Exercise is key to a healthy lifestyle, but to really maximise a workout, fuelling our bodies in the right way is vital. Good nutrition before working out can supercharge us, then sustain our energy levels throughout a session. Likewise, eating well afterwards can aid recovery, meaning we can train again sooner.
Georgina Camfield, associate nutritionist at AXA PPP healthcare, offers tips on finding feel-good foods that ultimately enhance your exercise regime.
The golden rule: everyone is different
Firstly, it’s crucial to remember that everyone’s different. Physiologically, the effects we feel from certain foods —and the time at which we eat them — will vary from person to person. This is about finding what works for you! Perhaps you have a goal in mind, like losing fat; in which case, your approach to nutrition and exercise will vary compared to someone looking to build muscle.
Eating before exercise
The benefits of different foods
Many of us eat before physical activity in order to sustain energy levels and boost our performance. Enjoying a mix of foods before exercising will offer lots of nutritional benefits. Don’t be afraid of carbohydrates — they’re a vital energy source that fuel your training and aid recovery afterwards. Carbs are important for endurance workouts, like running or cycling, but will also give you a boost if you’re heading on a shorter exercise. Why not try baked sweet potato topped with tuna or smashed avocado?
Protein isn’t just important post-exercise. Enjoy protein-packed foods before a workout to reduce muscle damage and enhance recovery. The fibres in our muscles tear slightly when we exercise, so we need protein to help knit these back together. Protein isn’t limited to meat and dairy; if you’re vegetarian, vegan or simply looking to mix up your diet, pulses, lentils, meat-free alternatives and vegan nut butters are all delicious foods that support your exercise regime. Proteins are made of 20 amino acids. Unlike animal products however, plant-based foods don’t contain all 20. So, if you enjoy a plant-based diet, combine protein sources; this could simply be two plant-based options, just to ensure you get a healthy range of amino acids. Moving onto fats: good fats, like nuts, seeds and fish, help to release energy slowly. They slow down digestion and help us sustain our energy levels for longer.
Look to combine carbs, protein, fats and vegetables beforehand. A delicious example is scrambled egg on toast, with a side of fresh veg. Porridge with nuts and seeds will leave you feeling sated, but also give you slow-release energy to sustain you over your fitness session. If you’re vegan or fancy switching up your breakfast, porridge made with oat or coconut milk makes for a creamy, filling meal. However, oats are high-fibre foods, so if you have a more sensitive stomach you may experience discomfort.
How much food?
It’s hard to be prescriptive about how much food to eat before a workout, because we’re all different! It all depends on the person. Balance is key — most of us want to feel comfortable, not full. For some people, exercising on a full stomach isn’t a nice feeling; you might feel sick, a little too heavy to move freely or be distracted by your stomach. Over-eating can trigger cramps mid-exercise and a tummy upset later. Some bodies are simply more sensitive than others — it’s natural, we’re all human. Contrastingly, other people need immediate fuel and time isn’t a concern.
Consider the type of exercise you’re embarking on too and how seasoned you are. A marathon runner may eat more because they’re fuelling for a longer event, compared to someone exercising for 30 minutes.
Some people choose to exercise on an empty stomach to create a calorie deficit. However, eating even a little beforehand will give you energy, meaning you exert more effort, put more into your workout and burn more calories. In turn, you’ll see a better effect on your physical outcomes.
If possible, aim to eat around one to two hours (closer to two hours ideally) before you start exercising. This gives your body time to digest the food and prevent a stomach upset. Again, the optimum time differs for everyone. Some of us prefer to eat in advance and let our food digest, whereas others dig in right before exercise for an immediate source of energy — it depends on the person.
Busy lifestyles can get in the way of a structured eating and exercise routine. If you’re running low on time and can only squeeze in a quick bite before fitness, then don’t worry. It’s not dangerous, but you may run the risk of low blood sugar levels. So, plan ahead - wake up an hour earlier to eat, so your body has time to digest and you feel energised. If you’re already getting up at the crack of dawn to get your workout in, then firstly — great work! However, this can make it hard to eat first thing. Instead, make sure you hydrate beforehand and put more focus into a nutritious meal after your exercise.
Snacks can be useful on the run-up to a workout, so aim for a light bite up to 60 minutes beforehand. You might prefer a smaller meal nearer to a fitness session, over a bigger meal further in advance. Peanut butter on a rice cake not only feels like a tasty treat but is packed with a good variety of nutrients to fuel your work-out. Again, the less time you leave to eat, the less time your body has to digest. If you’re feeling fuller, there’s an increased chance of gastro-intestinal disturbances, like wind, stomach pain, nausea and heartburn for example.
Remember to drink water before exercising. Even if you choose not to eat, or only have a snack, it’s important to stay hydrated.
Finding foods that are right for you is trial-and-error; if you’re lactose sensitive, it’s wise to avoid foods containing dairy. Fruit and veg tend to be safer options, like a banana, a handful of berries or carrot sticks.
Be led by your goals
If you’re working towards an exercise goal, it’s worth considering how your eating habits can support it. If your training is cardiovascular based, you’ll need a higher amount of carbs both pre- and post- exercise to give you the energy, then recovery, you need. Strength training and muscle gain will require a higher emphasis on protein, but carbs are still important. It’s about being mindful of the balance of carbs, proteins and fats to ensure that you’re giving your body what it needs and not depriving it of anything important, as this could lead to fatigue, injury and illnesses.
Foods to think twice about
It’s wise to avoid processed foods and high saturated fats like crisps, bacon and ready meals. Take-aways may be treat occasionally, but they won’t benefit your fitness performance. Spicy foods can also cause an upset stomach. If you fancy an exotic, warmer dish, chicken fajitas will satisfy your cravings; if you’re vegetarian, add vegetables or a meat-free substitute.
Think twice about eating refined sugar immediately before; it may give you a quick surge of energy, but this diminishes quickly, leading to a ‘crash’. Instead, choose carbs that offer sustainable energy.
Drinks to think twice about
Different people are sensitive to different drinks too. Fruit juice may seem a healthy option, but it contains high levels of sugar that again can trigger stomach troubles, likewise with carbonated drinks.
Coffee is a popular choice to put a spring in our step. Indeed, a little coffee can give us that boost of energy and alertness we need when getting ready for a workout. But while caffeine might give us a temporary burst of energy, like sugar this can be followed by a crash. To avoid this, couple your coffee with energy from a light bite of food. As a side of caution, for some people caffeine can have side-effects, particularly when consumed in excess. You may experience an increased heart rate or stomach discomfort from an increased acidity in the stomach, which is an unwelcome distraction during exercise.
Eating after exercise
The benefits of different foods
In truth, nutrition before and after exercise can be very similar; it’s all about finding the formula that works for you.
Rehydrate, recover, re-fuel energy you’ve lost and enhance the performance of the training you’ve done — these four targets are all worth considering post-exercise. For this, a mix of carbs and protein is recommended. Carbs stimulate insulin, which is needed to uptake protein into the muscles. If we cut out carbs, we simply can’t uptake that all-important protein.
A misconception exists that we need lots of protein post-workout. Instead, aim for around 20- 30g of protein, as this is optimal to maximise the body’s ability to recover. Research shows that if you have significantly more than that, there are no extra benefits on the repairing of muscle tissue.* So, what does 20g of protein look like? It could be half a chicken breast, two eggs and a few almonds, two-thirds of a cup of cottage cheese, 170g of Greek yoghurt or 75g of tuna. Keep this serving size of protein going throughout the day with every meal (a little less if you eat smaller, frequent meals).
Here’s a little post workout meal inspiration - why not whip up half a chicken breast with a side of spinach or quinoa? Again, scrambled egg on toast with fresh veggies works just as well post-exercise, as before! Snack on almonds if you’re feeling peckish later, or not quite hungry enough for a full meal.
Look to mirror the timings of your pre-exercise eating routine. Aim to eat within an hour to replenish your energy levels.
Staying hydrated will help combat hunger levels. If you get into the routine of eating a couple of hours before exercise, enjoying a light snack 60 minutes before then eating afterwards, you’ll curb any cravings. If you’re getting enough nutrition elsewhere throughout the day, you shouldn’t feel those pangs.
Drink lots of water
Exercise causes us to sweat and, in turn, lose electrolytes. Electrolytes hydrate the body, regulate nerve and muscle function, and help to rebuild damaged tissue. Drinking plenty of water will replenish electrolytes, salts and prevent dehydration. Feeling dehydrated can not only compromise performance, but induce headaches, dizziness and, in more severe cases, fainting.
So, it’s worth taking a bottle of water with you on a fitness session. Seasoned runners, who tend to exercise for long periods of time (two hours or more), may opt for an electrolyte drink.
It’s natural to feel hungry, or not in the mood for food, after exercise
For some people, exercise stimulates their appetite due to the energy it burns. However, it can have the reverse effect in others, suppressing hunger. Reason being, that exercise affects our hormone levels.
‘Peptide YY’ or ‘PYY’ is a hormone concerned with hunger as it suppresses appetite; PYY can be stimulated when we work out, then last in the body for a couple of hours — particularly if we’re doing aerobic fitness like brisk walking, swimming or running. Contrastingly, another hormone called ‘grehlin’ can be stressed when we exercise, triggering hunger.
One study shows that some people may overeat after a workout, because they overestimate how many calories they’ve burned.** Further research suggests that some fitness trackers can equally over-estimate how many calories have been burned through exercise.*** This can be disheartening if you’re working out frequently, but simply not seeing or feeling the benefits.
What about supplements?
There’s no real evidence to suggest that protein powders are better than whole food protein after exercise. But then again, there’s nothing to prove that they’re worse. Crucially though, it’s worth remembering that whole foods are packed with vitamins and minerals that a powder can’t provide. In certain circumstances, like a professional athlete training twice a day, a quicker recovery is needed and so protein shakes might be considered. However, if you have an exercise class planned with a whole day to recover, there’s no need to speed up this process — whole foods are more beneficial here.
Ultimately, a healthy, balanced diet, regular exercise and good quality sleep are key to better wellbeing. Where nutrition is concerned, it can be trial-and-error; but once you find what works for you, you’ll never look back.
*Moore DR, Robinson MJ, Tag JE, Wilkinson SB, Prior Tm Tarnopolsky MA, Phillips SM, 2019. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19056590
** Willbond SM, Laviolette MA, Duval K, Doucet E, 2010. Normal weight men and women overestimate exercise energy expenditure: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21178922
***Shcherbina A, Mattsson M, Waggott D, Salisbury H, Christle J, Hastie T, Wheeler M, Ashley E, 2017. Accuracy in Wrist-Worn, Sensor-Based Measurements of Heart Rate and Energy Expenditure in a Diverse Cohort: https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4426/7/2/3