Although breakfast can be considered one of the most important meals of the day, what you eat before and especially after physical activity is equally as important. Some even argue that for athletes, post-exercise nutrition is the most important meal of the day!
With that said however, how to eat before and after exercise can be quite confusing. With all of the advertisements, advice and myths out there it’s no wonderful people aren’t sure where to turn. What I commonly see are people are either all gung-ho on the protein shakes and supplements (completely disregarding the need for carbohydrates and other essential nutrients) or decide not to eat at all. If your goal is to have energy for your next workout, build muscle or keep your body healthy, follow some key suggestions below.
Let’s start at the very beginning. What you eat before exercise is going to help you get the best workout possible and hopefully prevent you from “hitting the wall” or losing all your stamina and energy halfway through. In other words, eating well before physical activity will prevent fatigue and allow you to exercise longer and with more intensity.
During the Day
- Eat regularly
- This usually means 3 meals and 2 snacks
- Stay hydrated and sip on water
- Include carbohydrate-rich foods in your meals and snacks
- i.e. fruit, grain products, milk products, starchy veggies (i.e. potatoes, corn, squash), legumes, and lentils
- If your exercise is intense, you may need a smaller meal a few hours before to prevent an upset stomach
You know your body the best! Try different foods before a workout/event/competition. See what works best for you and stick with that. Listen to your body!
2-4 Hours Before = MEAL
- Have a balanced meal + 500ml (2 cups) fluid
- The meal should be rich in carbohydrates, lower in fat and fairly low in protein and fibre
- This allows for proper digestion
- Toast with peanut butter, fruit and glass of milk
- Sandwich (meat, vegetables, cheese) + milk or fruit
- Fruit smoothie + homemade muffin
- Oatmeal with fruit and milk
- Whole wheat wrap with meat and vegetables
- Stir fry with meat/tofu/legumes, brown rice and vegetables
Note: Portion size depends on your body size, gender and duration of exercise. For a full meal, some people find they need at least 3-4 hours before they exercise.
1-1.5 Hours Before = QUICK ENERGY SNACK
If you are hungry or your workout will last more than 1 hour, grab an “energy-sustaining” or “quick-energy snack.”
- Snack + 200-250ml (1-1.5cups fluid)
- The snack should be high in carbohydrates, lower in fat/protein/fibre
- Fat, protein and fibre are all important for a healthy diet. However, because they take longer to digest, eating foods high in these nutrients may cause bloating or discomfort during a workout.
- Try to avoid foods rich in “simple carbohydrates” (i.e. high in sugar – chocolate bars, candy). These may cause a surge of energy and then a quick drop halfway through your workout!
- Fresh fruit
- Home-made muffin
- Bowl of cereal with milk
- Apple sauce with cinnamon
- Regular yogurt + berries or other fruit
- Toast with peanut butter
- Cheese + crackers + grapes
- Fruit + yogurt
Interesting Nutrition Fact!
Did you know…
Carbohydrates are the MAIN source of energy for our body and the ONLY source of energy for the brain? Makes sense why you may find it hard to concentrate if you are hungry, hey? or feel like you have no energy for a workout if you had one quick meal during the day?
In other words, whenever we have food with carbohydrates in it, our body breaks it down into glucose (or energy). This is then converted into glycogen and stored in our muscles and liver. This glycogen acts like a “reserve” which our body will then use for energy during exercise.
Why do we want nice and full glycogen stores?
- For a better workout!
- Glycogen acts like a back-up or reserve (think ‘pantry or reserve for energy’)
- During prolonged activity, our body will use glycogen for energy
Will I notice if my glycogen stores are low?
- If we do not eat enough carbohydrates, glycogen is not stored to help us fuel activity lasting more than 1 hour
- Your endurance will drop and you will “hit the wall”
Can I replenish glycogen stores during a workout?
- No! This is why eating well during the day is so important!
What happens if I decide to have a low-carbohydrate diet?
- You will have lower glycogen stores and your muscles will become tired more quickly during exercise
- Your body will breakdown protein (i.e. your muscles) to make glucose
- Carbohydrates spare protein from being broken down to make glucose (energy) when needed
- People who eat enough calories and carbohydrates in the day will use protein less as an energy source
** Remember, carbohydrate is the main source of energy for physical activity **
Within 30 minutes = SNACK
- As soon as you start to cool down, the recovery clock starts ticking
- Try to eat within 30 minutes of completing any type of physical activity. (This does NOT include stretching).
- Body cells are most receptive to being replenished during this time
- Restore glycogen stores
- Help the immune system recover more quickly
- Help increase overall endurance and performance (especially if you plan on working out the next day)
- Your best bet: simple carbohydrates (i.e. tropical fruits like mangos, bananas, peaches).
- These are quickly absorbed into your bloodstream and will help replenish glycogen stores immediately
- Repairs muscle damage
- Aim for 15-25g protein (Your body cannot absorb more than this at one time)
- Replace fluid losses (about 2 cups fluid)
- The longer and more intense your workout, the more you need to drink
- Hydration = pale yellow urine
- Staying hydrated will help improve performance
- Replace losses
- Sodium is the main electrolyte lost in sweat
- If you sweat a lot, consuming foods higher in sodium will help replenish these losses
5. Vitamins and Minerals
- Eating a healthy diet during the day will help support your health and immune system
- As we increase exercise, free radical formation is increased. Antioxidants will help protect your body’s cells from this damage.
- Found in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, vegetable oils, and garlic
- Kefir + protein power + fruit (Lisa’s smoothie!)
- Banana + Greek yogurt
- Peanut butter sandwich + berries + milk
- Chocolate milk + fruit
- Cottage cheese + rice cracker + peanut butter
- Cereal + milk
Within 2 Hours = MEAL
- Include all 4 food groups
- Rich in complex carbohydrates (high fibre options) and protein
- Stir fry with meat/ tofu/legumes, brown rice and vegetables
- Sandwich (meat and vegetables) with milk
- Whole wheat pasta with meat sauce + side salad
- Scrambled eggs with cheese and diced peppers + whole grain toast
- Grilled salmon or chicken breast + baked sweet potato + steamed vegetables
- If activity is less than an hour and of less intensity, you could go straight to a meal (make sure you incorporate a source of carbohydrates, protein and fluids).
- Planning meals and snacks ahead of time will help ensure you perform at your best and recovery properly
- Choose real food first!
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