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The best fitness foods: What to eat before, during and after a workout

By Brierley Wright, April 16, 2012 - 11:11am

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The best fitness foods: What to eat before, during and after a workout

Getting a great workout goes beyond the number of reps you do or the miles you log on the treadmill (though that does help too). In all the running road races I've trained for—from 5Ks to marathons—I know that what I put into my body before and after a race or a training run can either help or hinder my performance.

Related: Find Out What Some of the World's Top Athletes Eat to Win

Regardless of what type of exercise suits your fancy, here are some tips on what to eat before, during and after a workout, as previously reported on in EatingWell Magazine.

Pre-workout:
A low-glycemic-index meal: If you're the type of person who can't work out on an empty stomach, you may want to try this to boost your fat burn: eat a meal made with "slow-release" carbohydrates (think: oatmeal, bran cereal, a whole-wheat bagel or toast) three hours before you work out. In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, researchers assessed the rate of fat burn among eight healthy women after they ate two breakfasts: muesli with milk, peaches, yogurt and apple juice on one day; cornflakes with skim milk, white bread with margarine and jam and an energy drink on another day. Both meals contained similar amounts of calories, but the first breakfast (muesli) was a low-glycemic-index (GI) meal, meaning it produced smaller spikes in blood sugar than the second breakfast, which was a high-GI meal. Generally, foods that contain protein, fat and/or fiber—and are digested more slowly—fall lower on the GI scale than those that consist mostly of carbohydrate (e.g., white bread). On the days when the women ate the low-GI breakfast, they burned nearly twice as much fat during a 60-minute walk as they did on the days when they ate the high-GI meal. Why? The muesli (low-GI) breakfast was more slowly digested so it didn't spike blood-glucose levels as high as the cornflake (high-GI) breakfast did. In turn, insulin levels didn't spike as high either—which probably explains why the muesli-eating women burned more fat, says Ian MacDonald, Ph.D., director of research at the University of Nottingham Medical School. Insulin plays a role in signaling your body to store fat. So, lower levels of insulin might help you to burn fat.

Related: The Best Breakfast Foods for Weight Loss

Water: Staying hydrated can help you perform better: in one study, people who were just slightly dehydrated were typically only able to run, for example, about 75 percent as hard as usual. Hydrate pre-exercise with 2 to 3 cups of water, 2 to 3 hours before exercising.

Related: Do You Really Need to Drink 8 Glass of Water a Day? Find Out Here.

During your workout:
Honey: To boost your energy during endurance activities, recent research suggests that carbohydrate blends (foods containing fructose and glucose) may be superior to straight glucose. But before you reach for a sports drink, consider honey: like sugar, it naturally has equal parts fructose and glucose, but it also contains a handful of antioxidants and vitamins. (The darker the honey, the more disease-fighting compounds it contains.)

Related: Will Coffee Boost Your Performance? The Real Scoop on 4 Natural Fuel Foods

Flavored water. Drinking flavored water while you're working out might make it easier to stay hydrated. In one study, people given flavored water while exercising drank more than exercisers given plain water. Choose wisely though: some brands can deliver as much added sugars as soft drinks while others use artificial sweeteners to cut the calorie load. What about coconut water and sports drinks? Find out what to drink, when, here.

Post-workout:
Chocolate milk: If your workout lasts an hour or more, have a glass of chocolate (or plain) milk. The carbohydrates in it will help replenish the energy stored in your muscles (called glycogen stores) and aid in muscle recovery—more so than a carb-only drink. Don't like milk? Substitute with a post-workout snack of banana and peanut butter.

Tart cherry juice: Tart cherry juice delivers antioxidants that mop up the harmful free radicals produced when you exercise. And research shows that a daily dose of cherry juice may help ease inflammation that causes sore muscles. A 2010 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that runners who downed 24 ounces of tart cherry juice (about 480 calories) for seven days before a long-distance race, and again on race day, reported fewer aches afterward than runners who drank a placebo. Skip the juice right before or while you're exercising, though: fructose, the primary sugar in fruit, takes longer to digest than other sugars (like those in sports drinks), so drinking juice before or during exercise may cause stomach cramps.

What do you eat before, during or after you exercise? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Brierley Wright, Health Blog, Breakfast, Diet, Fitness, Health, Lunch, Nutrition, Weight loss, Wellness

Brierley Wright
Brierley's interest in nutrition and food come together in her position as nutrition editor at EatingWell. Brierley holds a master’s degree in Nutrition Communication from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. A Registered Dietitian, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Vermont.

Brierley asks: What do you eat before, during or after you exercise?

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