For activities lasting longer than 90 minutes, it's important to replenish carbohydrates, minerals, and water during exercise. Experts suggest you eat a snack and drink fluid every 15 to 20 minutes. Refined carbohydrates (with sugar or flour) pass quickly into the bloodstream, where they fuel working muscles. Many athletes prefer sports bars, sports drinks, or gels, since they're so convenient. But fruit or fruit juice are also excellent choices.
Replenishing carbohydrates is equally important after intensive exercise. "Since you don't need quick energy, it's best to choose less refined carbohydrates" such as a whole grain bagel or carrot and veggie sticks, which provide both carbohydrates and a rich array of nutrients, says Dubost.
Consume Enough -- but Not Too Much -- Protein
Protein does not provide a lot of fuel for energy, but it is important for maintaining muscle tissue.
- The average person needs about 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day. That's about 88 grams of protein for a 150-pound person.
- A strength athlete may need up to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight. That's about 150 grams of protein for a 200-pound athlete.
"Milk is one of the best foods for recovery after an event, because it provides a good balance of protein and carbohydrates," says Dubost. Milk also contains both casein and whey protein. The combination may be particularly helpful for athletes. Research shows that whey protein is absorbed quickly, which can help speed recovery immediately after an event. Casein is digested more slowly, helping to ensure long-term recovery of muscle after a grueling event. Milk also contains calcium, which is important for maintaining strong bones.
Although protein is made up of amino acids, Dubost says there is little evidence that taking specific amino acid supplements offers an advantage. What's more, consuming too much protein can put a strain on your kidneys. Instead of supplements, she suggests eating high-quality protein, such as lean meats, fish, poultry, nuts, eggs, or milk.
Go Easy on Fat
For long events, such as marathons, the body turns to fat for energy when carbohydrate sources run low. But most athletes get all the fat they need by following basic dietary guidelines: Eat mostly unsaturated fat from foods such as nuts, avocados, olives, vegetable oils, and fatty fish such as salmon and tuna. Experts recommend avoiding fatty foods on the day of an event, since they can cause stomach distress for some people.
Drink Fluids Early and Often
High-intensity exercise, especially in hot weather, can quickly leave you dehydrated. Dehydration, in turn, can hurt your performance and, in extreme cases, be life-threatening. "All high-intensity athletes should drink fluids early and often," says Dubost. "And don't wait until you're thirsty. By the time you feel parched, you may be seriously dehydrated."
"One way to monitor hydration is to keep an eye on the color of your urine," says Joshua Evans, MD, a physician at Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit and an expert on dehydration.
A pale yellow color means you're getting enough fluid. Bright yellow or dark urine means you're falling short.
Because intense exercise causes rapid fluid loss, it's a good idea to drink fluids before as well as during an event, says Dubost.
- For endurance athletes such as marathon runners or long-distance cyclists, experts recommend drinking 8 to 12 ounces of fluid every 10 or 15 minutes during an event.
- When possible, drink chilled fluids, which are more easily absorbed than room temperature water. Chilled fluids also help cool your body down.
Replenish Lost Electrolytes
Sweating causes both fluid and electrolyte loss. Electrolytes help transmit nerve signals in your body, and play many other important roles. To replenish lost electrolytes, many athletes reach for sports drinks. If you lose a lot of fluid sweating, experts recommend diluting sports drinks with equal amounts of water to get the best balance of fluid and electrolytes.
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