Try a few of these tips to eat the right food at the perfect time for the exercise you’re about to do, and gain energy and ultimate recovery.
Exercise is an important component to overall health and well-being. It can increase mood, control weight, increase energy, and combat health conditions and disease. However, knowing what foods to eat before and after physical activity can become a challenge. Educating yourself is essential to your performance and recovery.
Four tips on pre-workout food choices:
- Focus on digestibility of the food. Choose something that requires little energy and time to breakdown; the less blood needed in digestion, the more directed to the muscles for exercise which can reduce cramping and discomfort during exercise.
- Hydrate adequately. All of your cells, tissues, and organs need water to function properly so drink sufficient amounts of water prior to exercise. When your body is properly hydrated, it maintains temperature, removes waste, and lubricates joints. If you don’t have proper hydration, it can lead to health risks and poor performance.
- Choose complex carbohydrates such as dried fruit, oatmeal, or fresh fruit. They ensure sustained energy release to last your entire workout.
- Determine the length and intensity of your workout. The timing of eating is just as important as knowing what to eat, so knowing what your body is about to accomplish is a good start to ensure top performance.
When to consume what foods prior to different kinds of workouts:
1. High intensity short workouts: less than one hour
You want to focus on food that will go straight to the liver for immediate energy because there is no time for digestion and conservation. Ideally you would want to eat something like dates or fresh fruit approximately 30–60 minutes before exercising. An example of this type of workout would be interval training.
2. Medium intensity workouts: 1–2 hours
For this type of exercise, focus on small amounts of alkaline protein and essential fatty acids. These foods will lead to prolonged energy and endurance since your workout is becoming longer in length. You will want to consume food such as chia or flax seeds about 1–2 hours beforehand to ensure enough time for digestion. A medium intensity workout may include endurance swimming.
3. Low intensity workouts: 1–2 hours
When participating in low intensity workouts, the focus is on consuming three times more carbohydrates than fat and protein (so 3:1:1 ratio). Our bodies tend to burn fat but will burn muscle if we don’t have enough amino acids. This means that consuming a small amount of protein slows down the release of carbohydrates which leads to improved performance, muscle loss prevention, and minimum amounts of body fat. Again, because you will be physically active for longer, your body will need about 1–2 hours prior to exercise to ensure proper digestion. A low intensity exercise could be going for a long hike.
4. Strenuous, long duration workouts:
This type of exercise includes any physical activity lasting longer than 2–3 hours. This means you want to fuel up before with a combination of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Your goal is prolonged endurance and a slow release of energy to the liver. This could include activities like triathlons and marathons.
Eating during a workout:
Depending on the length and intensity of your workout, you may want to refuel throughout the activity. You are looking for foods easy to eat and digest because your body is focusing on exercise itself and delivering nutrients to the working muscles, not digestion. Some examples include nuts, energy bars, smoothies, or whole grain muffins. Again, you want to focus on more complex snacks if your activity is not as intense.
How to refuel after a workout:
Upon finishing a workout, regardless of its intensity, you have a 45 minute window to ensure proper refuelling and recovery. Within this window, your muscles can better absorb carbohydrates and convert it to fuel which can increase your recovery time. Oftentimes people assume that a post-workout meal should consist only of protein. Although protein leads to the rebuilding and repair of muscles, fats are also important to decrease inflammation and increase recovery time. Your meal consumed within the 45 minute window should include carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Remember not to consume too large of a meal during this time because this may cause the blood to go towards digestion instead of sending the nutrients to repair the muscles that were just worked, dramatically reducing recovery. Once the 45 minute window is over, it is now time to prepare a complex meal because your body can better focus on the digestion ahead.
Debunking the Chocolate Milk Craze:
All too often you hear people tell you to drink chocolate milk upon completing vigorous physical activity. However, this may not be the best idea. It contains sugar and fake chocolate, and although we want calories and carbohydrates after a workout, these are not the right kinds. Not only is it not plant-based, but it’s also hard on the body because it is acidic, which can slow down recovery. Dairy products require a lot of energy to digest that our bodies simply do not have because after a workout our energy goes towards refuelling not digestion. Replace your chocolate milk with whole-food alternatives after a workout.
Next time you go to work out, remember to hydrate, focus on the intensity and duration of the exercise, and plan ahead to ensure proper eating habits to have optimal performance and recovery!