Do you ever wonder if you’re eating the right foods to maximize the benefits from your workout sessions? If you struggle with nagging injuries, constant fatigue, or find it difficult to put on muscle, there may be ways you can improve your diet. This article will outline fueling strategies you can utilize to optimize exercise performance and recovery.
As a personal trainer I have gotten many questions about fueling for workouts. Ranging from somewhat plausible to downright misinformed, maybe a few of these questions have crossed your mind at some point. Does working out on an empty stomach help to shed pounds faster? Does eating a high fat meal before a workout train the body to use fat for energy? Do I need to be fueling during workouts? Does nutrient timing matter?
To answer these questions, we need to start at the beginning. What role does nutrition play in athletic performance anyway?
Goals of Fueling for a Workout
If we are adequately fueled, our bodies are able to maintain a steady supply of glucose in the blood. This will cause us to feel energized, and prevent the feeling of “hitting the wall.” When we no longer have enough glucose available to fuel our activity, our bodies will turn to our muscles as an energy source. Through a process known as gluconeogenesis, our body can convert amino acids into glucose. Over time, this will lead to muscle loss. Adequate nutrition will help to build lean body mass back during recovery. Without enough nutrients, our bodies will use its own tissues as an energy source, ultimately inhibiting performance and body composition goals.
What macronutrients should I eat before and after my workout?
For optimal athletic performance, recovery, and general health, all of the major macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat and protein) are necessary. However, for pre + post workout purposes, carbohydrate and protein are the most important.
Carbohydrate provides us energy for the workout and protects the muscles from being used as energy. Protein helps us to rebuild muscles and a little bit of fat can help to sustain longer workouts.
What are some examples of pre and post workout foods?
As a general rule, the closer you are eating to your workout, the easier the food should be to digest. This means lower in fiber, and fat and higher in carbohydrate. If you are eating within an hour or less of your workout, focus on a quick digesting carbohydrate such as fruit, crackers, or pretzels. After your workout, consume roughly 40-60 grams of carbohydrates (individual needs may be greater based on training intensity) and 20-30 grams of protein. This can be accomplished with Greek yogurt + fruit, a turkey sandwich + pretzels or a protein shake + milk and berries. For specific recommendations based on your activity levels, fitness goals and food preferences, talk with a sports dietitian who can help to develop a personalized plan.
Not feeling any of these snack options? Check out these 10 high protein snacks to try during your next workout!
Should I be Eating During my Workouts?
For workouts up to 60-90 minutes, no intra-workout fueling is required. As long as you eat a full meal within a couple of hours before + after your workout, in addition to your pre or post workout snack, you will be adequately nourished.
As you push the 1.5 hour mark, your body will start to deplete it’s glycogen stores. This is what causes our limbs to feel like dead weight, or that we just can’t push anymore. If you notice this happening during longer sessions, try packing fruit snacks, pretzels, rice cakes, or sports drinks/gels during your next workout. Aim to get between 30-60 grams/hour depending on workout intensity. It might take some trial and error to find out what you will tolerate best.
If my goal is weight loss, should I restrict food around workouts to lose weight faster?
The answer is no! Weight loss ≠ fat loss. If you want to lose fat, the best strategy is to eat your largest meals closer to the times you are most active during the day. If you under fuel for your workouts, you are more likely to get injured, become needlessly fatigued, and diminish your muscle mass. Yes you will burn more fat during the workouts, but this does not mean you will lose more fat over time. This type of strategy will harm your fitness goals in the long term.
The Bottom Line
When exercising for one hour or less, regular meals spaced throughout the day will likely provide enough energy to support your workouts. Consume food rich in carbohydrate and protein in the half hour following your workout for optimal physical adaptation. When exercising for over an hour or when sessions are very intense, pre- and intra- workout fueling will be necessary. The exact timing and amount will depend on and workout length and intensity and individual tolerance for specific foods. If digestive issues are impeding your workout performance, this article may help you to identify common culprits.
I don’t know where to start!
That’s totally normal! Nobody jumps into training and knows everything at once. There are a lot of unknowns when starting a new training or nutrition program. How will your body react? What are your preferences and limitations? What are the areas that you need to focus on to see improvements? The best programs are not only customized to your specific needs, but keep you accountable when motivation fades away. If you’re not sure where to start, or you’ve tried it on your own and aren’t making the progress you want to see, it may be time to connect with a sports dietitian!