So many of us underestimate the importance of correctly refuelling our bodies before and after exercise. Considering our food intake is a crucial factor in getting the best results, it’s about time we gave this topic the attention it deserved.
It all starts with eating the right amounts of the right foods. So what’s right? With the endless list of fad-diets, supplements and claims of overnight weight loss, it’s confusing knowing where to begin. Whether you’re an active person or not, fad diets and quick fix remedies are not the answer. Consider what you want. What are your fitness goals? Do you want to lose weight, build muscle or run a marathon? Of course the food requirements for these are different, but they all begin with a strong base.
1. Make carbs your friend
Sports dietitian Alison Walsh says, “Carbohydrates are an essential part of any active person’s diet, as they are the basic fuel for activity.” Walsh recommends exercisers determine their individual needs in terms of grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight. A female training five to seven times per week for an hour, requires about five grams per kilo of body weight each day. Requirements for endurance training such as marathons reach ten grams per kilo. Calculate your needs to see how you measure up.
To replenish glycogen – the body’s store of carbohydrate, which is used as a fuel in all forms of exercise – and keep energy levels high, carbs are important both before and after exercise. Walsh advises, “all meals (even snacks) should contain carbs.” Choosing when and what to eat before hitting the gym can be challenging. What you get out of your workout will depend on your energy levels. Exercising on an empty stomach is not advised, as it may decrease performance – hindering your progress. Bananas, low-fat cereal bars, cereal with low-fat milk or rice cakes with jam or honey are all good pre-workout snacks. These options are carb loaded and absorbed immediately. Try to have them one to two hours before you train. Avoid foods high in fat, fibre and salt as they can upset the stomach or promote dehydration.
The best way to kick-start recovery is to eat a nutritious snack in the 30 minutes post-workout. Both protein and carbohydrates should feature in this meal. Low-fat smoothies made with fruit and yoghurt, cereal and milk, low-fat muesli bars and peanut butter or cottage cheese on rice cakes are all good choices. This snack will provide your body with nutrients, as well as preventing unhealthy snacking or pigging-out at your next meal. Walsh recommends wholegrain bread, cereal, pasta, rice, fruit, vegetables and reduced fat dairy as the key carbs in your training diet.
2. Protein power
Protein is important for muscle recovery and repair, as well as keeping your hunger at bay. Active females should aim for one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Athletes who wish to put on weight need more – up to two grams per kilo body per day – teamed with hard training of course! Meeting your protein needs should be easy. We consume about double the protein we need daily, without even trying. Nearly all foods (except oils and pure sugar) contain protein. Walsh suggests that a balanced diet, even a vegetarian one, can provide you with all the protein you need, but says protein supplements can be useful “if you tolerate liquid meals better than solids immediately after a workout, provided they also contain carbs, vitamins and minerals.” She adds that smoothies with low fat yoghurt can also be used and are generally less expensive. Good protein sources should include lean meat, fish, chicken breast, low-fat dairy, eggs, legumes and soy products. Walsh suggests that protein should feature in all main meals and some snacks to “help women reach their requirements, as well as help to keep them satiated.”
3. Don’t forget your fluids
It’s a fact: exercising when you’re dehydrated, or not re-hydrating between bouts of exercise, will affect you performance. Walsh warns, “it’s almost impossible, and not practical to catch up once you have begun a workout dehydrated.” Start with always carrying a water bottle when you train, if this is not possible, make sure you compensate after the session. Walsh recommends that exercising women need between half to one litre of water per hour, dependent on temperature, intensity and personal perspiration rates. Sports dietitians recommend exercisers consume 150-400 millilitres of water for every 20 minutes of exercise – so a graduated bottle can be handy. After exercise, you need to replace 150 per cent of your losses, so Walsh suggests, if practical, “weigh yourself before and after exercise, as what you lose immediately is not fat, it’s water.” A one-kilogram weight drop is equal to one litre of water. Eating foods that contain water can help with your post-exercise water needs. Pasta, rice, vegetables, fruit, fish, chicken and eggs all contain 50 per cent or more water – so fuel up on these after exercise. Additional benefits of keeping the fluids up is that they have the advantage of filling us up throughout the day, “an advantage to those wanting to lose weight or keep trim,” advises Walsh.
4. Supplements, bars and other fancy things
The sports world is laden with fancy bars, pills, powders and specialised foods that all pledge fitness or performance enhancements. They are particularly popular in the athletic, as well as recreational sporting domain. Walsh suggests that supplements “are as they are named, and should be supplementary to the diet, not replacements of other vital foods”. Supplements such as nutrient-loaded snacks, and iron and multivitamins are warranted in cases where people are deficient, or not eating enough energy to obtain them from their diet. Walsh suggests, “recreational exercisers should not need any supplements besides those prescribed by a doctor or dietitian and should focus on a good diet. Money is better spent seeing a sports dietitian for diet advice, or having a personal trainer design them an exercise program.”
If you fuel your body properly, you will be able to train hard and get the results you deserve. Eat well, drink plenty of water, and you’ll be well on your way to achieving your fitness goals.
Alison Walsh can be contacted on [email protected]
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