Having the right diet and maintaining a good nutrition are as important as exercising. Although the ideal meal both before and after a workout depends on the type of exercise and individual goals, ingesting some key nutrients can allow you to maximise your performance, maintain energy, minimize injury and muscle damage, and promote recovery during and after a workout session.
When planning your before and after workout meals, it is essential to maintain a balance. Basically, your body requires three main macronutrients, namely carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Including all three in your diet plan will help you optimize productivity during any workout session. Added to that, it is important to time your pre and post workout nutrition to maximise the benefits of a workout session and the recovery period.
Below we have outlined the importance of nutrition before, during and after a workout session. We also highlight some easily available foods that you can include in your meal plan to kickstart a healthy and fit lifestyle.
The Three Main Macronutrients
These are the vital nutrients required to help you perform and recover during and after a workout.
Carbohydrates provide energy to the body in the form of glucose that is stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. This is the nutrient that prevents you from feeling tired and fatigued during exercise.
There are two main types of carbs: simple carbohydrates that provide an instant increase in energy, and complex carbohydrates that release energy over an extended time frame. Typically, it is best to consume a combination of the two as part of a pre-workout meal.
During a workout, protein breakdown is faster than protein synthesis due to which the body needs a steady supply to help in muscle growth and recovery. The body doesn’t store protein, and therefore requires continuous intake for optimal performance to maintain muscle fibres from wear and tear during exercise.
For individuals who carry out weightlifting, bodybuilding, resistance training, and other strength exercises that require building muscle, mass and bulking, the best source of protein are protein shakes. They contain key amino acids, such as BCAA, Beta Alanine, Betaine Anhydrous and Creatinine, among others, that are needed for muscle growth and repair, building lean muscle mass and providing strength to enhance power and performance.
Fats are a great source of energy. They are the slowest to digest which means that they may not be able to provide the energy needed during intensive workout. This is why dieticians suggest that pre workout meals should primarily contain protein and carbs.
While it is suggested to avoid saturated and trans fats, having unsaturated fats has been linked to plenty of health benefits.
Foods rich in unsaturated fats include avocados, olives, nuts such as almonds and peanuts, and fatty fish such as salmon. It is best to avoid excess quantities of lard, tropical oils such as coconut oil, and fatty beef as they contain high levels of unsaturated fat.
What To Have Before A Workout?
A pre workout meal is all about stocking up on the right nutrients that give you the energy needed to perform well during your workout session. In this regard, it is best to consume foods rich in both simple and complex carbohydrates as well as proteins. Low quantities of unsaturated fats are an option only if you plan to consume your pre workout meal 2 or more hours prior to workout – this allows plenty of time for the fat to be broken down and used for energy.
People who avoid pre-workout meals may be at risk of experiencing muscle loss. Exercising on an empty stomach will result in the body drawing protein from the muscles that will cause a reduction in muscle mass.
The timing for a pre-workout meal is as important as the meal itself. Usually, you would want to consume a meal around 2 to 3 hours prior to your workout session. In this case, it is ideal to incorporate complex carbohydrates, as opposed to simple carbs, in your meal as it releases energy over a longer time period. In this case, stick to the following kinds of food:
● Lean meat or fish such as salmon with brown rice and quinoa to balance the protein and carb intake
● Whole grain bread with a hard boiled egg to supplement the carb intake with protein.
● Oats, specifically Irish Oats, have a high fibre content, and release energy slowly. You can add peanut butter, almond butter or soy butter. Honey and agave are also healthy options to combine with oats.
● Grilled Chicken or Tofu with a side of vegetables or sweet potato
● Legumes such as lentils and beans as these take long to digest
You may wish to have a pre-workout meal either 1 hour or even 30 minutes before your workout session. In this case, it is best to consider the following types of pre workout meals:
● Dried Fruits such as dried apricots, apples, berries or figs. These contain simple carbs and are easy to digest.
● Bananas, as they contain high amounts of carbohydrates and potassium
● Greek or fruit yoghurt. You may add berries and other fruits.
● Cottage cheese
Additionally, remember to stay hydrated well before a workout session and avoid any kinds of unhealthy saturated fats. If you are pressured for time, having a protein rich drink or a low calorie fruit smoothie can also help in fueling you with the necessary carbs and protein prior to a workout.
Just as pre workout meals help you achieve your workout targets, staying energized during a workout session is as important.
For workouts that last under 60 minutes, it is recommended that you stay hydrated by either sipping on water at regular intervals or having a sports drink between short breaks. Sports drinks are an excellent alternative to plain drinking water as they contain high quantities of carbohydrates, sodium and electrolytes that help restock glucose and mineral levels in the body.
Additionally, hydration help in regulating body temperature, boosting performance, facilitating recovery and even helps in avoiding those nasty cramps during intense workouts. As a general guide, remember to consume at least 5 ounces of fluid every 15 minutes.
The British Nutrition Foundation suggests that for workouts that last for more than an hour, individuals should consider having foods high in carbohydrates. This is because a high intensity workout session during an extended period of time results in depletion of glucose levels which is required as an energy source during workouts.
As a general rule, limit your carb intake to a maximum of 60 grams per hour during lengthy high performance workout sessions, resistance training and/or endurance exercises. Be mindful to avoid foods containing fats during exercise as it is difficult to digest and puts added stress on your stomach.
Examples of food during a workout session:
● Piece of fruit such as banana or apple
● Protein bar with high carb content
● Low fat granola
Any workout session is as valuable as its recovery period. And this is why a post workout meal can make all the difference in the world.
Following a strenuous workout, it is important to provide the body with all the essential nutrients it requires to start rebuilding and repairing tissues and muscles. In order to benefit from a post workout meal, make sure to have it within 30 to 45 minutes following any workout session as the body is most responsive during this anabolic window.
Ideally, aim to consume protein along with some carbohydrates following any fitness session. You can either opt for a post workout supplement owing to the short window and time constraints, if any. You can also choose to prepare a fully fledged meal packed with a high protein content.
Following are some options in case you are short on time:
● Post Workout Supplements such as protein shakes
● Chocolate Milk
● Cherry Juice
● Coconut Water
● Fresh orange juice without sugar
If you wish to prepare a meal, here are some great ingredients you should use:
● Grilled chicken with steamed or sauteed vegetables
● Baked or grilled salmon with steamed or sauteed vegetables
● Whole wheat bread with tuna or peanut butter
● Sweet potato
● Green salads with quinoa
● Eggs, whipped into an omelette
● Brown rice
● Dried fruits and fresh fruits
Nutrition and Exercise go hand in hand, and it is crucial that you expend as much time and thought into preparing a good meal both before and after a workout. This will not only enhance your performance and improve recovery, but will help you achieve your goal, whether its weight loss, bodybuilding or increased stamina.
So what meals are you going to try for your next workout session?