What to eat to fuel a workout?
Fuelling your body correctly before a workout can make a big difference to your performance, how you feel throughout that workout, as well as recovery between workouts.
Knowing what to eat and when to eat prior to exercising is key to maximising energy levels. However, sometimes it’s not always possible to be as organised as you would like so it’s important to understand what to do in various situations.
Our muscles require glucose as fuel during exercise. When we consume carbohydrates, they are converted into glycogen and stored in both the liver and muscles. During short and high intensity exercise, your muscles will use this stored glucose as energy, hence it is important that these stores are full prior to exercising.
For lower intensity exercise and exercise of longer duration, for example a long run or cycle, fat stores provide the main source of energy.
So how do I put this into practice?
It’s important to think about the macronutrient composition of the food you’re eating in the hours up to your workout as fats, for example, slow the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates.
Ideally, you want to be having your pre-workout main meal 2-3 hours before working out. This should be a well-balanced meal, containing a mixture of carbohydrates, fats and protein to provide adequate energy to fuel your workout. Having this a few hours before exercising, allows for digestion to occur prior to beginning your workout to avoid any stomach discomfort during the workout.
If you were exercising at lunchtime, a bowl of porridge with milk, yoghurt and nut butter would be a great breakfast choice. On the other hand, if you were exercising in the evening, a chicken salad wrap, jacket potato with tuna or a mix of beans and wholegrain rice would be good choices for lunch.
A light snack would be a good idea an hour to an hour and a half before exercising, made up of carbohydrates and protein. Greek yoghurt with fruit, a banana or a fruit and nut bar would be ideal choices. Remember though, that the closer you eat to your workout, the less time you have to digest these foods so just make sure you have something that won’t upset your stomach.
If you exercise first thing in the morning, it comes down to personal preference whether you choose to have something to eat before or not. It can be a good idea to have something small such as a banana or a slice of toast with honey to provide a quick source of energy; however, it is common for many to go into an early morning workout fasted. In this instance, I would recommend ensuring you’ve had an adequate meal containing carbohydrates, protein and fats the night before.
What about after a workout?
Now let’s take a look at post workout nutrition, as this is also very important, particularly for recovery.
When we exercise, we use up and deplete muscle glycogen stores, the storage form of glucose that I mentioned above. It is therefore essential to replenish these stores with carbohydrate rich foods. The intensity and duration of your workout will determine the quantity of carbohydrates you need. For example, if you have been for a long run or swim, you will require more than if you have been to a yoga class.
As we exercise, muscle fibres are damaged, so it is also essential that we rebuild these and support growth of new muscle tissue with adequate protein. You don’t need to worry about consuming a protein shake within 20 minutes of your workout but make sure you have a high-quality source of protein in your post workout meal, as well as throughout the rest of the day. Some great examples are fish, poultry, eggs, milk, Greek yoghurt, soya products, beans, chickpeas and lentils.
To put to this into practice, within about an after your workout you want to be having a balanced meal of whole foods. A combination of proteins, carbohydrates, veggies and a little fat. It’s common not to feel overly hungry straight after exercising, which is when a substantial smoothie may be a good option for you.
Finally, hydration is also key - both before, during and after your workout. You lose fluid during exercise through sweat, so it is vital to rehydrate and replenish the fluid loss after your workout with plenty of water.
Written by Becs Sandwith, who is a Registered Associate Nutritionist with the Association for Nutrition (ANutr). Becs has a BSc degree in Nutrition and an MSc in Clinical Nutrition and Eating Disorders. As well as everyday nutrition, Becs has a great passion for sports nutrition and working with individuals on performance-based goals. You can find more about Becs on her website Becs Sandwith and through her Instagram @bitesbybecs.
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• Lanham-New, S.A., et al., (2011) Sport and Exercise Nutrition, Wiley-Blackwell.
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