Foods to Help You Go Further, Longer, Harder

Molly Hembree | The Upside blog by

by | Updated: March 13th, 2019 | Read time: 4 minutes

Athletes and casual exercisers, alike, should follow a routine that focuses on F.I.T.: frequency, intensity and time. Frequency, or how often you work out, will have a lot to do with your motivation levels – which could vary day to day. Intensity will largely depend on your personal preferences, fitness goals and any physical limitations. The time component, however, has to do with your endurance, or how long you can sustain a workout. This is where nutrition plays a major role. What you eat can very much dictate whether your body can handle running 26.2 miles or will crash and burn at mile marker 3.

Green detox smoothie cup and woman lacing running shoes before workout on rainy day

Food = calories = energy

Calories – which only enter our diet through fat, carbohydrates and protein – provide us with everyday energy to perform basic functions (i.e. breathing and talking) as well as for physical activities (i.e. weight lifting, running and playing tennis). Caloric needs vary based on gender, age, body weight, activity level and a few other factors. If you increase the frequency (the number of times you exercise each week), the intensity (your perceived level of exertion, or how hard you work) or the time (duration of any one workout), you should expect to consume more calories to maintain body weight and energy levels. For many metabolically efficient adults, this may mean you end up burning between 2,000 and 2,800 calories in a day.

Food that makes the cut (and helps you get cut!)

Your body’s first fuel source is glucose, or stored glucose called glycogen, found in the liver and sometimes pulled from muscle. Glucose namely comes from carbohydrates, which include sugar, fiber and starch. However, sugar is the more immediate energy source that can propel you into a short burst of activity. These foods have a time and place. For instance, in the middle of a moderate-to-heavy workout, you may need to take advantage of a bar, shake, juice or gel with some readily available energy. Keep these mid-training snacks to about 20 – 35 grams sugar total with minimal protein and fat. It’s best to select foods where the primary ingredient comes from fruit. Though they sound natural and wholesome, honey, cane sugar, beet sugar, maple syrup and agave nectar are added sugars that should be limited.

On the other hand, carbohydrates with more long-term effectiveness are those that also contain complex carbohydrates. Think carrot sticks with hummus, whole-grain pretzels or bananas with oatmeal. These slower-digesting foods should be consumed one to two hours before a workout at a rate of 1 – 2 grams of carbs per kilogram (kg) of body weight, or about 68 – 136 g carbs total. This will help you maintain stamina and keep you feeling “light” during the workout. Bonus: because you’ve provided your body with nutritious, whole food instead of a fatty, sugary donut, you’ll feel completely free of guilt when the sweat session is done and in the books!

Making it personal

Maybe you are following a vegan diet, have a milk allergy, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or are living a gluten-free lifestyle. There are still many foods and beverages that can help you harness the power of the plate. If adhering to a plant-based diet, consider soy as a more protein-heavy, non-dairy milk source and make meals out of beans, peas, whole grains and veggies. Those with IBS or general indigestion may do well with consuming smaller meals, avoiding sugar alcohols and sticking to more bland foods. If keeping wheat, barley and rye are out of the picture, concentrate on nutrient-dense foods made with alternative grains, like rice, potato and corn. Keep in mind that daily protein needs for a healthy adult are oftentimes less than you might think: 0.8 – 1.0g/kg body weight for non-elite athletes and 1.2 – 1.7 g/kg body weight for elite athletes daily. For a 150-pound person, that calculates to about 54 – 69 g and 81 – 116 g protein, respectively.

That’s a wrap…or sandwich

The latest research suggests within two hours of exercising is the timeframe to refuel (the “anabolic window”) for optimal recovery and muscle building. If you won’t be eating a full meal within the next two hours, be sure to have a snack within 30 minutes. You may have heard that chocolate milk is deemed the “perfect” recovery drink. This is because of the carb-to-protein ratio (4:1), which you could also get from a simple, delicious PB&J sandwich on whole-grain bread. If you don’t feel like munching on anything immediately after a workout, try a homemade fruit smoothie with protein powder or silken tofu (you won’t taste it!). A smoothie can be easier to digest on a sensitive stomach.

In order to be successful on the field, track, pavement, elliptical, weight bench or stage, the integrity of your athletic performance is directly related to how you choose to charge your body. Proper nutrition gets you powered up so your engine doesn’t power down too soon.

For more information about dietitian services, visit