Sadly, you can’t out run a bad diet. The food we eat provides the fuel our bodies need for training, competing and recovering and whether you are an athlete or recreational exerciser, it is important to effectively maintain your energy levels to make sure your body is able to function properly, to keep your immune system happy and keep your weight within the healthy range.
Getting the basics right and nourishing your body properly means you recover better and will be able to train harder, faster and more frequently.
A healthy diet involves enjoying a range of foods from all food groups, including lean meat and meat alternatives (legumes, nuts, eggs), whole grains, low fat dairy products (and dairy alternatives), good fats like avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds and always remembering to have a colourful mix of fruit and vegetables (5+ a day), with more veggies being better!
Once the basics have been mastered, it’s time to start working on the timing of our meals and snacks around exercise.
Before we can focus on event day fuelling, it is important to take it back a notch and ensure our day to day training diet is optimised. We can only compete at our best if we train at our best. There are three critical time points when it comes to eating for exercise; before, during and after.
When it comes to fuelling up for exercise, no matter what your goal, the food you eat and drink will assist in optimising your mental and physical performance. Failing to fuel up before exercise is like driving a car on empty.
We are all different but generally speaking you should enjoy a meal or snack 2-4 hours before exercising. This will help to sustain energy levels to carry out quality exercise for longer, while reducing the likelihood of an upset stomach. Besides all this, getting hungry mid training session is something we all want to avoid.
Again, we are all different, therefore we all enjoy and tolerate different foods before exercise so there is no hard and fast rule on what to eat. However, here are a few tips to get you started. Firstly, carbohydrate rich foods will ensure energy stores are maximised. Secondly, fat is slow to digest, so minimise really high fat foods in your pre-exercise diet to reduce the likelihood of gut issues. Similarly, foods high in fibre can slow digestion so choosing low fibre foods will also help to minimise gut issues. To name a few examples, sandwiches, banana or peanut butter on toast, natural muesli and yoghurt or fruit or a banana berry and oat smoothie will all fuel you well. Finally, like always, ensure you’re well hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Our body can store enough energy to sufficiently fuel us during exercise lasting up to one hour of moderate intensity. Exercising for longer or at higher intensity than this may require a top up of carbohydrates to help replenish muscle glycogen – our muscles source of energy. This will help to maintain the intensity of exercise to maximise your work out and prevent hitting the wall. Also, for skill based exercise (football, rugby or netball) keeping well fuelled increases concentration and improves decision making. Bananas are a great food to eat during exercise as are muesli bars, fruit bread and for those who are more savoury inclined, cooked cold potatoes and vegemite sandwiches work a treat. Also, it is important to keep your body well hydrated with small, frequent drinks – unless you are exercising for >90 mins, or at very high intensity, water is best.
Post exercise nutrition is all about recovering from our last bout of exercise and prepping us for the next; repairing muscles, refuelling energy stores and rehydrating our body. Recovery nutrition is always important however the harder the training session the more important it is to refuel as soon as possible (the golden recommendation is within 20 minutes of stopping). This will not only get the most out of your last training session, it will also prepare you for your next session in the following days, reduce fatigue and muscle tiredness and boost your immune system.
Our body builds and repairs muscle all hours of the day, however it is most effective at doing so in the first hour after exercise, similarly this is the time we are best at absorbing glycogen (from carbohydrates). Ideally, post work out nutrition will include a protein and carbohydrate based meal/snack within 60 minutes of exercise.
If you are heading straight home for your next meal, make the most of this timing and include a serve of high quality protein (e.g. lean meat, chicken or fish, low fat dairy products or tofu) as well as a serve of quality carbohydrates (grainy bread, rice, quinoa, wholegrain cereal, kumara, potato). If your next meal is more than an hour after your training enjoy a healthy snack that contains both protein and carbohydrates (smoothie with banana, berries and milk or yoghurt and natural muesli).
And of course, rehydrate.
We should not underestimate the importance of keeping well hydrated. Dehydration can cause drowsiness, lethargy and early fatigue, all of which decrease our exercise performance. We don’t always know when we are dehydrated but a fluid loss as small as 1% can cause a decrease in performance because of this, we should always be well hydrated before exercise and drink enough fluid during and after exercise to replenish fluid losses. Aim to have a minimum of 2L of water spread across the day, depending on the intensity of your work out and temperature of the day this may differ. An effective way to gauge your hydration is by looking at your urine, it should be a pale yellow colour.
Getting the balance right
Whilst exercising can make you work up an appetite, don’t take this as a free pass to indulge in chips, chocolate and a cider each night, as this may lead to increased fat mass and other health complications. However, whilst being careful not to over consume energy, we need to be just as aware of under consumption of energy, there is a fine line between the two and this is where a Sports Dietitian can be of great help.
When there is insufficient energy left after exercising for our normal physiological functions we go into a state called low energy availability. Low energy availability can lead to a web of health issues, particularly relating to reproductive and bone health. Surprisingly it can also cause our metabolism to slow down, our body’s way of conserving energy. Our metabolism is what burns our fuel, the faster our metabolism the more fuel we burn. Therefore, allowing ourselves to go into a state of low energy availability is not only detrimental to our health it can also reduce exercise performance and inhibit us meeting body composition goals.
It is always important to remember, every one of us is different and although we can provide generic advice the specifics will always depend on the individual; food preferences, type of exercise and individual requirements (gut issues, dietary restrictions, age, gender etc) all need to be considered. Experiment during training to determine what works best for you. This will ensure that you have an enjoyable, comfortable and successful competition or race day.
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