Whether you're going for a walk or training for a marathon, the food you eat plays a vital role in how you'll feel and how you will perform. Sports dietitian Caitlin Reid spells out the basics of sports nutrition with some simple steps to help you get more out of your workouts.
Everything you eat and drink has an affect on your body when you exercise – whether you're an amateur or a professional athlete. And it's not just what you eat beforehand that counts – you need a balanced diet every day, the right snack before you start and then the correct meal afterwards to help your body recover and repair. The following four steps show you how to get the best from yourself.
1. Nutrition for everyday
While you might put a lot of emphasis on the food you eat before exercise, it's important to realise what you eat every day plays the biggest part in your performance. You need to provide your body with a healthy, balanced diet consisting of carbohydrates, sufficient protein, healthy fats and adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. The food you eat before you exercise will have little benefit on your overall performance. Eating before you work out is merely the last step to make you feel comfortable and confident during your exercise session.
Do eat a healthy, balanced diet every day, made up of a wide variety of foods from all the food groups.
Don't live on takeaway and convenience foods or skip meals.
2. Eating before you exercise
Your body can only burn food it has already digested and absorbed, so there's no point eating right before you exercise in the hope that it will give you more energy. In fact, eating a large meal will only cause you to feel sluggish and may even cause an upset stomach, cramping or diarrhoea. Foods high in fibre, fat or protein take longer to digest and can increase your risk of stomach discomfort while exercising so should be eaten long before you start - especially if your workout involves running.
Do, as a general rule, eat a carbohydrate-containing meal with a small amount of protein 3-4 hours before exercise, or a snack (such as a banana or a tub of yoghurt) 1-2 hours before exercise.
Don't eat a meal right before you're about to exercise.
3. Eating during exercise
A 90-minute or less workout
You shouldn't need to eat when exercising for fewer than 90 minutes if you follow Steps 1 and 2 above. If you do feel tired, it may mean you haven't eaten enough carbohydrates before you started, your diet is not well-balanced, you ate too much or too closely to exercising, or that you're dehydrated.
A 90-minute or more workout
A moderate- to high-intensity work-out for longer than 90 minutes is called an endurance event. Consuming extra carbohydrates is recommended as your body doesn't have an endless supply. To enable your body to access this energy, you need foods with readily-available carbohydrates – such as sports drinks, easy-to-eat muesli bars, or sugary confectionery. Research with athletes shows 30-60g of carbohydrates (equivalent to 500-1000ml sports drink or 12-24 jelly babies) needs to be consumed each hour of exercising to delay fatigue.
Do consume easily-digested carbohydrate-containing snacks if exercising for longer than 90 minutes.
Don't load up on lollies during a sporting game or one-hour work-out.
4. Eating after exercise
How well you recover nutritionally after a workout determines how well you will perform at your next workout. For the best recovery after doing exercise, follow the three Rs: refuel, repair and rehydrate.
Refuel your glycogen stores (carbohydrates)
Eat a carbohydrate-containing meal within two hours of your training. If you're looking for performance enhancement, though, eating within the first 30 minutes after your work-out may be the most beneficial.
Repair your damaged muscles with protein
During your workout it is likely that muscle protein has been broken down. So including protein in your recovery meal can increase protein building. To reap the most benefits, carbohydrates need to be included with this protein.
Rehydrate with fluid as soon as you possibly can
Most of us finish our work-outs at least a little bit dehydrated, and we continue to lose fluid through breathing and perspiration. Not replacing your fluid losses after training can negatively affect your recovery, daily activities and then the following work-out. As thirst is not a reliable indicator of hydration, the best way to monitor how dehydrated you are is to look at the colour of your urine. The darker your urine, the more fluid you need. Aim for clear to straw-coloured urine.
Do rehydrate after exercising and eat a snack or meal containing low-GI carbohydrates and protein.
Don't fall into the trap of eating food as a reward for exercising. You will most likely be filling up on high-GI carbs or high-fat foods and will counteract all your hard work, especially if you're trying to lose weight.
What to eat...
3-4 hours before exercise
Baked beans on toast
Roll made with ham and salad, plus a banana
Pasta with lean meat, chicken or lentils and vegetables
Baked potato with reduced-fat cheese and coleslaw
Toasted sandwich made with reduced-fat cheese and tomato, plus a 200g tub low-fat yoghurt
1-2 hours before exercise
200g tub low-fat yoghurt
Glass low-fat chocolate milk
Bowl of cereal and skim milk
Up to 2 hours after exercise
Lean meat, chicken or fish with potato and vegetables
Seafood risotto with a side salad
Stir-fry with lean red meat or chicken, vegetables and rice
Homemade pizzas made on English muffins with lean meat, reduced-fat cheese and vegetables
Roll made with banana, reduced-fat ricotta and honey, plus an orange
What about sports drinks?
If you are working out for fewer than 60 minutes, sports drinks are not needed – research shows they only offer benefits to people exercising for longer than one hour. Therefore, sports drinks are great for the endurance athlete trying to reach peak performance. If you are exercising at a moderate intensity or playing a social game of touch, water is the better option. You'll save kilojoules and stay hydrated!
Sports drinks contain 4-8% carbohydrates, 10-25mmol sodium and 630kJ.
Carbohydrates provide fuel for the working brain and muscles and contribute to the flavour of drinks.
Sodium, along with other electrolytes such as potassium, stimulate the absorption of both the carbohydrates and water in the small intestine, as well as make you feel thirsty so you drink more.
How to eat for exercise when...
1. You're trying to lose weight
Exercising on an empty stomach causes you to use more fat to fuel your workout compared to doing the same workload after a carbohydrate-containing meal or snack. However, fuelling up on carbohydrates makes it more likely that you will be able to exercise for longer and harder, which means you'll use more kilojoules and be more likely to lose weight. Eating before your exercise session will depend on your goal. If you are going for performance improvement, eat something before exercise. But if your aim is weight loss – and you can do the same amount of exercise whether you eat or not – leave your food until after your session.
2. You're trying to bulk up
To gain muscle, you need to combine a well-developed strength training program with an energy-rich diet that has adequate amounts of protein. While an increased intake is essential for muscle gain, you should not consume a high-fat, nutrient-poor diet of takeaway foods. Follow a low-fat diet, include some protein at each meal, and consume protein and carbohydrates before and after your strength training program. Carbohydrates help to reduce protein breakdown and allow the ingested protein to be used for muscle growth and repair.
3. Your kids are playing sport
Kids need to eat a healthy, balanced diet that meets all their nutrition requirements for carbohydrates, protein, fats plus vitamins and minerals. The well-nourished child will be able to play better and for longer, maintain concentration and recover quicker. If your child is not getting adequate nutrition they will appear lethargic and tired. Children can overheat more quickly than adults so it's important to maintain hydration before, during and after their sport. If your child is playing in an all-day carnival, low-fat and high-carbohydrate snacks, such as muesli bars, bread and jam, watermelon and oranges, are best eaten every two hours. Sports drinks or cordials can be used in all-day events, but your child does not need them for a 30-minute game of basketball. To help their bodies refuel and repair, feed your kids a meal such as spaghetti bolognese or a ham and cheese sandwich, up to 2-3 hours after playing sport.
4. You're doing intense, long workouts
Ensure you're eating a healthy, balanced diet every day, then eat a carbohydrate- and protein-containing meal, such as a ham and salad sandwich, 3-4 hours before you exercise. If you haven't had enough time for a meal, grab a tub of low-fat yoghurt or fruit salad 1-2 hours before you start. Make sure you're well hydrated, too. Follow up your session with a meal within two hours, or eat a snack, such as a banana smoothie or cereal bar, to keep you going until your next meal.
5. You're preparing for an event
Your diet will depend on the type and length of the event you are preparing for. Remember to maintain a healthy, balanced diet, and focus on the three R's. The quicker you eat after training, the sooner your body can refuel, rehydrate and repair. Therefore, aim to eat a carbohydrate snack or a carbohydrate- and protein-packed meal 20 minutes after training or competing. For more specific information for eating for a particular event, visit www.sportsdietitians.com.au.