Sports Dietitians Answer Their Favorite Athlete Nutrition Questions

Five sports dieticians provide answers to questions they hear most often from athletes and coaches they work with.

Sports dietitians are the experts when it comes to recommendations for fueling your body for exercise or sports. They are constantly educating themselves to provide athletes with the best, most relevant information so they can run faster, swim longer and train harder.

For this article, I reached out to a few of my favorite sports dietitians, asking them for their expert opinions on the questions they hear most often.

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The Question: Does what I eat before a workout depend on the type of exercise I'll be doing?

The Expert: Torey Armul MS, RDN, CSSD, National Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Columbus, Ohio.

The Answer: Armul says it's wise to customize your pre-workout snack to accommodate your type of workout. Duration and effort exerted during exercise affect how much nourishment you need, but she says that "smart pre-workout snacks contain the same basic nutrients, and can be tailored to give your body the fuel it needs for different types of exercise."

For lighter exercise, or training that lasts less than an hour, Armul recommends easily digestible carbohydrates "for quick bursts of energy." She suggests a PB&J sandwich, a fruit smoothie, a banana with peanut butter or an apple with a granola bar. If your workout lasts more than an hour and is more intense, choose carbohydrates that take a little longer for your body to digest. Foods such as wheat bread and oatmeal are good choices, because "the additional fiber slows down digestion to provide a slower, more extended release of energy."

The Question: What should I eat before exercise?

The Expert: Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD, author of the best-selling Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook and private practitioner in the Boston-area.

The Answer: Clark says it depends on how hard and long you will be exercising and how well your intestinal tract tolerates food. If you have an intense workout planned, she recommends something smaller that your body can digest quickly, such as a plain bagel with peanut butter. It's also important to know your body: "Some people have cast-iron stomachs and can eat anything pre-exercise without fear of intestinal distress. Others need to wait a few hours." Clark explains that "because each person has a unique response to pre-exercise food, they should experiment with a variety of options. Carbohydrate-based foods (breads, melon, potato) digest easily and are generally the best options."

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Finally, the length of your workout or event also dictates what you should eat. Clark says if you're going to be active "for more than 60 to 90 minutes, eating a pre-exercise meal or snack will enhance your stamina and endurance. Pre-exercise food is less important before a 30-minute exercise session (assuming you are not hungry)."

Looking for the perfect pre-exercise snack formula? Clark suggests approximately 2 calories of carbohydrates per pound of body weight (0.5g carbohydrate per pound). For a 150-pound athlete, that equates to a snack or meal with about 300 calories from carbohydrates. She also recommends adding a little fat or protein to help with flavor and satiety. But don't go overboard, because too much fat or protein can lead to cramping or an unsettled stomach.

The Question: When do I need a recovery snack and what should it be?

The Expert: Kim Larson RD, CD, CSSD, National Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Sports Dietitian at Total Health, based in Seattle, Washington.

The Answer: Larson expertly advises clients to eat a post-workout recovery snack after a hard aerobic or strength training workout that lasts more than hour. The recovery snack is crucial because it "serves to reload the muscles with carbohydrates, called glycogen, and rebuild muscles that have been damaged." Her advice? Make the post-workout snack part of your post-workout routine, just like stretching and cooling down. That way you'll never forget this important source of nourishment, which "helps prevent glycogen depletion from hard exercise day after day and keeps energy high."

What should that recovery snack look like? Larson recommends 20-30 grams of protein and 40-60 grams of carbohydrate. And "for more serious athletes, who train multiple times a day, the rule of thumb is to eat one gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight." Some of Larson's favorite recovery foods include:

  • Low-fat chocolate milk and trail mix,
  • Greek yogurt parfait with fresh fruit and a sprinkle of granola
  • Turkey sandwich and milk
  • Smoothie made with yogurt, milk, or whey protein or peanut butter powder
  • Hummus and pita bread
  • Low-fat cottage cheese and fruit
  • A sports bar containing the right amounts of protein and carbohydrate.

And don't forget to re-hydrate. Larson recommends including fluids with your recovery snack.

The Question: What are some good portable food options I can pack to eat after school before I start practice?

The Expert: Heather Mangieri, MS, RD, CSSD, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Owner and Nutrition Consultant at Nutrition CheckUp, LLC, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Answer: Mangieri spends a lot of time working with high school athletes, so she knows a thing or two about their nutritional needs. When it comes to fueling for their after-school workouts, she knows they need more than just a snack. Early lunches and growing bodies can lead to serious hunger when the school bell rings at the end of the day.

"Unfortunately there's not always enough time to fill the tank before practice," she says. "Instead, it's important to pack snacks that are portable, quick to eat, quick to digest, but balanced and nutrient-packed."

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Try granola bars, shelf-stable chocolate milk with a banana, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, trail mix made with dried cereal, soy nuts, pretzel bites, dried fruit and chocolate chips or an apple with nut butter. Her other tip: Get a mini-portable cooler. This provides more options, preventing snack boredom.

The Question: How soon after a workout should I eat?

The Expert: Alissa Rumsey MS, RD, CDN, CNSC, CSCS, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, based in New York, New York.

The Answer: Rumsey's New York clients are time-strapped, often looking for the most effective and efficient ways to re-fuel following a hard workout, game or match. They want to know if there's validity to the old rule that you have to fit in a recovery meal or snack within a 30-45-minute window post-workout. Rumsey says the rules have changed, and that the tight time line isn't warranted. She explains that "immediately after a workout, our muscles are primed to use and store nutrients and improve training results, but we now know that you can eat up to two hours afterwards and still see the same beneficial results." Her recommendation is to relax about timing and plan your recovery snack accordingly, with a goal of eating a combination of protein and carbohydrates within two hours after exercise.

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