Skipping meals before a big fitness event because you’re too nervous to eat? Trying to avoid that bloated or “too-full” feeling, but know you need something in your stomach to make it through the workout? Feeling sore for multiple days after hitting the gym?
Stick to these basic tips to help you feel energized, recover faster, and hit your fitness goals. It is important to balance good nutrition and exercise to improve performance.
A pre-exercise meal 2-4 hours before exercise, as well as a snack within 30-60 minutes of exercise, will provide the fuel needed to maximize your workout effort. The post-exercise meal is just as important for recovery and getting ready for the next day.
1. Carbohydrates are your friend
Choose a carbohydrate-focused meal 2-4 hours prior to exercise. This is your main source of fuel and will help to increase your energy reserves.
Adequate carbohydrate intake also helps to maintain the levels of glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrate, in your muscles and liver.
One such study to examine this effect was performed in seven male subjects who performed two short-term, high-intensity intermittent exercises on friction-loaded cycle ergometers 24 hours apart on two occasions, which were separated by at least one week.
The subjects performed at a higher power output while following the high carbohydrate content diet versus the lower carbohydrate content diet. More research needs to be performed in order to determine a more exact amount of carbohydrates required to optimize performance before exercise.
2. Include a small amount of protein in the pre-exercise meal
One such trial performed in nineteen untrained men provided either 20 g protein (14 g whey and casein protein, 6 g free amino acids) or a 20 g placebo 1 hr before and after exercise.
These men then exercised for 3 sets of 6-8 repetitions at 85-90% maximum 4 times per week. Those receiving the protein supplement had a greater increase in total body mass, fat-free mass, thigh mass, and muscle strength.
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3. Limit Fat and Fiber in your pre-exercise snack
Too much fat and fiber can be distressing to your gut and upset your stomach. Within 30-60 minutes prior to exercise, choose easy to digest food options, such as simple carbohydrates, with or without a small amount of protein.
Interesting research regarding the use of the low FODMAP (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharide, monosaccharide, and polyols) diet prior to exercise has shown promising results for decreasing gastrointestinal distress during exercise.
During this time, they ranked their symptoms on the Irritable Bowel Syndrome-Severity Scoring System questionnaire, and found improvements in overall gastrointestinal distress and perceived exercise intensity and frequency.
The study authors concluded that this improvement was likely related to a decreased amount of indigestible carbohydrates present in the gut, limiting fermentation and therefore symptoms. Future studies will need to address the long-term effectiveness of this intervention.
4. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Fluids are needed before, during and after exercise to maintain performance, regulate body heat, and delay fatigue.
A cohort study performed on nine trained males (average age 21.6) cycling at 65% VO2 Peak for 90 minutes followed by a time trial with or without fluids.
No differences were seen in oxygen uptake, carbon dioxide production, or total sweat loss.
However, factors such as heart rate, perceived exertion, core temperature, plasma osmolality, plasma volume, carbohydrate oxidation, and glycogen use were increased in the group with induced dehydration.
A strong case can be made for the importance of maintaining hydration in order to avoid these negative effects.
5. Recover and refuel
The post-exercise meal, consumed ideally within 1 hour after exercise, should incorporate all food groups, with a focus on both protein and carbohydrates.
These nutrients will help repair and rebuild muscles as well as replenish the body’s glycogen stores.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition recruited six healthy men (average age of 22) to trial a post-exercise drink containing 0, 5 10, 20, or 40 g egg protein in a randomized order after a structured leg resistance exercise session.
Whole-body leucine oxidation, albumin protein synthesis, and muscle protein synthesis were measured. The authors found that ingesting 20 g of intact protein was enough to effectively stimulate both albumin protein and muscle protein synthesis after exercise.
Although we know that protein is important for post-exercise recovery, it is important to note that many studies performed have been on isolated protein source ingestion, such as the egg protein study previously discussed.
More research will be needed to determine which food combinations are most beneficial, taking into account the preferences and specific needs of each athlete.
Adding a variety of vegetables to your meal, which contains healthy antioxidants, will aid in muscle tissue recovery.
Electrolyte (sodium and potassium) repletion is needed as well to retain fluids – try bone broth, coconut water, pickles, soup, pretzels, or sports drinks/gels/tablets.
Pre-exercise meal examples (2-4 hours prior to activity):
- Peanut butter and banana sandwich
- Oatmeal (with added scoop of peanut or nut butter), granola and fruit
- Scrambled eggs, fruit, and low fat or fat free milk
- Toast with avocado and hardboiled egg
- Baked chicken with brown rice and veggies
- Pasta with lean ground turkey and pesto sauce
Pre-exercise snack examples (30-60 minutes prior to activity):
- Low-fat yogurt with fruit
- Crackers with jam/jelly
- Sports drink, gels, blocks, or beans
- Pureed fruit or applesauce
- Rice cake with almond butter
Post-exercise meal examples (within 1 hour after activity):
- Sliced turkey, hummus, and veggies on whole grain bread
- Smoothie with low fat or fat free milk, frozen fruit, and veggies
- Omelet with veggies and side of whole wheat toast
- Quinoa bowl with chicken and sautéed veggies
- Stir fry tofu and broccoli with soy sauce and brown rice
- Whole wheat tortilla with beans, cheese, and peppers
- Roasted chicken with sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts
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