Whether you are a seasoned fitness fanatic or trying out something new to help you get in shape and feel better, an important factor in the success of your training regime is what you eat, and perhaps more importantly, when you eat it.
When it comes to effective, efficient and energetic exercise regimes, regardless of whether it’s for recreational or professional purposes, many people become fixated on fuelling their activities, and whilst getting the right fuel for your workout is important, years of coaching young professional athletes and recreational exercise enthusiasts (and using myself as a guinea pig) has taught me that recovery is by FAR the most important factor to consider.
During exercise, all sorts of physiological things happen: you sweat, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure goes up and, if you’re doing it right, at some point it starts to burn and you get worn out! All of these physiological changes occur for one main purpose – to supply the muscles being called upon to work with energy or ‘fuel’. When we start to run out of fuel or we have worked at a high intensity, chemical by-products of using this fuel start to accumulate and our brains signal to our muscles that enough is enough!
When we exercise, whilst the primary aim is to adapt to become fitter, healthier, stronger and more efficient at exercise in general, we are actually putting our bodies under a form of stress. This stress, together with the adaptation process, causes short-term damage to our cells and muscle fibres. During training we also use up much of our stored resources and fuel supply. It is for these reasons that recovery is of the utmost importance if you want to enjoy the benefits of your new regime and feel bright, fresh, full of beans and able to face your next workout with the same vigour and enthusiasm as the last. If you do not provide your body with the nutrients and energy to carry out the repair process, support adaptation and replenish the energy stores you have depleted, it will look for other ways to achieve this, meaning it will use nutrients from other vital processes such as brain function and reserve storage such as your muscle fibres! This can leave you feeling physically and mentally exhausted, sore from head to toe, struggling to sleep and even anxious and unable to focus and concentrate.
If you want to maximise your sporting performance and stick at your fitness regime long enough to achieve real benefits, then eating the right things at the right times to repair, replenish and recover as quickly as possible, is vital. If you get this right then you should be full of energy, awake, alert and not overly sore between workouts. If you are experiencing any of these concerns then the chances are you have not quite got your recovery right.
In addition to following an optimal baseline diet if you want to ensure you feel your best after training as well as during your next workout, here’s how to time what you eat to support optimal recovery and provide the right fuels when needed.
Approx. 2-3 hours before exercise or a competitive session consume a good meal consisting of 1 palm of protein-rich foods, 1 palm-sized portion of complex carbohydrate, 1-2 thumbs of fat and 2 cupped handfuls of veg. Consume adequate liquids to make sure urine is light straw coloured and doesn’t have a strong smell.
90 – 60 minutes before your workout eat half a small banana or similar energy-dense food if doing an intensive cardio-based session. If you have a really intense session or are feeling mentally/physically tired, an espresso, other small coffee or a green tea around 60 – 30 minutes before training can be really helpful.
Check hydration levels – drink water with sea salt and lemon juice added or with a little fruit juice mixed in. YOU DO NOT NEED SPORTS DRINKS – no one does! A healthy snack with some water is perfectly adequate to see you through a 60-90 minute workout.
Get used to what you can tolerate according to different workout types. I can’t eat or drink anything within 2 hours before running without feeling terrible and sabotaging my run, so learn what works for you and stick to it.
During – drink water according to thirst and tolerance (don’t make yourself feel sick). If sessions are longer than 90 minutes or you have several shorter sessions back to back with little break and lasting a total of 90 minutes or more you may need to add some fuel to your during training drink, or have quick-release snacks handy. For example, you can add a little apple juice to some water or consume a few melon or banana chunks or have a few swigs of semi-skimmed milk during your session. If you’re feeling creative you could try one of these homemade sports drinks to help fuel up during longer games and sessions.
Immediately after (or within 30 minutes) consume a carbohydrate and protein containing snack, e.g. an apple and a hardboiled egg, a glass of semi-skimmed milk, or a good quality protein shake and start rehydrating with your choice of water, milk, electrolyte solution or OJ mixed with water straight away.
Within 2-3 hours of training sit down to a decent meal containing a 1.5-2 palm-sized portion of protein-rich foods, 3 cupped handfuls of veg, 2 thumbs of fat and 1 cupped handful of complex carbohydrate. If you’ve done a very intense cardio session treat yourself to something yummy e.g. good quality full-fat ice cream, chocolate mousse or custard – you’ve earned it! Approx. 0.5 cupped handfuls.
SLEEP is vital for recovery and needs to be a high priority, particularly if you are training harder and more often than usual. Poor sleep is also a form of stress and will reduce how well your body can repair and replenish itself ready for the new day. Always try to get adequate rest and NEVER train hard the day after a bad night’s sleep, or if you are feeling under the weather, as this is puts unnecessary additional stress on your body. Regularly exercising hard and often if you are not getting adequate time to rest and recover puts you at risk of illness, mental stress and injury – so don’t push it! If you MUST train keep the duration and intensity low, go for a walk, a gentle swim or do a yoga session. Contrary to common thinking, if your lifestyle is already very stressful or you have a specific health condition such as hypothyroid or stress-related illness, exercising hard and heavy could be exacerbating your problems and preventing you from feeling your best. In this case regular high intensity training should be reduced to a few shorter sessions each week to prevent further overloading the body and making yourself even more unwell.
For those of you training for and competing in games or events, you need to make sure the day before the event your nutrition is as perfect as possible. This way you won’t be playing catch-up with yourself on match day!
Below is an example of an ideal sports nutrition day that I give to my athletes to help them get everything they need to perform and recover as best as possible:
Breakfast: 2 eggs cooked to your liking with brown toast, raw spinach/blanched tomatoes, cup of tea &/or OJ mixed with water
OR if you have an early cardiovascular-based session 1 small bowl of porridge with walnuts and banana
Mid morning snack: Mixed nuts and a little dried fruit OR 3 oat cakes with peanut butter. Drink water/squash/tea throughout the day
Lunch: Chicken, turkey, tuna, ham or cheese salad with at least 3 different salad vegetables included plus a good source of fat eg. olive oil dressing or an avocado and a cupped handful sized portion of complex carbohydrate such as potato, rice, quinoa etc.
Drink some water-based fluids.
Approx. 60 minutes pre game/training snack: Banana or fresh fruit of your choice, water
Pre weight training: Cup of green tea or espresso-based coffee
During TRAINING/GAME: water with fresh lemon juice, a pinch of sea salt. Add a little honey/sugar to sweeten if the session is 90 minutes or more.
Post cardio training snack: Glass of semi-skimmed or full fat milk and an apple
Post resistance training snack: cold meats (eg chicken drum sticks) or a hard-boiled egg, an apple and water as needed.
Dinner: Meat or fish dish or your choice with min. 3 different types of vegetables, 1 of which must be leafy and green, e.g. kale, spinach, cabbage. Cupped handful portion of rice/potato, glass of water.
Dessert: 3 squares of 70% cocoa + dark chocolate – most days of the week
After very intensive sessions: full fat yogurt OR full fat vanilla ice cream
Before bed: Cup of caffeine-free herbal tea/hot chocolate made with real cocoa/ hot milk with honey.
Try to get at least 8 hours of good quality sleep
The above information is scientifically proven as well as tried and tested by me, the athletes I coach and numerous fitness enthusiast clients from ages 20 to 60+. Whilst I am yet to find anyone who does not experience significant benefits to their general health and exercise performance by following these guidelines, we are all biochemically unique. Not all practices will render the same benefits for you as for your fellow participants – achieving your best is about learning what works for you. Finding your own ‘exact’ formula and understanding when and how to adapt it in line with changes in other aspects of your life will put you in a fantastic position to smash personal records, quickly improve your fitness and exercise capacity and experience huge health improvements.