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Tips for fueling your fitness

Whether training for a marathon or working out to get more fit, fueling the workout is important. That fuel comes from food. Specialized shakes and supplements are not necessary.

As someone who teaches sports nutrition; helps recreational athletes with their nutrition; and a former recreational runner and cyclist; I can attest that fueling the workout properly can make a big difference in performance and how good someone feels during and after the workout.


Water and other fluids are the most overlooked part of fueling fitness. While water has no calories, and therefore no energy, it can still help a workout in many ways.

Mild dehydration can affect overall performance. This can include overheating, feeling fatigue and just making the workout feel like more work. Ensuring that fluid such as plain or flavored water is being consumed a couple of hours before the workout will help with feeling good during the bout of exercise. Hydrating throughout the day, not just during the workout, is also important and will help with overall performance and reduce the risk of overheating.

What is the right amount of water? It isn’t as precise as drinking a specific amount every day, but related to individual sweat rates, intensity of the workout, air temperature, and prior hydration status. In general, a guideline is related to urine color: pale yellow is well hydrated and darker amber, like apple juice, could benefit from an increased intake.

Water or a specialty drink? For most people water is enough for an hour workout. No need to get fancy or use a sports beverage.

Sports beverages may be fine when working out for longer than an hour, if it is really hot or for someone who is a “salty” sweater. These beverages were originally designed to replace the lost electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, in heavy sweaters in humid conditions. Many of these sports beverages also have carbohydrates to help with refueling the muscles. If people aren’t exercising continuously for more than an hour, then a sport beverage with electrolytes is unnecessary.

Caffeine containing beverages like coffee or a stimulant drink before your workout is fine, but it should not substitute for fuel. Stimulants such as caffeine and guarana found in energy beverages can give the illusion of “energy” but do not fuel the body for a workout.

EAT BEFORE: While some people have the idea that exercising while fasted will help burn more fat, this isn’t exactly how this works. Fueling the muscles prior to a workout usually results in a more efficient and better workout which can lead to more calories burned, better recovery, and being ready for the next workout sooner.

While there is nothing “wrong” with not eating before, give it a try for a few workouts and see if there is a difference. Some people just feel they can’t eat before their workout, especially in the morning. In this case, what was eaten the night before may be enough.

Ensure that eating before the workout isn’t five minutes prior, but more like 60 minutes prior. This varies by the person, and some may need longer than an hour while others could do a bit less.

EAT AFTER: Having food after a workout will help with the recovery process and refueling of the muscles. While protein tends to come to mind, other nutrients are needed to help with recovery. No need to take on the buffet after a workout or even a full meal. Depending on what time of day a workout is happening, the next meal may be enough, but a small snack or mini meal would also work. Once again, depending on the workout time and intensity, how much and how soon will vary.

For example, if the workout is at lunch, then eat lunch following the workout. If the workout is after work, then have dinner following the workout.

WHAT TO EAT: What to eat will vary based on personal preference.

Before the workout have a food with some carbohydrates that fuel the muscle and the brain such as banana or apple with peanut butter, cereal with milk or toast with avocado. A little protein will also help with feeling satisfied but won’t necessarily fuel the workout.

After the workout, a common “recovery” beverage is chocolate milk. This has a good balance of carbohydrates and protein and can be a convenient grab-and-go beverage and much less expensive than brand-name protein recovery beverages.

Once again, the next planned meal may be enough, but if it is still a couple hours away, have some trail mix, yogurt, hard cooked eggs, a packet of tuna or some jerky to help with repair and refueling of the muscles.

While there are plenty of supplements and specialty beverages and bars that are made for various types of athletes, many of these aren’t necessary to fuel workout and recovery. Food is what humans are made to eat and have always eaten, so why not go for what is readily available in the kitchen or grocery store.

Shelley Rael, MS RDN LD is a registered dietitian nutritionist in Albuquerque and can often be found discovering new food and drink experiences in New Mexico and beyond. She is the author of “The One-Pot Weight Loss Plan” now available on You can learn more about her at