We probably all know the basics when it comes to good nutrition and eating healthily. Avoid refined sugars and fats, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, and keep hydrated. But have you thought about how your dietary choices can be used purposefully towards helping you achieve your fitness goals?
When it comes down to strength training and muscle building protein is the key. Amino acids are the building blocks that enable muscles tissue to grow and promote tissue repair. Glycogen is how energy is stored in the muscles and is the body’s primary energy source. Drinking a protein shake within an hour after a workout is a great boost to building muscle as this is when your body can achieve maximum protein uptake and restore glycogen. It’s essential to avoid any protein intake directly before strength training and exercise as your body won’t have time to digest it, and this can result in stomach cramps.
For optimum strength training, it is advised that you intake 10-20 grams of protein directly after exercise for maximising muscle growth and repair, as well as ensuring that 20-25% of your total daily calories are from proteins. Protein sources to include in your diet include lean meat, fish, eggs and nuts (almonds are particularly nutritious). Quinoa is also a great protein source – it’s a wholegrain that provides all the essential amino acids your body needs. Some healthy high protein snacks include low fat cottage cheese, low fat natural yoghurt with fresh fruit, hard boiled eggs, smoothies made with skimmed milk, peanut butter and banana, and tuna with wholegrain oatcakes.
And whilst protein is essential for building muscle, it’s also important not to forget carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are also essential for strength training as they provide the energy the body needs instead of proteins being used up as the energy source. Fats also play a role in keeping your body healthy, and no, they’re not all evil. I’m sure you’ve heard of good fats and bad fats, so just remember to lay off the hard cheese, butter and animal fats. Good fats, as found in nuts, avocados and oily fish, increase testosterone production, and testosterone has been shown to help build muscle mass.
For endurance training and exercise such as long distance cycling or marathon running, nutrition is particularly important. Generally, glycogen stores will last between 90 -120 minutes, so foods need to be added to the diet that can help increase the amount of glycogen stored. Primarily it’s important to load up on carbohydrates the evening before an event; this combined with reduced activity will result in the body storing excess glycogen in the muscles. It’s important to choose complex carbohydrates such as whole wheat pasta, wholemeal bread, quinoa, and fruits and vegetables as the energy is released slowly into the blood stream and is a much more effective energy source. Simple carbohydrates such as muffins, energy bars, sports drinks, can be used as an extra energy boost during the endurance exercise. As with any athletic endeavours proteins are essential, as are the good fats, but they should not be used as your main energy source as they cannot supply enough energy at an efficient rate to ensure optimal performance.
For cardiovascular fitness, it’s all about balance. You need to make sure you’re getting enough of all the right nutrients. As the intensity being performed changes the body will switch from using carbohydrates and stored fats for energy, so it’s important to ensure that you have enough of both. Again simple carbohydrates such as white bread and sugars should be avoided as the energy is used so quickly they can be considered empty calories. If you’ve got three hours or so before a workout then you can eat a healthy meal as normal. However, if you’re eating within an hour of doing exercise, be careful not to eat too much. Whilst it’s true that the energy consumed will give your body the energy it needs, the proteins, fats and fibre will take longer to be broken down and will therefore slow down digestion. Ideal snacks for just before a workout might be low fat yoghurt, fruit, or low fat sports bar. After a workout that’s when you need to replenish energy stores and help muscles recover. A snack containing a good mix of complex carbohydrates and proteins is ideal such as hummus and wholemeal pita bread, cottage cheese and oatcakes, protein bar, or turkey salad wrap.
As well as what you eat, it’s important to consider how you eat. In order to keep an increased metabolism, it is best to eat regular small meals throughout the day. Your metabolism is the rate at which the cells in your body use the energy they are supplied with, so an increased metabolism will burn more calories and enable your body to use the energy more efficiently. Eating 5-7 times a day, or eating every 2 or 3 hours is an ideal frequency to eat for keeping your metabolism at a good rate. But remember to minimise portion sizes; eating six full meals a day is not going to do you any favours!
So there are a few tips and dietary choices you can make to optimise performance depending on the type of exercise, but as you can see, whatever sport or exercise you’re doing it’s important to get a good balance of foods to ensure you’re getting the needed nutrients. Eating a varied and balanced diet, whilst avoiding and minimising refined sugars and animal fats, is always the best option for best possible health; and an all round healthy diet is best for any exercise regime.
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