Foods for Workouts: Cardio

by in Ask the Experts, Healthy Tips, April 13, 2011

people on treadmills

An all-around healthy diet is best for any exercise routine, but cardiovascular exercise requires a balance of special nutrients. If you get cardiovascular exercise regularly (and we all should) – here’s how to fuel up.

Cardio Basics
Cardio exercise like walking, running and biking require energy from both carbohydrates and fat. Carbohydrates are the body’s #1 go-to source, but healthy sources of fat also give ample doses of energy.

As exercise intensity changes (like due to an increase in speed or running uphill, for example), the body switches back and forth between carbs and fat to provide energy. Since you can’t completely control how and when the body needs what nutrient, it’s best to have adequate amounts of both as a regular part of the diet. Best choices for carbs are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and dairy. The healthiest types of fats come from foods like olive oil, avocado, nuts, peanut butter, eggs and salmon.

All foods are digested and metabolized differently, so you need to think about the best times to eat foods that will support your exercise schedule.

Before A Workout
Pre-workout meals should focus mostly on healthy carbs, but since carbs with high amounts of fiber take longer to digest, you want to be careful not to take in too much directly before exercise. Protein and fat also take longer to digest, so those should also be spaced further away from exercise.

If you have 3 to 4 hours before exercise…… Have a regular meal.

•    A salad with grilled chicken, vinaigrette dressing and whole wheat roll
•    Turkey & cheese or PB&J on whole-grain bread
•    Grilled salmon with brown rice and broccoli
•    Whole grain pasta with feta cheese and grilled veggies

If you have 60 minutes or less before exercise….. Have a low-fat (and relatively low-protein) snack.
•    Nonfat yogurt
•    A low-fat granola bar
•    A piece of fruit
•    A handful of pretzels

Note: always consider your personal tolerance – choose foods you digest comfortably.

After A Workout
The post-workout window is time for refueling energy stores and helping tired and worn out muscles recover. That means more healthy carbs plus a boost of protein. If it’s been more than 4 hours since your last meal, it’s time for another one. If not, try one of these snack options:
•    A glass of chocolate milk
•    Hummus with pita chips
•    (In a time crunch) A protein bar
•    Half of a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread

TELL US: What are your burning nutrition and exercise questions?

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. See Dana’s full bio »

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Comments (322)

  1. Workout endurance is all about glycogen stores, and unfortunately you can't do much about that at the last minute … I think these are all great suggestions, though. Personally I work out first thing in the morning and gobble half a banana and a handful of vitamins beforehand. Gets the job done.

  2. Great food suggestions! Living healthy can be quite tricky. It's important to know what to eat to get the most of your workouts. I try to eat more fresh, natural foods wherever possible. Question for you: Does it make a huge difference to eat whole wheat pasta over regular pasta?

  3. Wow, this article is nice, my younger sister is analyzing such things, thus I am going to convey her.

  4. Fajas says:

    Me, I try to go natural all the way, eating fresh fruits and vegetables as much as possible. But this one, I want to try. The having a full meal 4-5 hours before exercise because I eat like 1-2hrs before I go with my routine.

  5. Jon Robinson says:

    good post – alot of people work out on an empty stomach mistakenly believing more fat will be mobilised when actually cortisol promotes the opposite

    Jon Robinson
    BSc (Hons) Exercise Physiology

  6. Caitlin says:

    i have a smoothie psot workout with banana, 1 cup skim milk, tbspn wheatgerm and tnspn low fat yoghurt-i also add a bit of cinnamon and vanilla -this is only after a vigorous workout -a milo on skim milk is also great post work out
    -before a run i can eat maybe an apple beforehand but i try to eat low gi carbs like pita bread,, wholemeal bread and of coruse protein from eggs,chicken etc a few hours before

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  9. vedette says:

    I would of never thought that eating a pb&j before a work out would be good, thanks so much on the great tips. Im so glad i stumbled upon this blog.

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