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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