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How to Build Healthy Athlete Snacks!

An image showing athlete snack ideas: banana, granola bar, roasted edamame, hardboiled eggs, trail mix, oat peanut butter balls, Greek yogurt parfait, guacamole with crackers.

Snacks often get a bad rap, but snacking helps athletes! Learn how to build healthy athlete snacks to support your energy levels, performance, health, recovery and blood sugar! 

Today we’re going to chat through why snacks are helpful, the 3 different types of snacks, what nutrients should be at each of these snacks, when you should have a snack, how big your snacks should be..and more! 

Why snacks are helpful for athletes 

“Snacking is bad” is a common myth that I’m busting! Maybe your parents discouraged snacking when you were a kid. Maybe you’ve seen a lot of diet culture messages about how you should avoid snacking. This can make us believe that snacking is “bad.”

Let me remind you that you’re a runner! Running requires energy. Food provides energy. If you want to have the energy to keep up with all the things that you ask your body to do on a daily basis, you have to feed it really well and that may include eating snacks!

Snacks can help you 

  • Meet your daily calorie, macronutrient and micronutrient needs
  • Avoid underfueling and all the consequences that comes with it
  • Improve your performance 
  • Recover post-exercise
  • Feel energized throughout the day and during running  
  • Sustain you in-between meals and can prevent you from getting to a ravenous state and overeating later on at night 

Thinking about food all the time? This could be a sign that you’re underfueling. Check out How to Stop Thinking About Food All the Time for tips and guidance.

What should be included in healthy athlete snacks

This depends on when you’re eating your snack and if it’s away from exercise vs right before. There are 3 different types of athlete’s snacks: snacks within the hour of exercise, snacks right after exercise and snacks away from exercise. Let’s chat through each type. 

Snacks within the hour of exercise

I recommend that you fuel before all of your workouts. This is the best way that you can support your body, hormones, energy and performance. 

When you’re eating within the hour of exercise, you want to choose a low fiber, carb-rich snack. Because fiber takes time to digest, low fiber carbs are best when you don’t have a lot of time to digest. Your body can digest low fiber carbs quickly and provide quick energy!

Snacks for athletes within the hour of exercise

  • Applesauce pouch 
  • Banana 
  • Low fiber cereal 
  • Carb-rich sports drink or juice 
  • Piece of toast 
  • Fruit snacks 
  • Graham crackers
A graphic showing snacks for athletes for within the hour of exercise: banana, graham crackers, toast, applesauce, juice

These options can fuel your body for a shorter workout (<1 hour) but for a longer workout, a small amount of low fiber carbs will not be enough to sustain you through your workout. You’ll want to eat a bigger carb-rich breakfast/snack then give yourself more time to digest.

The Ultimate Guide to an Athlete Breakfast will provide more tips and strategies to help you!

Snacks right after exercise 

Right after exercise, your body is going to need nutrition in order to begin the recovery and repair process. You want to avoid going long periods of time without eating after a workout because that can delay your recovery. 

The best snacks for athletes after exercise have protein, carbs and fluids and electrolytes (as needed) to repair muscle, replenish glycogen stores and replenish fluid and electrolytes that you’ve lost through sweat during your workout. 

Athlete snack ideas for right after exercise 

  • Smoothie with Greek yogurt and frozen fruit
  • Protein shake with a banana 
  • Greek yogurt cup with granola and fruit 
  • Cottage cheese with crackers 
  • Roasted edamame with dried mango 
  • Protein bar with pretzels 

There are two options for recovery nutrition after exercise: 

  1. Have a snack first then follow it up with a well-balanced meal within 1-2 hours
  2. Skip the snack and go straight for the meal after exercise (eat this meal asap and remember to avoid putting this meal off and going several hours without eating)

Some of my runners will drive to their runs and need to keep shelf-stable snacks in the car to eat on the way home from their run. In your car, store a shelf-stable protein drink or protein powder in a shaker bottle (just add water) or a protein bar along with dried fruit, crackers or pretzels!

Snacks away from exercise 

Let’s say that you have a late morning snack at work or you have a mid-afternoon snack. I consider these as “snacks away from exercise” because it’s not right before or after exercise. Choose carbs, protein and color (fruit/veggies) at these snacks. 

As a runner, you have higher daily carb and protein needs. Having these two macronutrients at your snack can help you meet your daily needs. Another benefit of having carbs at your snack is that it can help with exercise recovery and carbs support your brain. A perk of having protein at your snack is that it assists with muscle recovery and this paired with fiber can assist with blood sugar control.  

Fun fact: your brain uses at least 130 g/day of carbs to function. What does 130 g/day look like?

A graphic showing what foods provide 130 g/day of carbs: 2 slices of bread + a handful of pretzels + 1 cup of rice + 1 banana

Ideas for snacks away from exercise

  • Cottage cheese and apple slices 
  • RX bar (protein bar) and dried mango slices 
  • Dried turkey stick, crackers and bell pepper slices 
  • Tuna packet with crackers and carrot sticks
  • Greek yogurt with granola and berries 
  • Roasted edamame with pineapple 
A graphic showing the best snacks for athletes: cottage cheese with apple slices, protein bar with mango, dried turkey stick with crackers and bell peppers, tuna packet with crackers and carrots, Greek yogurt with granola and blueberries, roasted edamame with pineapple

Snack ingredients to have on hand to allow you to put together a healthy, quick snack when you’re in a pinch!

  • Oats for oat peanut butter energy balls
  • Dried fruit to add into a homemade trail mix
  • Frozen fruit for a smoothie 
  • Roasted edamame and chickpeas
  • Tuna packets 
  • String cheese
  • Eggs for egg muffins 

Having pantry/fridge/freezer staples stocked in your house can make putting together a snack so much easier!

When you should snack as an athlete

Snacks can be more practical or they can be in response to hunger. 

Practical eating is when you may not feel physically hungry but you eat anyway because you know your body needs fuel. Here are three examples of when you’ll want to practice practical eating and eat a snack, even if you don’t feel hungry: 

  1. Before an early morning workout to give your body energy for your workout
  2. After a long run to help your body replenish and repair 
  3. If you’ve gone ~4 hours without eating and your next meal isn’t for another few hours 

A common mistake that people make is going way too long without eating between lunch and dinner. A general rule of thumb is to eat every 4ish hours. Going 6 or 7+ hours without eating is WAY too long and can cause underfueling, feeling ravenous and cravings & overeating later on.

You can fix this by adding an afternoon snack in-between lunch and dinner. Eating this snack even if you don’t feel hungry can be a good strategy. 

How much you should eat at snacks

A few questions to ask yourself to guide you in making this decision..

  • How hungry are you? Do you need more food to reach fullness with this snack?
  • When was the last time you ate?
  • When will you eat next? How long does this snack need to hold you over until? 
  • What does your training look like? Are your nutrition needs high as a result?
  • Is this a snack before a workout? How much time do you have to digest? 

Listening to your body, understanding practical eating, being able to assess your body and how it feels are all things to incorporate here. 

Now for some giant tips! Meal prep for athletes is a game changer and along with that, so is planning and prepping your snacks! Keep snacks stocked in your car, purse and work drawer in case hunger strikes. It’s also important to choose snacks that you enjoy and are satisfying!

Healthy snacks for athletes on-the-go

  • Jerky and dried apricots
  • Store-bought or homemade trail mix with roasted chickpeas, dried cranberries, walnuts, Chex cereal
  • Veggie sticks with a mini guacamole cup and a tuna packet
  • Bran muffins and hard boiled eggs
  • Canned oysters/sardines with crackers
  • Overnight oats made with Greek yogurt/protein powder and fruit

Summary

Snacks get a bad rap but they are extremely helpful for runners! They can help you meet your daily nutrition needs, avoid underfueling, boost your performance, support exercise recovery, support your energy and can sustain you in-between meals.

What to have at your snack depends on when you’re eating that snack. For snacks within the hour of exercise, choose a low fiber, carb snack. For snacks after exercise, choose carbs, protein, fluids and electrolytes. For snacks away from exercise, choose carbs, protein and color. 

Remember that snacks can be more practical or they can be in response to hunger. How much to eat at your snack depends on several factors including your hunger level, how long you need your snack to hold you over until and how long you have to digest before a workout. 

Don’t forget to plan your snacks when you’re menu planning for the week and then to bring those snacks with you when you’re out of the house so you have them when you need them!

Looking for individualized coaching to learn how to fuel your body well to support your energy, daily life, health and running? Apply or reach out and let’s chat!

Hi, I’m Emily!

I’m a Registered Dietitian, RRCA Run Coach & NASM Certified Personal Trainer. I am passionate about helping runners dial in their fueling, training and mindset so they can feel good, go the distance and smash their goals.