That time of year is yet again upon us. Christmas is traditionally a time of over-indulgence and temptation; with the calories stacking up over the festive period, exercising to shed some of those extra kilos you may have gained has never been so appealing. Why not jump start on those New Year’s resolutions and embrace a healthy you now.
Perhaps you have set yourself some different types of goals over the holiday season: a charity run for fun? Training for your first half marathon? Or maybe you are simply aiming at improving your stamina and performance. No matter what your goal is, nutrition plays a focal role in supporting the training and competition requirements of sport, whether this is for recreational or elite purposes. Good food choices ensure that you have adequate energy to drive performance and aid recovery. There are no strict rules or dietary plan that you must adhere to. However, there are some nutritional strategies and tips that are advisable before, during and after you work out to optimise performance.
Before: Fuel up
Carbohydrates are vital for performance during sport. Muscles rely on carbohydrate as their principal source of fuel. The amount you require depends on your training aspirations and dietary goals. As a general rule of thumb, the more intense the training programme, the higher amount of carbohydrates your diet should comprise. The consequences of carbohydrate-poor diets encompass energy deficits during exercise, early fatigue, loss of concentration and delayed recovery between exercise sessions. Carbohydrate is stored in muscles as glycogen. As the body’s stores of glycogen are limited, topping up the stores each day is key. For your pre-workout meal, combining carbohydrate with protein and fat will provide sustained energy and maximum performance during a training session.
Suitable pre-training meals:
No time for a meal? Then have one of the following 5 – 60 min pre-training:
Timing of a pre-workout meal
The timing of your food before a workout can make a big difference to how you feel and will impact your performance. For most workouts, you should aim to eat 2 – 4 hours before exercising, depending on the size of your meal and what foods are being consumed. Essentially, you need to leave enough time to digest the food but avoiding too long a gap where this energy will be used up by the time you begin exercising. For the best results, listen to your body; you may need to experiment with timing. If there really is no time for a meal then plan a healthy snack up to 30 minutes before training.
After: refuel your tank
The most effective refuelling to kick-start recovery occurs within 0-30 minutes immediately post-exercise; for a rapid recovery, both carbohydrate and protein should feature in your post-exercise snack or meal. The combination of both nutrients promotes faster muscle repair and greater muscle growth, replenishes glycogen stores and reduces post-exercise muscle soreness. If you only focus on high protein intake without an adequate supply of carbohydrate, the protein will be utilised for energy purposes instead of being used to build muscle. Additionally, low carbohydrate intake will lead to low energy levels, making it challenging for you to train and perform at your best. Aim to consume 1g carbohydrate per kg body weight following the exercise. The more intense and longer the training, the higher the carbohydrate needs.
Protein for power
Furthermore, the post-workout meal or snack should also comprise protein. Protein is required for building and repairing muscle and plays an important role in how the body responds to exercise. One of the biggest myths is that consuming large amounts of protein equates to large biceps. Muscle is gained through a combination of resistance training and a diet that contains adequate energy and carbohydrate.
The ideal post-exercise protein dose to trigger maximum muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is 15 – 25g (or about 0.25g per kilogram of body weight). Exceeding this amount will not increase MPS for most people. Eating less than this amount of protein may produce smaller gains. Leucine, a branched chain amino acid and component of protein, is the key trigger that stimulates MPS as well as promoting muscle recovery after exercise. Milk, whey, casein, egg, meat, poultry and fish are rich sources of leucine.
Post-workout snack suggestions:
Some examples of healthful options that deliver carbohydrate and protein in amounts that optimise recovery as well as other nutritional needs encompass:
As muscle recovery continues for several hours − perhaps up to 24 hours − you should continue consuming protein at regular intervals throughout the day. Aim to have around 15 – 25g protein at each meal and also include protein in your snacks.
Maintaining adequate hydration is essential for physical and mental performance. It is paramount to start each exercise session well hydrated, to take on-board appropriate fluids during the workout and restore hydration levels as soon as possible afterwards in order to replace the water and salts lost in sweating, and to optimise the recovery process.For low intensity exercise lasting for a short duration, water is very good for rehydration. Water is affordable and convenient for most recreational exercisers. Sports drinks containing electrolytes are unnecessary unless you are training for over 1 hour and sweating profusely. For moderate to high intensity and endurance sports lasting longer than 1 hour a drink which contains carbohydrate and electrolytes, such as milk or a commercial isotonic sports drink, is generally more effective than water in enhancing performance. These drinks contain carbohydrate to help delay fatigue by providing glucose to the muscles, and electrolytes to replace sodium lost in sweat. It is important to note that some studies show that milk rehydrates you more effectively than isotonic sports drinks.
Many strongly underestimate the importance of correctly refuelling our bodies. Considering your body is your vehicle and food intake is a critical factor in achieving the best results, you have to ensure you keep your engine optimally running when you work out.
Furthermore, the sports world is overflowing with bars, pills, powders and specialised foods that all pledge fitness or performance enhancements. They are particularly popular in the athletic, as well as recreational sporting domain. Recreational exercisers do not require supplements on top of their diet, unless otherwise indicated by a doctor or dietitian. Focusing on achieving a healthy, balanced diet will supply the necessary nutrients and energy for sport and achieving fitness goals.
Sophie Bruno is a Registered Dietitian living and working in Brussels (Belgium). Read Sophie's foodie blog which will enable you to learn, increase your knowledge & cultivate yourself in the field of nutrition & health directly from Brussels