workout they are the most in need of replenishing.
Do I Need an Intra-Workout Meal?
Intra-workout fueling is necessary and beneficial for extremely long and intense workouts such as long endurance activities (marathon training for example).
But the general rule is that if your workouts typically last around the 60 minute mark then you don’t need to worry about fueling mid workout.
If you do engage in longer, higher intensity workouts than an intra-workout meal may be beneficial and should contain mostly easily digested carbs.
So this is a great moment to shift to of the things one should take into consideration when deliberating about fueling.
#3 Fact versus Fiction
Remember when I talked about all the Gatorade I drank as a child?
Sports drinks in general have been getting a bad rap lately due to “all the sugar” they contain.
But if I may… duh. That is exactly how they were designed.
Sports drinks are by design contain a lot of sugar because they are purposed to be an intra-workout fuel source. This means they contain easily digestible carbohydrate sources (sugar) as well as essential electrolytes that are lost during intense physical activity and sweating.
So yes. They are high in sugar, but that doesn’t make them “bad,” it makes them useful in a specific context. Because sugar is easily and quickly digested, sports drinks can be a prime fuel source when you need quick energy.
Should they be your go-to drink outside of your workouts? Probably not, but neither should a lot of other things.
What about training while in a fasted state?
I’ve gotten the question quite frequently on if one should train in a fasted state- no fueling at all.
This is common of some individuals who prefer morning workouts and may not have time or don’t feel their body is ready to take in food before gym time.
My answer is always: it depends.
If you are looking to get in a light, quick workout and often feel nauseous or uncomfortable trying to eat early in the morning then you will probably be fine if your body feels okay to train without food.
That being said, if you have performance, strength, or muscle building goals, then your training will be enhanced and much more effective when properly fueled and I would recommend finding a fuel source that allows you to eat before your workout without experiencing any digestive issues.
So you may now be wondering, “Okay, then what do I eat before my workout?”
Below are some common examples of pre-/post-workout fuels sources but *note* your own nutrient needs are specific to YOU, therefore you need to make sure that what you choose fits into the nutrition plan you have for your specific goal.
Banana + Protein Shake
Bagel + Lite Cream Cheese
Toast and Jam + Protein Shake
Protein Bar (low fat)
Rice + Chicken
In the end, you always need to know and listen to your body. Guidelines are just that for a reason, to guide. They are not rules. These recommendations are scientifically based, which means they are a very good place to start, but it also means they don’t take into account your own individual variability. So start there but be mindful of your own body’s specific needs and you’ll set yourself up for success.