Categories: Nutrition Training

Meal timing matters | 6 things athletes should understand about what and when to eat

November 8, 2017

There are generally two kinds of athletes: those who finish a hard workout or grueling race and ravenously head straight for the fridge for a post-workout chow down, and those who cross the finish line and want nothing to do with food, at least for a little while.

Both camps have their causes, but whichever you fall into, keep one thing in mind: “When athletes eat is crucial,” says Kelly Hogan, MS, RD, clinical nutrition and wellness manager at the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Here are six things Hogan says athletes should understand about post-workout feasting.

Eating before an early morning fitness session is totally personal…

Many athletes love – or have a love-hate relationship with – pre-dawn workouts. But when you’re waking up at 4:30 to be out the door by 5, should you really force yourself to scarf down a banana and some toast before getting on the move? “It depends on the athlete,” says Hogan. “Every individual is different when it comes to what their digestive systems can or cannot tolerate before a workout.” In other words, apply the “you do you” mentality here.

…unless you have a monster workout on tap.

“If you have a two-hour run ahead of you, it’s a bit more important to prioritize fueling beforehand than it is for a 30-minute easy run, yoga class, or elliptical workout,” says Hogan. “In general, if you’re going to be out for longer than an hour doing an endurance activity like running, it’s a good idea to have some easily digestible carbohydrates beforehand.” Hogan’s picks: a banana or toast with dried fruit or jam.

Be careful working out on an empty stomach.

If you’re only planning to work out for an hour or less, you can usually get away with minimal fuel beforehand, especially if food tends to bother your stomach. But if you choose fasted workouts for reasons other than a sensitive digestive system, Hogan says to be aware of the pros and cons of your plan and intention. “When we work out on an empty stomach, our bodies use more fat as fuel, as opposed to carbohydrates,” she says. “This is one common reason I see more people trying this tactic. But you want to be careful here, since running on empty – especially for longer runs or hard workouts – is stressful on the body and may not lead to performance enhancement.” Wherever you fall on the digestive spectrum, try different strategies to figure out what works best for you – comfort wise and energy wise, Hogan says – before and during your workouts.

There are two ways to determine your workout-related meal plan of attack.

The first, Hogan admits, is trial and error. But the second approach requires a little math. “In general, for an endurance activity, you want to take in about 0.5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight if you have one hour or less beforehand,” Hogan says. (To get your weight in kilograms, divide your number in pounds by 2.2.) If you have more time beforehand, like up to a few hours, Hogan recommends going up to about 2 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight. (Her favorites when you have enough time to digest include a bagel with peanut butter, oatmeal with fruit, or eggs and toast.) “But despite these equations, I don’t’ think you have to be exact or bust out your calculator,” she says. “Trial and error is just as important to see what sits in your stomach well and energizes you during activity.”

Eating the right foods at the wrong times can seriously mess up your workout.

This seems obvious, but even if you’ve found that tried-and-true pre-workout meal, eating it too early or too late can definitely affect your performance. “Having a higher fat meal right before a workout can cause GI distress because it’s more difficult to digest,” says Hogan. “The same goes for higher fiber meals, like lots of vegetables, beans, and whole grains.” And not eating enough carbohydrates before a workout can leave you feeling a bit depleted even before you start. (Hogan’s favorite simple carbs include white bread, English muffins, bananas, and dried fruit.)

Refuel after your workout, even if you don’t feel like it.

You may be one of those athletes who can’t even look at a smoothie, salad, or pizza after your wrap up your workout, but one of the best ways to promote muscle recovery and replenish your glycogen stores is to refuel – at least with a little something – within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. If you can’t stomach a sandwich or a brunch buffet, grab a protein shake or smoothie to sip on until you’re ready for a full meal. Hogan’s favorite post-workout meals include eggs and avocado toast, pizza with veggies on top, salmon with sweet potato and broccoli, or a smoothie with Greek yogurt, berries, banana, and greens.

In the spotlight

Kelly Hogan

Kelly Hogan

Kelly Hogan, MS, RD, is the clinical nutrition and wellness manager at the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai Hospital. She is a many-time marathoner who lives in New York City with her rescue dog, Peanut. Follow her eating and running adventures on Instagram at @kellyhoganrd.