Even if you're not training for Rio 2016, your food choices before, during and after exercise can have a huge impact on your health. And if you're anything like me and don't want to do all the hard work to then consume highly manufactured ingredients you can't even pronounce, then what are your options? There are actually plenty!
And if you don't feel this article is relevant to you, don't log off just yet... the same principles apply to your kids. So read on and help your family benefit fully from their sporting activities. If they enjoy it, they'll do more of it... and that's always a good thing!
I've had a keen interest in health and nutrition for years, but when I took up triathlon training at the start of this year I didn't have a clue about what or when to eat and drink to make the most of my training. Some days I'd have more energy than I knew what to do with... and others I'd be fast asleep at my laptop by 9am. As a time poor parent this just wasn't going to cut it. I needed to make every exercise session count... and make sure the training didn't impact on the rest of my day.
So I did some research and have put together a very simple summary for you...
What should you eat and when?
Whether you're exercising for weight loss, fitness or just sanity, you need to fuel right. Exercising on an empty stomach can mean a greater percentage of fat used as your primary fuel source, BUT your liver glycogen stores will be depleted after fasting (while you've been asleep), so the intensity and duration of your training may be compromised. In a nutshell... if you're exercising for performance, a light meal after fasting makes good sense. And if you're exercising for weight loss, you may be able to go without, but a light meal before training may also give you the energy you need for a more effective workout and contribute to the negative energy balance needed to cause fat loss.
You'll also need to fuel properly post exercise, or you could remain fatigued, develop an injury or illness and lose mental clarity... negating many of the reasons you're exercise in the first place!
You need adequate carbohydrate (glycogen) stores in your muscles and liver before you begin. If you're only exercising moderately, this is pretty easy to maintain. If you train more frequently or with greater intensity, it may require more focus. And unfortunately there isn't one ideal dietary plan to suit all. You need to experiment with different foods and drinks to see what works for you.
A light meal containing some carbohydrate prior to exercise goes a long way to replenishing liver glycogen, which helps to balance your blood glucose levels (see my Stop Making Excuses post for more info on blood glucose). Just remember though, it's only useful once digested and absorbed... so a high fibre, low GI, high carb meal 20 minutes prior to exercise isn't going to do much except make you feel like bringing it all back up again when you start. A banana 20 mins prior may be ok, but you'll probably want to allow about an hour for a more substantial snack... and 2 - 3hrs for a full meal.
Also don't get caught up with the idea that you need to carb load before training. Small quantities of carbs is all you need... plus it's all your body can manage. Your body can't store much in the way of glycogen, so excess will be stored as fat. You're better to replace depleted glycogen stores periodically throughout training... not attempt to reload in one hit.
We can generally store about 500 - 600g of glycogen (approx. 200g in the liver and 400g in muscle). At about 70%vo2max this will last you about 2hrs total. This is really only to be used as a guide, as numbers will vary from individual to individual. But it helps to demonstrate that we're simply not designed to maintain a high carb diet.
Here's a quick checklist for your pre exercise meal...
I find yoghurt with banana works really well. And I prefer to eat this about an hour before exercise. You may need a little longer. Just remember you should be comfortable - not too full and certainly not hungry. And remember your fluids!
If you're exercising for an hour or less, water will probably be enough (as long as you've eaten some carbohydrate rich food an hour or so before you start and your body is well hydrated).
If your session lasts longer than an hour; your intensity of training is super high; or it's extremely hot; carbohydrates and electrolytes with fluids are a good idea. This'll help to balance your blood sugar levels, reduce fatigue and maintain adequate muscle and liver glycogen stores. Approx. 30gms of CHO (carbohydrate) per hour is a good place to start (2 tbsp). But if you're doing ultra-endurance training, I'd recommend you find a good dietician with experience in your chosen sport to help you with a tailored plan.
Now I am not an ultra-endurance athlete, so choose my own lemon + lime electrolyte drink and for longer sessions I throw in a few choc-nut protein bites or one of my favourite all natural commercial bars, organic food bars. And remember the fluids... early in your session.
Refuelling after exercise is vital for rehydration and repair. Your recovery meal should be eaten as soon as possible post workout and contain some carbohydrate, protein, fluid and salt. A well balanced meal here will help to rehydrate, combat fatigue, support your immune system, rebuild damaged muscle tissue for a quicker recovery, aid synthesis and even balance stress hormones.
Here's a quick checklist for your post exercise meal...
I like to have a fruity kefir smoothie, or something more substantial like a cheese and salad sandwich on grain free bread or tuna salad and a banana. I also find one of the protein rich organic bars mentioned above can be a big help if I'm not close to a good food source after training. Of course there are also days that I am so damn hungry after training I eat anything and everything I can get my hands on, but never feel that great afterwards... so I don't recommend this approach to refueling.
Exercise should leave you feeling great. Be mindful of what you eat and drink and fully reap the rewards.