Photograph courtesy of Adrian Flores
Fitness and nutrition go hand in hand. You really can't get the best out of one without the other. Knowing when and what to eat can make a difference in your workouts.
Having a generally healthy diet can serve you well up to a certain level of training. But if you have particular fitness or sporting goals such as changing your body composition, increasing your performance and regularity at the gym, or taking part in an event such as a long distance run or cycling competition, then you need to adjust what you eat to match your training.
In other words, as you up your physical activity you also need to up your nutritional game. Think of food as your inner equipment. It’s an investment in a better outcome.
There are three main areas that you will need to understand and focus on:
1. Energy production
Energy is what powers you through your workouts. It is provided through the combination of the macronutrients that you consume and the oxygen that you breathe.
Energy is produced most easily from carbohydrates, the most important fuel for your muscles, brain and central nervous system. These are found in all grains (barley, buckwheat, millet, oats, quinoa, rice, rye) as well as in fruit and vegetables.
It is vital to include adequate amounts of carbohydrates in your diet if your energy requirements increase due to exercise, especially from long cardio sessions like a 10K race or marathon.
That’s because “the more active you are - the more carbohydrates your body needs,” says the British Nutrition Foundation. “The body can store carbohydrate in the muscles and liver, but these stores are small so it is important to keep them topped up. If you get tired during physical activity this might be because your carbohydrate stores are low.”
Energy can also be efficiently provided by fats, particularly medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are fatty acids most abundantly found in coconuts and coconut oil.The key to pre-workout is FUELING! Before you workout, you need to fuel your body, energize it, and invigorate it for the work it is about to do for you!
In terms of nutrition – this means CARBOHYDRATES … also known as your body’s number one source of energy! Also, adding a moderate amount of faster digesting protein is recommended such as low-fat dairy or a protein isolate. Stay away from too much fat pre-workoutas fats take a longer time to digest.
Now, there are two categories I believe for “pre-workout”, I like to call them the “need-it-quick” and “have-some-time”. These are obviously not technical terms, but let me explain.
For the need-it-quick, this means you literally need to eat something within the 30 minutes before you start your workout. Maybe you just finished an appointment at work and only have a short time slot to get that workout in, or it’s first thing in the morning and you want to eat something but don’t want to end up with harsh cramps or a heavy stomach while you are working out! In this instance you need something fast-digesting, and those types of carbohydrates are FRUIT or other healthy, unrefined, simple sugars like dates or the sugars naturally found in dairy! These options are digested quickly to give you fast energy, and they don’t sit in your stomach taking time to digest while your trying to get your squat jumps in!
“Need-It-Quick” Pre-Workout Ideas:
Fruit – Banana, Apple, Orange, Pineapple, etc.
A Shake or Smoothie w/ Protein Isolate Powder & Fruit (I use a vegan protein powder)
Pre Workout Nutrition Ideas
Greek Yogurt & Berries - you could choose any natural yoghurt, but I like Greek yoghurt because it has more protein.
Cottage Cheese & an Apple with a sprinkle of cinnamon - if you prefer things sweet you could add a drizzle of maple syrup
Pitted Dates (not too many as they are pretty high in calories)
A Homemade Energy Bar ( such as my Energy Bliss Balls or my Protein Bars)
For the “have-some-time” pre workout meal, this refers to the occasion when you may have more than an hour before your workout, or you plan to do some major cardio such as a long run.
Here the key is still carbohydrates but the focus should be on slower-digesting carbs that will give you a more sustained energy! You have the time for this meal to digest and you will be fuelled correctly for your workout! Proteins (in small amounts, about 25% of the meal) are also good to include in this pre-workout meal to prevent the breakdown of muscle for fuel.
“Have-Some-Time” Pre Workout Ideas:
Plain porridge with your choice of berries & a drizzle of Pure Maple Syrup or some liquid stevia
Whole-Grain Bread with some Hummus & Sliced Cucumber
Quinoa with a small portion of Chicken Breast
Soaked Oats / Bircher Muesli
You could also add a supplement like Prepare and endure to your routine:
2.Preventing injury and illness
Regular exercise is beneficial to our general health, but intense training can have some negative effects as it can cause oxidative stress, the imbalance between the production of free radicals and the body’s antioxidant defences. More free radicals are produced in intense training than with moderate exercise. Therefore, when these overwhelm your antioxidant defenses, they damage your cells, leading to oxidative stress. If this side effect of physical exercise is not managed properly via nutrition, it can be damaging to your health.
Studies show that in the short-term an oxidative stress state can lead to muscle fatigue but it may also be involved in the ageing process and ailments such as cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Free radicals are very reactive and in too high numbers need to be neutralised by the antioxidants that we eat and create internally from nutritional building blocks.
Glutathione, which is produced naturally by the liver, is the “mother of all antioxidants” and most important molecule to remain healthy and prevent disease. Non-cow dairy, hemp and avocados are all good sources of glutathione's base nutrients, a combination of three building blocks of protein. Improving your production of glutathione via foods that support liver function such as green tea and turmeric is also important.
We also need plenty of other antioxidants. Eating your rainbow of vegetables and fruit is key. Aim for eight to 10 portions per day.
3.Promoting muscle repair and recovery
You body actually gets “fit” while you rest!
The more efficiently you body recovers from the damage that exercise has done to the muscles, the fitter and stronger you become, thereby enabling you to increase your endurance and performance for the next workout.
Getting enough protein into your diet is key. It is recommended that you have it with every meal to ensure muscle growth and repair. But it doesn't have to be heavy or animal-based. Beans, peas and pulses, tofu, nuts and seeds, spirulina, and brown rice protein are all good vegetarian sources.
Equally, you need calcium for muscles to contract and particularly magnesium for your muscles to relax. The best sources of magnesium are blanched almonds or hemp protein.
During your workout it’s so important to HYDRATE, hydrate, HyDrAtE! Drinking is absolutely essential and physical function may hang in the balance if electrolyte levels remain low after a workout. Resulting symptoms can include muscle fatigue, dizziness, and nausea. But the right food or sports drink can get those electrolytes back in the body, no sweat.
Electrolytes are minerals that break into small, electrically-charged particles called ions when they dissolve in water. Found in blood and cells, electrolytes are essential to physical activity because they regulate bodily fluids. Sodium and chloride, which maintain normal blood pressure and support muscle and nerve function, may be the most well known of the bunch. But the supporting cast includes calcium, which aids muscle contraction; magnesium, which aids healthy cell function; and potassium and phosphate, which help to regulate energy and pH balance.
During exercise, the body’s electrolyte balance can begin to shift. Finding a stick of deodorant may not be the only post-workout problem— as the body loses electrolytes through sweat, the imbalance can result in symptoms like muscle cramps, fatigue, nausea, and mental confusion. And if the electrolyte supply stays low, muscles may continue to feel weak during the next workout session . Long-term risks include kidney failure, seizures, and disturbances in heart rhythm— a high price to pay for skipping a few sips.
My favourite re-hydration right now is Complete Hydration by Arbonne it is perfect for taking before, during or after exercise and unlike some of the popular sports drinks isn't loaded with calories and sugar.
Post Workout Nutrition:
So, after you’ve had an amazing work out, worked up a sweat, burnt some major calories, and did your body good, it’s time to refuel and repair!
I can’t say this enough… it’s SO important to eat within one hour after your workout (15 minutes is ideal as this is your “window of opportunity” when the body is most active for re-synthesizing muscle glycogen). The longer you take to refuel, the longer it takes to recover. Not to mention there is tons of research that shows that combining proteins with carbohydrates within the fifteen minutes after exercise can almost double the insulin response in the body, resulting in more stored glycogen!! So this combo is KEY!
Small meals or snacks that combine protein which helps your muscles recover, and carbohydrates that replenish glycogen stores are your best bet for getting the most out of your workout!
Post Workout Nutrition Ideas:
Quick Protein Shake (this is great for getting that post-workout nutrition right after you workout, bring some protein powder to the gym with you and just add water!). Read my article, Protein Powder, Should You ? to help you choose which is the right protein powder for you and find out which is my favourite one on the market.
Raw or Dry Roasted Nuts & Unsweetened Dried Fruit
Protein Smoothie (make with protein powder, some fruit, and throw some oats in the mix! - check out my Ultimate Green Smoothies)
Banana & Almonds (another portable post-workout snack you can have ready in your gym bag or car!)
Protein Powder & Nut Butter - why not try my
Chocolate and Nut Butter Cups
White beans in a small Whole Grain Tortilla with some Salsa
Marinated Tofu on Salad Greens with some Quinoa
Hummus & Higher Glycemic Veggies (such as carrots)
Hard Boiled Eggs & Whole Grain Toast
Dried Apple Rings & Cashews/Almonds/Walnuts
Another super easy addition to your post-workout routine is to add in After Workout which helps you to achieve a healthy recovery.
So there you have it! The basics of pre & post workout nutrition and some ideas to get you started!
Remember, you can’t out-train a poor diet, and your diet should work FOR you not against you! Don’t waste the hard work you put into your workouts and go grab some junky fast-food right after, but focus on the right pre & post nutrition and see your goals come to pass!
Happy Friday and I hope you all have a wonderful weekend and let me know what your favourite pre and post workout snacks are.
Your guide to living whole and well. Emma Olliff is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, wellness expert, food lover, and advocate for healthy living!