Well-Timed Nutrition for the Best Possible Workout
A well-timed intake of nutrients before, during and after exercise is a primary determinant of how effective (and comfortable) your workout will be. If you’ve ever hit the gym after a large meal or without enough food or in your stomach, you will know how quickly athletic endeavors can turn unpleasant. Cramping, nausea, indigestion, fatigue and weakness – all can be caused by eating or drinking the wrong things at the wrong time. But by following a few basic guidelines, you can fuel your workouts for maximum results – without the discomfort!
Fuel for the Fire –
Digestion isn’t an instant process. As such, avoid consuming heavy meals close to vigorous exercise. Some people experience cramping and nausea if they don’t allow for a sufficient gap between eating and working out. Another common complaint is sluggishness and muscle fatigue, which may be the result of the body prioritizing digestion instead of channeling energy to muscle tissue.
“Carb-loading” is a term which describes the consumption of a large quantity of carbohydrates prior to exercise. The reasoning behind this practice is that the body utilizes carbohydrates to create glucose, a source of fuel for the muscle cells. However, not all carbs are created equal – for example, eating two pounds of pasta before running a half marathon may introduce to the stomach a source of slow-burning energy, but the weight and volume of that much starch may also cause significant gastrointestinal distress.
Where carbohydrates are concerned, consider quality over quantity. Dried fruit, starchy vegetables, honey, energy gels and moderate amounts of whole grains provide power without weighing you down.
What about Protein and Water? –
Physical exertion results in perspiration. Prolonged sweating can cause the body to lose a significant quantity of water, which is why it’s important to pre-hydrate prior to exercise. Drink between one and two extra cups of water before exerting yourself to avoid premature dehydration. Avoid over-drinking, which may result in discomfort, cramping and needing to relieve yourself mid-exercise.
Consuming protein before working out can be beneficial. Complete proteins contain branched chain amino acids (BCAA’s) – valine, leucine and isoleucine – which bypass the liver and prevent catabolism (muscle breakdown) by being oxidized in favor of your own muscle tissue.
For people whose goals include building lean mass, protein consumption triggers muscle protein synthesis by increasing muscle uptake of amino acids. And for those who exercise to promote weight loss, a study from the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise demonstrated that as little as one scoop of whey protein taken before exertion can increase calorie burning for 24 hours.
A number of whole foods – especially eggs, fish and meat – contain “complete protein”, which is so named because it doesn’t lack the essential amino acids the body is unable to produce on its own. However, the same caveat which applies to carbohydrates – avoiding heavy foods before exercise – is applicable to protein.
Not only may heavier proteins sit in the stomach and create discomfort, the benefits they provide – increased muscle protein synthesis and anti-catabolism – may not take effect quickly enough when compared to a rapidly absorbed protein such as whey powder.
Keeping Yourself Going –
Is it necessary to eat mid-exercise? That depends on a couple of factors – the first being, how much did you consume beforehand? If you have eaten a sufficient quantity of food and intend to work out for only a short period of time, stopping mid-routine for a snack may be unnecessary.
However, if your regime involves prolonged, intense training sessions, fast-burning carbohydrates and protein can help you train longer and negate the risk of muscle loss. Carbohydrates and protein get used up quickly during high intensity exercise – replenishing them is important for sustaining athletic performance and building or maintaining muscle mass. Gels, energy bars, dried fruit and protein powder – while inappropriate dietary staples – have advantages: They’re quick, compact, convenient and mess-free.
Long-duration, high-intensity aerobic exercise can result in dehydration and electrolytic imbalance due to perspiration. It’s important to keep hydrated. Under normal circumstances, plain water is best, but some athletes may benefit from electrolyte drinks or powders to replace the sodium, potassium and magnesium lost through sweat.
Recovery Time –
Recovering from exercise means more than just resting – following heavy exertion with the right nutrients will optimize your recovery by replenishing glycogen and electrolyte levels, reducing fatigue and soreness, preventing muscle loss, bolstering the immune system against exercise-induced deficiency and increasing strength and lean mass.
Carbohydrates are crucial for glycogen replenishment – serious athletes may need in excess of 1 gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight. Failing to restore glycogen levels means your athletic performance may be diminished the next time you work out.
However, consuming such a high volume of carbs post-exertion can be difficult. According to the study Nutritional Strategies to Promote Postexercise Recovery, published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, the amount of carbohydrate necessary for glycogen replenishment may be decreased to 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight when combined with a moderate amount of protein (0.2 to 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight).
Exercise creates “micro-tears” in muscle fibers. This process is desirable – if muscles are correctly nourished, these small tears heal, increasing muscle size, strength and performance. However, inadequate consumption of nutrients may result in a loss of lean mass, decreased performance and increased soreness.
Consuming rapidly absorbed, high-biological value protein such as whey within 30 minutes of exertion speeds amino acids to muscle tissue, rebuilding and expanding damaged fibers. Why eat protein (and carbohydrates) within 30 minutes? This timeframe is when the body’s enzymatic and nutrient transport system is primed for protein synthesis and the rebuilding of glycogen stores.
Though the fast-burning and quickly utilized protein and carbohydrate sources discussed so far have benefits – namely ease of use and rapid assimilation when taken immediately before and during exercise – also consider following your workouts with whole foods such as vegetables, fresh fruit, meat, fish, eggs, whole grains and starchy vegetables whenever possible. Unprocessed foods provide additional benefits such as fiber, micronutrients and varied textures and flavors.
From Start to Finish, Good Nutrition Matters –
Exercising on an empty stomach, failing to replenish yourself during an intense session or neglecting to refuel after pushing yourself hard won’t only make working out uncomfortable – it can hinder your progress and may even set you back. For the best results, keep hydrated and eat sufficient quantities of high quality, rapidly digestible protein and carbohydrates before and during exercise. Follow up with the right nutrients to replenish muscle glycogen stores and prevent catabolism, and watch your athletic performance soar!