How Food Fuels Your Workout

Food provides much more for your body and mind than just satiation and delight: it gives you the energy you need to function throughout the day, helps repair muscle, provides essential nutrients, and fuels your body. The food you eat directly impacts your body's performance and recovery during and after a workout. Understanding which foods best fuel your body ensures you will get the most out of your workout.

This article will cover how food converts into energy, how food fuels workouts, and which foods are best consumed before and after a workout.

How does food convert into energy? How does it fuel the body?

Nutrition has a direct effect on your body’s performance and recovery. What, when, and how much you eat have a significant impact on the effectiveness of your workout.

All parts of the body need energy to work. This energy comes from the food we eat and is digested by acids and enzymes in the stomach. Carbohydrates are the body’s main fuel source during exercise, as they provide energy and facilitate muscle gain. When you consume carbs, they are broken down into sugar molecules called glucose, which is stored in muscles or the liver to be used as fuel for the body. The body either uses this glucose immediately or stores it for later use.

Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source for exercise. Carbs are more accessible, can easily be broken down into energy, improve performance, keep energy levels consistent, delay fatigue, and facilitate muscle gain. There are three types of carbs—sugars (simple carbs found in candy and desserts), starches (complex carbs found in bread, pasta, and some vegetables), and fiber (complex carbs found in fruits, vegetables, and nuts). You will want to consume starches and fiber before and after workouts, as these types of carbohydrates will provide your body with a more sustainable amount of energy. This includes whole-grain foods (whole wheat bread, oatmeal, and brown rice), fruits (apples, bananas, and berries), as well as starchy vegetables and legumes (lentils, peas, corn, potatoes).

Consuming an adequate amount of carbs before working out ensures there is enough glucose in the body and stops you from feeling weak, tired, and unable to fully exert yourself. Inadequate amounts of carbs will prevent you from getting the most out of your workout and may ultimately lead to muscle breakdown and loss. When your energy sources are depleted, your body will turn to fat or muscle nutrients as an alternative energy source. Your body will be forced to break down your muscles into amino acids (a type of protein) in order to obtain enough energy. This minimizes performance, prevents muscle gain, and is a direct result of under-fueling. 

Your body also needs adequate amounts of protein to sustain energy levels and fix the muscle damage that occurs during exercise. Protein—nuts, leaner meats, eggs, Greek yogurt, etc—fuels workouts and facilitates recovery by providing the amino acids needed for muscle repair. Exercise creates microscopic damage in muscle cells, which are composed of proteins. The protein you consume helps repair these damaged muscle proteins and form new ones, which ultimately creates bigger muscles, making you stronger in the long run!

Which foods are the best to eat before working out?

When you work out, your body needs fuel from the right foods and hydration from the right fluids. Of course, this doesn’t mean sticking to a highly restrictive regimen. Rather, it’s about making sure you’re getting the necessary nutrients to maximize exercise performance and improve recovery time.

If you don’t fuel up before working out, your body might be forced to break down muscle mass in order to function. Instead of burning fat, your body will tap into the reserved muscle mass. To avoid this, eat a nutritious meal including carbohydrates, lean protein, and fiber 2-3 hours before a tough workout, or a smaller snack 30 min before a workout. For example, have Swapples topped with Revol Snax nut butter and bananas, or a parfait of non-fat Greek yogurt, fruit, and Sweet Kiwi granola. For an on-the-go and convenient pre-workout snack, grab a pack of Berg Bites. These combinations of carbohydrates and leaner proteins will give you enough energy to fuel your workout while also keeping you satiated throughout the day.

On the flip side, you should avoid eating foods that are high in fat, fiber, and refined sugar, as well as fried foods and dairy products. This includes foods like beans, burgers, fries, desserts, full-fat milk, or avocadoes. These types of foods are harder to digest, cause cramping, inhibit performance, and can lead to lethargy or fatigue. 

What happens after we work out? What should we be eating?

Fueling up after a workout is just as important as fueling up before. This ensures that your body has enough nutrients for recovery and muscle repair, which is ultimately what makes you stronger and more in shape in the long run. After your workout, eat a snack or meal that is high in complex carbohydrates and healthy protein, like brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat bread, tofu, fish, beans, and chicken. The carbohydrates will restore the glycogen lost in your muscles during your workout, while the protein aids with muscle repair.

The foods you eat directly impact overall health, workout performance, and recovery. By making sure you’re eating the right foods, at the right time, and in the right amount, you will get the most out of your workout, improve performance, and in the long-term, become stronger and healthier. These recommendations should be taken as a general guideline for how to best fuel your body for your workouts—in the end, everyone’s body is different, has its own unique needs and preferences, and reacts to different foods in different ways. The best thing to do is listen to your body and figure out what eating habits make you feel and perform at your best!