Fueling before, during, after exercise helps prevent injury, dehydration

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Olivia Voelkel
  • U.S. Army Baylor Master’s Program of Nutrition Student

Food and fueling matter for performing at your best for exercise, and there's no better time to emphasize that than National Nutrition Month in March. The types of foods eaten before, during and after exercise affect the quality of that workout.

Those who have completed a “beer mile” know this clearly is not the best fuel for a workout. Chugging a beer for every lap around the track does not end in a personal record time for the mile, and, worse, you might walk away not feeling great or even injure yourself.

Different athletic goals and workouts require different foods. This includes training for an fitness test, running a half-marathon, competing in a CrossFit competition or exercising to stay healthy. Fueling properly can set military members up for success and help them reach their goals.

Before your workout

Carbohydrates containing foods and water are most important before workouts. About 30-60 minutes before exercise, aim for a 200-300 calorie snack that contains carbohydrates. Good foods to choose include:

  • Bagel with cream cheese or nut butter.
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
  • Banana with nut butter.
  • Waffle or pancake with syrup and berries.

Avoid foods high in fat and protein before working out. These foods take longer to digest and may feel heavy in the stomach. Examples of foods to avoid immediately before work out might include:

  • Fatty meats.
  • Foods with cream sauces.
  • Foods with a lot of cheese.
  • Foods that contain dairy.

Hydration is very important throughout the day. Before working out, drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration. Caffeine may also help improve exercise quality. However, limit caffeine to 200 mg about an hour before working out. 

During exercise

Fuel during exercise depends on how long the exercise lasts. For workouts less than one hour long, water is recommended. Sipping water during shorter workouts will help prevent dehydration. For workouts longer than an hour, sports drinks are key. These contain carbohydrates for energy, replenish electrolytes (like sodium and potassium) lost during sweating and water. These three elements provide fuel and hydration.

Recovery foods

After exercise, it is important to eat well for recovery. Within two hours after working out, eat a balanced meal or snack. A balanced plate includes healthy proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Consider using the USDA MyPlate website (https://www.myplate.gov/) to help build your plate.

Protein is important for rebuilding muscle after exercise. Carbohydrates will refill fuel stores that were used up. Fats help increase fullness and replace calories lost during exercise. Hydrating after workouts is also crucial to replace water lost while sweating and to replenish for the next work out.

Ideal recovery snacks include the following:

  • Trail mix with nuts, dried fruit, seeds, etc.
  • Protein shake and granola bar.
  • Yogurt with granola and fruit.

Recovery is important and happens throughout the day. To properly recover from exercise, eat nutritious foods for most meals. Service members and athletes with heavy training loads are always recovering. Balanced meals to promote workout recovery could include:

  • Omelet with vegetables, turkey bacon, and toast
  • Whole wheat bagel with peanut butter, and Greek yogurt with fruit
  • Chicken, rice, and vegetables
  • Whole wheat pasta, turkey meatballs, and tomato sauce

Proper nutrition before, during and after exercise will keep service members at their peak performance and help prevent injury and dehydration.

For more information refer to the Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP) Warfighter Nutrition Guide 2022: Chapter 9 - Nutrient Timing and Training located at https://www.hprc-online.org/nutrition/warfighter-nutrition-guide?fbclid=IwAR3ETzr9KDV4T4DXUrT-MtiOCKgVseWqXKt6MI3zSxniO3OX7q_BolyHJW8#chapter-9 for more information or make an appointment with the dietitian at your local medical treatment facility.