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Food for Thought: How To Fuel for Fitness

To eat or not to eat? That’s a question we get often when it comes to fueling for exercise. And while everyone knows good hydration is essential to optimal performance on a sports field or in the gym, there seems to be less consensus as to what, how much and when to eat for working out.

The following are general guidelines on fueling for fitness, but it’s always wise to consult with a nutritionist in order to create a plan that’s truly tailored to your specific needs, body type and goals.

If you’re exercising to build muscle …

If you’re trying to bulk up in the muscle department, protein is your best friend. Avoid fat and fiber; they can slow down digestion.

Recommended sources of protein for maximum exercise benefits include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, Greek yogurt, cheese and tofu. Non-meat eaters should reach for beans, nuts, seeds and chickpeas.

A good rule of thumb on how much protein to aim for in one’s diet? The American College of Sports Medicine advises those trying to increase muscle mass to eat 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily.

If you’re exercising to lose weight …

Calories are crucial when it comes to fueling your body for exercise, so even if weight loss is the end goal, it’s important to nourish your body sufficiently. Put simply, it’s unsafe – and possibly even counterproductive – to skimp on calories when exercising.

Instead, your focus should be on eating whole, minimally processed carbohydrates and proteins. This includes but is by no means limited to:

  • oatmeal

  • whole grain toast

  • fruit

  • beef jerky

  • eggs

  • milk

Consume carbs based on the length of your workout

Gearing up for a long, intense workout? Munch on complex carbohydrates that include fiber or starch for long-term energy. Some great sources include brown rice, quinoa, whole-grain bread and pasta, sweet potatoes, fruits and vegetables. According to Mayo Clinic, workouts lasting more than an hour a day require approximately 2.7 to 4.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight.

If you’re fueling up for daily, light-intensity workouts, approximately 1.4 to 2.3 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight should prove adequate.

When is the best time to fuel for exercise?

Remember the old wives’ tale about waiting 30 minutes after eating to swim? Well, maybe that wasn’t just moms trying to squeeze in a little extra R&R poolside. The general rule of thumb for eating in advance of a workout is to consume complex carbohydrates two to three hours prior to hitting the pavement or walking through the gym door. Simple carbohydrates that provide an immediate but short-lived burst of energy can be eaten 30 to 60 minutes in advance.


But provided your stomach isn’t screaming or you’re feeling energized, you shouldn’t need to eat or snack before moderate exercise (45 minutes or less) as your daily intake of calories and nutrients should sustain you for the duration of your workout. If you are famished with a workout looming, snack on a piece of fruit in the 5 to 10 minutes before you hit the pavement or elliptical.

However, there is evidence that, if you exercise first thing in the morning, it’s beneficial to eat breakfast prior because the body burns more carbohydrates at a faster rate during the session – and speeds up metabolism afterward as well.


Should you ever snack mid-workout? We’ve all seen marathoners fueling up with a banana or energy gel at various points along a race route. Any type of high-intensity, vigorous exercise lasting over an hour calls for mid-session snacks. As to how often and what to grab in these situations? The American Heart Association suggests 50 to 100 calories of carbohydrates every half hour. Yogurt, raisins or a banana are ideal solutions.


How often do you fuel post-workout? Many of us may be reluctant to raid to the pantry or fridge – or frankly, not even capable of stomaching food – at this point, but after cardio and strength training, this step is crucial to combatting micro-tears, restoring energy and combatting fatigue.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends reaching for carbs and protein within an hour of intense exercise to promote muscle recovery and replenish lost nutrients. Some easy options with serious impact:

  • almonds and low-fat chocolate milk

  • Greek yogurt, granola and berries

  • string cheese and pretzels

  • smoothie made with low-fat milk, fruit and whey protein.

Remember, each of us has different nutritional needs and exercise routines, so it’s smart to seek an expert opinion on exactly what, when and how to fuel for fitness. Etage Athletic Club just introduced nutrition counseling to its roster of services. Come work with a trainer to get a better feel for fueling your unique body for workouts. Our experts take your personal goals, exercise habits and lifestyle into consideration to develop guidelines and recipes customized specifically for you. Contact us for more information



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