Food therapy: How eating right can help you to train better
You are truly what you eat
It's common for athletes or gym-goers to believe that exercise gives them the license to eat anything and everything they want. This practice might fill the void in the stomach and please the palate, but the effects are both short-lived and shortsighted. In reality, athletes ask for more from the body than their sedentary peers. To meet these increased demands and deliver consistent ongoing results, their bodies need superior nourishment. Race cars require premium fuel for the same reason. While a sound overall dietary regime serves as a solid foundation, the choices made immediately before, during, and after exercise can help you get more from each individual training session. Overtime, each quality workout adds up to greater sporting performance or attained fitness goals. Here are a few tricks to consider.
BEFORE EACH WORKOUT SESSION
To eat or not to eat?
If your stomach is growling, by all means, respond. But it's a common misconception that a snack is required just before starting a training session. If you've recently eaten (i.e. within the last two hours) and you're not hungry, you may not need a pre-workout nibble. During physical activity, blood and energy move away from the GI tract to the muscles in the body's periphery. Giving your digestive system and your muscles work to do simultaneously may keep either or both from performing their best. Generally speaking, if your workout is an hour or less, holding off should be fine. Some research suggests it may actually help you draw upon and burn stored energy (fat tissue, that is). If you plan to work out longer, a quick nibble is likely necessary to prevent petering out at the tail end of your session.
What to eat?
The highest nutrition priority just prior to a workout is digestibility. Anything eaten should sit lightly in the stomach. To this end, it's best to keep portions small. The exact size is person-specific, but I usually suggest for it to be no larger than the size of the person's clenched fist. Carbohydrate-centric foods are preferred (over high protein or high fat), as these are processed most quickly and easily. Some ideas: a small banana, a few dates, a mini-bowl of cereal, porridge, granola, muesli, or a piece of whole grain toast with a thin swipe of nut butter.
DURING YOUR WORKOUT
To eat or not to eat?
Whether your gym visit lasted longer than expected or you're simply 'in the zone' in your event, it's easy to overlook nutrition. Topping up your fuel supply can be crucial, not in shorter exercise bouts, but definitely when moving continuously for longer than 60 to 90 minutes. At this point, the stored energy available within the body declines, and without a bit of help, performance does, as well.
What to eat?
Simple sugars aren't advisable under most circumstances, but they are a mainstay during endurance sport. They jump straight from the GI tract into the blood stream where they are promptly used to sustain your active muscles. When semi-dissolved in a solution, they work faster, which is why most sport products come in gels or gummies. Specialty items are indeed formulated to deliver optimal nutrients in correct proportions. However Mother Nature also offers suitable alternatives at a fraction of the price and without the synthetic ingredients and chemicals. Some of my favorites include manuka honey or maple syrup, bananas (and they come in their own packaging), dried or pureed fruits, and even homemade muesli bars or balls (if you prefer something more solid and substantial).
AFTER EACH WORKOUT SESSION
To eat or not to eat?
Definitely eat! Try to do so within the first 30 to 45-minutes following physical activity (a.k.a. the anabolic window). Herein muscles are most nutritionally absorptive and best able to replenish their fuel supply and repair the wear and tear from all their hard work.
What to eat?
A combination of carbs and protein is key. Why? Glycogen, a form of carbohydrate, is the main energy source stored in muscle. Amino acids, tiny proteins, are the building blocks from which muscle fibers are made and maintained. Both are in high demand. Interestingly, the whey protein (from dairy) is particularly appealing to muscles at this time, which is why most 'recovery' sport products include it as a primary ingredient. Yogurt or cottage cheese with fresh fruit, a bowl of cereal, or a glass of chocolate milk would also do the trick. If you prefer dairy-free, fear not. Other proteins sources will do. Omnivores might consider an organic egg omelet, a whole grain chicken breast sandwich, or a fillet of wild-caught fish with rice. Plant-based alternatives like quinoa porridge, edamame beans, and chia seeds offer essential amino acids as well.
To drink or not to drink?
Hydration is essential to sustain life, but it required additional attention in sport or exercise conditions. In fact, liquids are of arguably greater importance than solid-nourishment, as without water, our body is biochemically unable to even digest or metabolise any foods we eat. Each person's exact daily fluid requirement depends on weight, body composition, age, gender, and climate. However, athletes must also factor in for the extra fluids, and electrolytes, lost via sweat. At high temperatures and intensity levels, it's possible to lose from one to three liters of sweat in just one hour. So whether you sip as you go or chug when you finish, don't forget to drink up.
What to drink?
Specialty sports beverages abound. All contain simple sugars and electrolytes like sodium and potassium in percentages that resemble body fluids — almost like a drinkable IV solution. Sadly, though, store-bought products usually also contain artificial flavourings, colourings, and preservatives — ingredients not naturally found in our system. Fortunately, homemade alternatives often work equally well — like fresh young coconut water, lemonade or watermelon juice with a pinch of sea salt. They're less processed and less expensive, which helps given the volumes athletes require to support their training.
Whether you've just purchased a new gym membership or you're a seasoned competitor hoping for a podium spot, you'll need to properly fuel your movement. All in all, the best approach customised and comprehensive. The aforementioned tips are a good start, they're truly just the tip of the iceberg. Give them a try, and if you're hungry or thirsty for more, consider a one-to-one with a professional. Nutrition may be the missing link between your training program and your 2017 fitness and sport goals.
About Eve Persak, nutritionist at COMO Shambhala
Eve is a Registered Dietitian (RD) with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is one of 3,500 medical professionals globally to hold Certified Nutrition Support Clinician (CSNC) credentials with the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. Eve's expertise is rooted in science-based knowledge and provides comprehensive anthropometric and biochemical nutritional assessments, personalised therapeutic dietary recommendations, and guidance with meal planning and preparation. With COMO Hotels and Resorts, Eve is the Nutrition Editor and Consultant of COMO Shambhala's newly published cookbook, The Pleasures of Eating Well: Nourishing Favourites from the COMO Shambhala Kitchen. She also serves as Nutrition Advisor to Club21's SuperNature grocery store and leads The Home Kitchen Edit, a bespoke service by COMO Shambhala Urban Escape Singapore that sees Eve making home visits to help clients calibrate their pantry and draw up healthful meal plans.