I find that many of my athletic patients are wondering what and how much to eat before and after their activity both to improve performance and just feel better overall. While the following guidelines are stated for running, they can - for the most part - be applied for workouts of light, moderate, or high intensity.
By eating the right foods at the right times before and after your runs or workouts, your body will be able to recover and perform the way you want it to. Plus with proper fuel, you’ll reduce your chance of injury and illness.
I am an advocate of being in touch with your body and establishing the type of relationship that doesn’t require excessive counting and measuring of food items, but encourages you to be in tune with what your body is telling you. However, this can take some trial and error, so here are a few guidelines to get you started.
Before: For a morning jog of no longer than 30 or 45 minutes at a relaxed pace (you can hold a conversation), a glass of water might be all that’s needed ahead of time—provided you had a decent dinner the night before. But if last night’s meal wasn’t substantial or if you ate it early, having some orange juice or a banana will replace glycogen stores in your muscles to stave off sluggishness. If you’re heading out in the afternoon, have a snack with about 50 grams of carbs —like yogurt and granola—an hour or two beforehand.
After: There’s no need to take in calories immediately, but try to eat a snack or your next meal within 1-2 hours. Skipping a solid post-run meal could lead to lethargy or sugar cravings later in the day, and down the road even sickness or injury.
Before: Consume 200 to 400 calories (depending on your size and how long before the run you’re snacking) of easily digestible carbs, such as toast with jelly 30 minutes to 1 hour before your training. Consider replenishing your fast-twitch muscles with a sports recovery drink or gel between intervals and this has been shown to improve performance through the last rep.
After: It’s absolutely crucial to eat something within 30 minutes to supply your muscles with fluid, carbs and some protein. Aim for a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein (an easy source: chocolate soy/almond/regular milk) to best aid recovery.
Going the Distance:
Before: Eating a full meal 3-4 hours before you head out to slog through many miles is ideal, but there’s ideal, and then there’s practical. If you're planning on running early in the morning, you don't have to wake up at 3am to eat, just have that meal an hour or so ahead of the run and make it something easily digestible, like a banana with peanut butter or a high-calorie sports drink or smoothie. Even more important is to have a good hydration and fuel for the run. Try to take in between 150 and 300 calories per hour during extra-long bouts via gels, sports drinks, or whatever snack that you can carry and that your body can handle.
After: Same as with speed work, make sure to eat within half an hour of your finish. Go for 200 to 300 calories and try to include an anti-inflammatory food such as avocado or walnuts to reduce the inflammation caused by all that pounding on the pavement (or trail). Then sit down to a bigger meal a few hours later and continue snacking every two hours or so for the rest of the day. After a long run, your muscles can’t bounce back from just one feeding; eating more often jump-starts recovery.
Feel free to leave your questions in the comments!