Foods to fuel your workout
Words: Lucy Fry
For intensity and duration
Suitable for those who prefer steady cardio workouts, such as long walks, runs and cycle rides. Also for those training for a marathon or triathlon and keen, lean exercisers who find it hard to gain weight.
Carbs matter. Your workout food shouldn’t be based so much on whether you’re downward-dogging or just-jogging, but rather, the intensity at which you’re doing it, according to clinical and sports dietitian Rick Miller. ‘As the intensity of exercise increases, you start to use more glucose and stored carbohydrate,’ he explains. ‘This also applies to duration – that’s why you see the phenomenon of people “hitting the wall” in endurance events like marathons and triathlons. The “wobbly legs” feeling means their glycogen is running out.’
Nutritionist Stephanie Masterman suggests one high-carb meal before a big endurance event isn’t going to cut it. ‘You should consider consuming higher levels of carbs for two to three days beforehand to fully maximise the body’s stores,’ she says. ‘You’d also benefit from drinking isotonic drinks afterwards to replenish electrolyte stores lost in sweat. If you’ve just done a 5k jog, though, water is fine as it also contains a small amount of electrolytes.’
Suitable for those who prefer to do structured workouts or regularly train more than three times a week for at least an hour per session.
Find balance. ‘Those who play sport once or twice a week aren’t in need of any extra carbohydrates like special drinks or gels as they’ve not taxed their stored sugar levels much.’ If you’re not doing intense levels of training, you don’t have to worry too much about eating specialised pre- and post-workout foods. ‘Just enjoy a balanced meal before and after doing the exercise,’ says Miller. ‘Actually, most people tend to eat too many carbohydrates.’ If you’re doing moderate amounts of exercise, anywhere between 150-200g per day of carbs is enough.
‘However, if you’re doing more structured, regular workouts such as cross training or specific exercises for a sport that damages muscles and depletes stored fuel, you’ll need to add another layer of fuel on top of your diet,’ adds Miller. She suggests your post-workout food refuel should include a carbohydrate, such as a banana, and protein, such as a shake, plus some natural fruit sugars so you’ll be able to recover nice and quickly for your next training session.
For muscle gain
Suitable for strength training, those who want to build muscle, plus people who battle sugar cravings after exercise.
Fill up on protein. If you want to build muscle, you must eat enough protein throughout the day, particularly after exerting yourself. ‘If you don’t have enough protein in your system after exercise, you could lose rather than gain muscle mass,’ says Masterman. Strength training breaks down muscle fibres to a greater extent than cardio activities like running, swimming or cycling, so it’s important to eat protein after a weights or hard resistance session. After working out, Masterman advises having one to two scoops of protein powder mixed with milk, juice or water to maximise recovery and encourage muscle growth.
‘Protein makes you feel full and regulates cravings, so a shake straight after exercise helps ensure you don’t get hungry and eat too much, or have excess sugar once you get home. A daily intake of 1.6-2g protein per kg of bodyweight is sufficient for most people to build muscle,’ says Miller. ‘Eat lots of veg such as cabbage, kale, broccoli, peppers and tomatoes, too. These foods help create diverse gut bacteria.’
For weight and fat loss
Suitable for those on fasting diets such as the 5:2 diet, those keen to stay trim without closely counting calories, plus anyone who wants to shift weight without compromising fitness.
Know your body type. To lose fat, you’ll need to burn off more than you consume in general. ‘It’s still important to eat something after a tough training session, but a whey protein shake on its own is enough,’ says Miller. For those aiming for weight loss, or just keeping fit, pre-workout food can be something simple, like a fist-sized portion of complex carbohydrates at each meal, like wild rice, beans or wholegrain bread. These will provide all enough slow-release energy for an hour of moderate exercise.
‘When you fast, you automatically switch on certain metabolic pathways that improve endurance performance,’ says Miller. ‘But that doesn’t translate for all types of workouts, so there’s no point in getting up hungry, feeling like death and having a shoddy workout.’
One study showed that when completing aerobic exercise, there was no difference in body composition between those who had fasted and those who had eaten, while other research suggested that an hour’s walking first thing on an empty stomach could help the body use up fat for fuel. Figure out what works for your body type.