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4 Common Questions about Nutrition for Exercise

Whether you are an elite athlete or new to exercise, peri-exercise nutrition is important to consider. Peri-exercise nutrition may be thought of as the food and drink one consumes around the time of exercise — before, after, or in some cases, during. Let’s discuss a few of the most common questions about peri-exercise nutrition.

1. What are the general recommendations on eating before exercise? 

In general, it is recommended to have some type of carbohydrate-rich meal, especially during longer exercise (greater than 90 minutes), eaten between 30 minutes to 3 hours beforehand [i]. Some suggest that consumption of some protein before exercise may spare the breakdown of muscle proteins. Some sample pre-exercise meals include overnight oats with fresh berries, Greek yogurt with honey and granola, whole grain bread with nut butter, and a fruit smoothie with protein powder. 

2. Is it OK to exercise on an empty stomach? 

Before exercise, your body may be in a fasted- or a fed-state. A fasted state is maintained after around 8-12 hours without a meal. Depending on which state the body is currently in, different mechanisms of metabolism take place. Current research demonstrates higher levels of fat burning during fasted-state exercise; however, this effect diminishes greatly as exercise duration increases [i]. In contrast, exercise completed during a fed-state is associated with lower levels of fat burning but has been shown to improve exercise performance [ii]. So, what exactly does this mean and how can this information be applied to your pre-exercise nutrition plan? This will come down to your personal preferences and how the timing of specific foods before exercise affects your comfort. 

3. Should you eat or drink DURING exercise? 

Most people don’t need to eat during exercise, but can save those meals for before and after. It is important to keep water handy and drink throughout exercise to prevent symptoms of dehydration. During exercise, consumption of food or energy-dense beverages is generally only recommended to athletes training for extended periods of time (greater than 60 minutes) at high intensities where energy and fluid supply is greatly being challenged. For this population, approximately 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour is recommended [iii]. This may be consumed in the form of sports drinks such as Gatorade.

4. What about after exercise? What are the best food and drinks to consume and when?

Post-exercise, the most immediate consideration is rehydration. During exercise, our bodies lose fluids in the form of sweat. It is imperative to keep water handy after a training session, whether it is aerobic or resistance-based. It has been shown that whole foods complemented with a protein source is the optimal post-nutrition meal [iv]. Dietary protein following exercise is critical for the optimization of muscle building and maintenance. A post-exercise meal may be consumed up to 5 hours after completion of the session and should contain a wide variety of nutrients [iv]. Some sample post-exercise meals include a tuna salad sandwich on whole grain bread, an egg omelet with vegetables and a piece of fruit, grilled chicken with roasted sweet potatoes, and cottage cheese with honey and fresh fruit. 


[i] Rothschild JA, Kilding AE, Plews DJ. What Should I Eat before Exercise? Pre-Exercise Nutrition and the Response to Endurance Exercise: Current Prospective and Future Directions. Nutrients. 2020;12(11):E3473. doi:10.3390/nu12113473

[ii] Ormsbee MJ, Bach CW, Baur DA. Pre-exercise nutrition: the role of macronutrients, modified starches and supplements on metabolism and endurance performance. Nutrients. 2014;6(5):1782-1808. doi:10.3390/nu6051782

[iii] Kerksick CM, Arent S, Schoenfeld BJ, et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:33. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4

[iv] Vliet S van, Beals JW, Martinez IG, Skinner SK, Burd NA. Achieving Optimal Post-Exercise Muscle Protein Remodeling in Physically Active Adults through Whole Food Consumption. Nutrients. 2018;10(2):E224. doi:10.3390/nu10020224

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