To get the best from your exercising you need to nourish and replenish your body. Alessandra Felice shows us how…
Exercising, whether walking, going to the gym, dancing or taking a group class, is one of the best things we can do for body and mind. It raises endorphins, makes us feel good, relaxes us and gives us energy.
But, as much as strengthening and lengthening is important, nourishing and replenishing the body before and after workouts is essential to get the benefits of activity.
It’s best not to eat immediately before a workout, otherwise the body puts energy towards digesting food instead of supporting muscle contraction. Eating close to a workout may cause gastrointestinal discomfort while training.
Try to fuel yourself about 1-3 hours pre-workout. Experiment to see what time frame is best. This helps prevent low blood sugar, keeps you from feeling hungry and fuels muscles.
Eat a larger meal if you have 5-6 hours before exercising, while mini meals are better if you have 2-3 hours before a workout.
In this case, avoid high fibre foods such as broccoli, beans or bran cereal, as they may cause stomach pains during exercise, due to passing more slowly through the digestive system.
For strength training, pre-workout meals should include low GI (glycemic index)carbs, to give you the energy you’ll need, and protein rich foods.
About 1-2 hours prior to strength training, consume protein to have an adequate reserve for the upcoming workout, as building lean muscle requires a ready supply for tissue repair.
The more intense your efforts, the more protein you need. Aim for around 60-65% carbs and 35-40% protein.
For example, tofu scramble on wholegrain or rye toast, coconut or soy yoghurt with banana and nut butter, a smoothie with protein powder, almond milk, banana and flax or chia seed.
For a cardio session, your body requires more carbs than protein. Carbs give you the energy to power through an intense workout, as they’re metabolised into glucose (energy) pretty fast and should constitute around 75% percent of a pre-workout meal.
High GI carbs release sugar quickly, providing a quick energy boost and are best consumed before an intense cardio workout.
Examples include: white bread, white rice, pasta, high fructose containing fruits like mango, pineapple and dates.
Opt for low GI carbs for longer cardio sessions, as they release sugar into the bloodstream more slowly.
Examples include: whole grains, vegetables, berries, apples, pears and beans, which also contain protein and fibre to deliver a steadier supply of energy throughout the workout and prevent fatigue.
If a cardio workout is before a first meal or between meals, eat a snack to boost blood sugar pre-workout. For instance, porridge with raisins and walnuts, almond or soy milk; a soy yoghurt parfait with banana and granola or a fruit smoothie made with almond or coconut milk, ice, banana or strawberries.
After your workout, the nutrients lost need to be replenished, so eat both carbs and protein.
These give muscles the ability to restore the glycogen lost through training and help rebuild and repair with the available amino acids, which require insulin release (from carbohydrates) in order to be absorbed.
Because your body replaces glycogen stores in your muscle within the first few hours after exercise, it’s important to eat during this window.
Generally, post-training it’s good to have a snack/meal with a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrate and protein for optimal muscle repair and recovery.
About 30 minutes after cardio, the body is optimised to replenish its energy store, muscle and liver glycogen. For strength training, the window is 2 hours post-workout.
Muscle protein synthesis occurs, setting off muscle recovery and repair, replacing fluids and helping you adapt to the workout stresses. Even if you aren’t hungry, have a snack as it helps you recover quickly.
Remember to replace fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat by drinking plenty of water and eating foods that help restore electrolyte balance.
Let’s take a look at nutrients you need to focus on when training…
Carbohydrates – starches and sugars – provide the energy muscles need. The carbohydrates you eat before exercise not only burn as fuel, but also accumulate in muscles and liver as glycogen, a storage form of glucose your muscles call on during exercise.
This nutrient is also important after you exercise, because intense physical activity depletes your glycogen stores. Replenishing glycogen following a workout speeds recovery in preparation for your next exercise session.
As the main component of muscle tissue, protein helps build new muscle fibres and repairs tissues that are damaged during your workout.
Including sufficient protein in your diet allows the increase in muscle mass and the branched-chain amino acids it contains promote muscle recovery so you can work out again sooner.
Essential fatty acids
Fats are an important source of energy used to fuel longer exercise and endurance activities, such as hiking and cycling. Essential fatty acids are especially fundamental for fast recovery from training as they lower inflammation levels in the body.
If inflammation remains elevated after exercise, it can negatively impact muscle soreness and tissue repair.
Omega 3s fatty acids have been shown to increase blood flow to muscles during exercise, decreasing muscle soreness and reducing swelling.
They also tend to improve insulin sensitivity, which enhance fat burning in muscles and inhibits fat storage.
Water is a critical nutrient before, during and after exercise. Hydration keeps your heart rate from climbing too high, which helps regulate your body temperature.
Around 2-3 hours before exercise, drink 500ml water, and then another 250ml 10-15 minutes before exercise. During exercise, drink the same amount every 15-20 minutes, depending on how intense your training is.
Dehydration can cause muscle cramps, dizziness or lightheadedness and can also keep you from performing your best.
Vitamins & minerals
Vitamins and minerals have important functions during exercise, such as energy production, muscle contraction, immune protection and recovery.
Lack of any of these nutrients can affect your ability to work out as you would like to. For example, your blood cells carry oxygen bound to an iron-rich protein and, if your dietary iron is low, you may become easily fatigued during exercise.
Vitamin C can help you absorb iron and a deficiency can indirectly affect iron levels. Electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, help maintain fluid balance in cells and too little in your diet can lead to muscle cramps as you exercise.
B vitamins are involved in metabolism and the energy production cycle. Vitamin D and calcium are needed for strong bones and muscle contraction.
Vitamin C, E and zinc are great immune system supporters, needed when the immune system tends to be suppressed in the hours following a workout.
This group of vitamins is essential to convert food into energy, help reducing blood sugar by synthesising glucose, helping to make and break down fatty acids and maintain healthy skin, hair and nails.
They also support red blood cell production, immune function and contribute to the production of serotonin that ensures a healthy sleep cycle, appetite and mood.
You can find them in brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, almonds, sesame seeds, walnuts, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, spinach, chestnuts, broccoli, kale, collard greens, spirulina, mushrooms, beet greens, nutritional yeast, coriander, green peas, most beans, asparagus and avocado.
This is an essential antioxidant that fights free radicals developed by the stress of a workout. It helps in protein metabolism and is required for the growth and repair of body tissues.
It is used to form collagen, a protein used to make skin, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels and repair and build cartilage, teeth and bones. It’s in strawberries, kiwis, oranges, peppers, kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, berries and baobab.
Without enough vitamin D, the mitochondria in muscle fibres can’t adequately regenerate energy after your muscles contract, making you feel tired more quickly.
It controls our ability to absorb calcium and regulate cell growth and bone building activities. A deficiency is linked to muscle weakness and low energy.
The best source is sunshine, which is a bit rare in the UK, so check your levels with a doctor.
You could opt for a D2 supplement derived from lichen or add food sources like fortified products and mushrooms (Portobello, maitake, morel, button and shiitake are high in vitamin D).
Vitamin E is an antioxidant in many plant foods that can fight oxidative damage of cells, skin and other organs. Following the temporary stress caused by exercise, free radicals are formed and can break down muscle fibres.
They also stimulate the production of pro-inflammatory markers that can inhibit the activity of growth hormone, which contributes to muscle growth.
Including plenty of antioxidants before and after training can decrease free radicals and improve recovery and muscle building.
Vitamin E can be found in almonds, hazelnuts, seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame), Swiss chards, mustard greens, spinach, kale, parsley, avocado, and olives.
This mineral along with vitamin D, potassium and protein increases bone density, can help prevent fractures and it’s involved in nerve transmission and muscle contractions.
While it is true that weight-bearing exercise helps maintain bone density, sweating can translate into loss of calcium.
So make sure you get enough in your diet through leafy greens like chards and kale, herbs like parsley and coriander, broccoli, beans and legumes, almonds, sesame seeds and tahini, dried fruit like figs and dates, and black strap molasses.
Magnesium is a component of enzymes involved in energy metabolism, bone formation and muscle relaxation.
It helps your body metabolise carbs as well and influences the activity of hormones that control blood glucose levels.
Without magnesium, the enzymes that enable muscle protein synthesis are impaired, compromising recovery and strength, so getting enough magnesium can accelerate recovery processes.
It also calms the central nervous system, lowering heart rate and enabling restful sleep, as it also enables the metabolism of cortisol after working out by reducing nervous system activation.
You lose magnesium through sweat, so munch on some good sources before and after your workout, such as spinach, chards, almonds, pumpkin seeds, black beans, avocado, figs, whole grains and dark chocolate or cacao beans.
You can also try applying magnesium oil topically on the skin for faster absorption and relief of tired muscles.
One of the main benefits of consuming high potassium foods is decreased muscle cramping, improved muscle strength and speedy recovery.
Muscle cramps can often happen if an athlete becomes dehydrated and isn’t consuming enough potassium-rich foods before and after exercise, as this mineral works with sodium to help your muscles and nerves work properly.
Plus, it’s a primary electrolyte and balances water content throughout the body.
Following a sweaty workout lasting more than an hour, snack on avocado, sweet potatoes, bananas, spinach, dried apricots and squash, and sip on a refreshing glass of coconut water.
This is another essential electrolyte and we lose a lot of it through sweating, especially during endurance events.
Hydrating with water alone won’t replace the amount lost and you could experience cramps, fatigue and low concentration.
You don’t need to eat pretzels or sprinkle salt on everything, because there are many natural food sources of sodium.
For example, fruits like figs, watermelon, grapefruit, bananas, grapes, passion fruit and cantaloupe; vegetables like Swiss chard, collard green, spinach, dandelion, aubergine, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, artichokes; spices like mustard, chilli, cloves, cumin, coriander, dill, curry and onion powder.
There is a loss of very small amounts of iron from the intestinal tract and red blood cell destruction that occurs with intense exercise.
People who take part in regular, intense endurance exercise, especially running, have higher iron needs since it helps red blood cells carry oxygen to muscles, which allows them to work efficiently.
Low levels cause fatigue, loss of stamina and energy. Find it in dried figs and apricots, spinach, Swiss chards, molasses, legumes, tempeh, almonds and make sure to pair these foods with vitamin C sources to increase its absorption.
Zinc is essential when training as a deficiency in this mineral can alter your energy and endurance.
Limiting zinc intake can lessen oxygen uptake, leading to fatigue more quickly and slow recovery, because this mineral is a very important nutrient for a healthy immune system, which becomes suppressed during and after working out for a short while.
Munch on sunflower and pumpkin seeds, almonds, walnuts, pecans; include beans, lentils and chickpeas in your diet and enjoy peas, tofu and tempeh.