sportsMy local grocery store now devotes almost an entire aisle to sports nutrition bars, gels, powders, and beverages. It seems either more people are exercising or sports nutrition products have gone mainstream. But are these sports-specific foods and beverages necessary or even beneficial?

There are two factors to consider when deciding what to eat before, during, and after exercise: duration and intensity. Does your exercise consist of a 20- to 30-minute stroll? Or is your idea of a workout a vigorous outdoor pick-up basketball game?

If you exercise for less than one hour at an easy or moderate intensity and you can easily carry on a conversation without stopping to catch your breath, you don’t need any special sports foods. But if you exercise at a higher intensity, such that you can only talk in two- to three-word phrases, or if you work
out for longer than an hour, then what you eat will play a big role in your sports performance and energy level.


1) Hydration: If you exercise for less than an hour, water is the perfect beverage. It satisfies thirst and prevents dehydration without adding unnecessary calories. But if you exercise for more than an hour or work out in a very hot climate, you’ll benefit from a sports drink, which contains carbohydrates to keep up your energy levels as well as electrolytes (sodium and potassium) to replace those lost through sweat. Sports drinks are absorbed faster than plain water during exercise, and the slightly salty taste encourages you to drink more.

Sports drinks designed for consumption during exercise usually contain 50 to 80 calories per 8 ounces. Energy drinks are popular but are not recommended for exercise. They contain caffeine or caffeinelike substances and often more carbohydrates than are easily digested and absorbed during exercise. Carbonated beverages can cause gas and cramping during exercise and should also be avoided. Some sports drinks to try include Gatorade, Powerade, and a blend of 100% fruit juice and water in equal amounts.

2) Preexercise fuel: Before exercising, choose quick-digesting foods that contain primarily carbohydrates, which will provide energy for your muscles. nutri-barAvoid foods high in fiber or fat, which slow digestion. One to two hours before you exercise, aim to take in 100 to 300 calories with foods such as a Powerbar Pure and Simple Energy Bar, a Nutri-Grain cereal bar, Fig Newtons, a small bagel, or yogurt.

3) Carbohydrates and energy during exercise: If you will be exercising for longer than one hour, you’ll have more energy if you consume small amounts of carbohydrates periodically during exercise. Carbohydrates provide energy for your muscles and brain and help promote muscle recovery. When you run out of carbs, you can’t keep going mentally or physically. The more intense the exercise, the more carbohydrates your body uses. For example, running uses more than walking.

Aim to consume a total of 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, spread out so that you take in carbs every 15 to 20 minutes. Look for easily digestible foods that contain no fiber. Many of the commercial sports nutrition products contain caffeine, which some people do not tolerate well. The carbohydrate source varies from product to product, and some individuals are more sensitive to one form than to another. Be sure to try different products during training so on race day you’ll know exactly which work best for you. Make sure to drink water along with any of these foods.

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, a sports nutritionist and author, recommends specially engineered sports nutrition products such as GU, Carb BOOM!, Clif Shot Bloks, GU Chomps, Honey Stinger, Hammer Gel, Jelly Belly Sport Beans, Sharkies, or PowerBar Energy Blasts. She also suggests trying foods such as pretzels, gummy bears, or crackers.

4) Recovery—carbs and protein: There’s a 30-minute window of opportunity after exercise when your body is primed to use carbohydrates and protein for muscle repair and to store them as glycogen in your muscles. Aim to consume 0.5 grams of carbs per pound of body weight immediately after exercise and again in one to two hours. Add protein to those carbs to promote even better recovery. For every gram of carbohydrate, eat 0.25 grams of protein. For example, a 120-pound person needs 60 grams of carbohydrates and 15 grams of protein; a bagel with peanut butter is one option. Beverages can provide all or part of your recovery nutrition. Good choices for recovery include 12 ounces of chocolate milk and half a peanut butter sandwich, 1 cup of yogurt mixed with 1 cup of fruit and 1⁄2 cup granola, and sports bars that contain 200 to 300 calories, such as Zing, CLIF, LARA, Odwalla, KIND, NRG, and PowerBar Recovery bars.


If you want to lose weight, instead of eating more food to fuel exercise, schedule exercise around your meals. Eat part of your breakfast at 6 am and go for a walk from 7 to 7:30, then eat the other half of breakfast after your walk. If you’re going to hit the gym after work, eat a balanced lunch, plan a late afternoon snack, and then schedule dinner as your recovery meal.