By Whitney English, CPT
Are you properly fueling your fitness? Optimal nutrition and hydration is paramount when it comes to exercise performance, and it goes way beyond your basic protein smoothie.
Without adequate nutrients, the body isn’t able to perform at its best – this could mean less stamina and endurance, or even complications like dehydration and muscle wasting. While most people know the recommendation to consume protein after a workout, that’s just part of the equation. Post-exercise nutrition involves more than meat and pre-exercise nutrition is equally important.
Here’s what you need to know:
Before Your Workout
Before working out, your body needs carbohydrates. Glucose, which is what carbs are made up of, is the body’s preferred source of fuel. During anaerobic exercise (power lifts, sprints, etc.), the body breaks down glucose for energy. As exercise continues, and oxygen is made available (aerobic exercise), the body starts to turn to fat for fuel as well, however, it still uses predominately glucose.
Glucose is stored in the body as glycogen, and when those stores are completely full, people have about 24 hours worth of energy. When that’s depleted however, fatigue sets in, or as athletes phrase it, “you hit a wall.”
Prior to exercise, you want to make sure your glycogen stores are full. A carbohydrate-rich snack within a couple of hours before exercise should do the trick. If you’ve only got about an hour, I recommend something that isn’t too heavy and that will digest quickly, like a banana or homemade granola. The last thing you want is a belly full of food!
Now this doesn’t mean that you can’t work out first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. If you had an adequate dinner the night before, with a balanced portion of complex carbs, you should be good to go.
So back to post-burn.
After Your Workout
It is accurate that after exercise you want to eat protein, especially if that exercise involved strength training. Protein will help to repair muscle tears created during exercise and prevent muscle breakdown. Sports nutrition experts recommend somewhere between 20-30 grams of protein within a two-hour window of exercise.
Now here’s the lesser-known fact. You also need carbs post-exercise. Research shows that carbohydrates actually help the body utilize protein better, decrease muscle catabolism, and help replenish those glycogen stores you used up during exercise.
Smoothies actually are a great way to get both your protein and carbohydrates after a workout. I recommend going for a mix that contains whole fruit, plant-based protein, and a healthy fat. The fiber in the fruit and the fat will help to slow digestion and blood sugar spikes, and provide long-lasting satiety.
Other great post-workout snacks include fruit and nut butter, a veggie-heavy salad with lean protein, a whole-wheat sandwich with hummus, or simple sushi (skip the fried stuff and sweet sauces).
For all my gluten-free friends, there are plenty of dishes that contain approved carbs for you too. Try my Portobello Mushroom Egg Bake (pictured here), Green Apple Green Lentil Quinoa Salad, or these Simple Healthy Chilaquiles using corn tortillas.
Last but certainly not least: Hydration. H2O is uber-important for exercise. Athletes who aren’t properly hydrated consistently demonstrate lower scores on measures of fitness performance. The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends drinking about 6-12 ounces of fluid post-workout for every 15-20 minutes of exercise. For a one-hour workout, that’s about two and half cups.
For more info on proper hydration, check out my article 4 Surprising Facts About Hydration!
Whitney English is the voice behind the health and fitness site, To Live & Diet in L.A. She is a Certified Personal Trainer with the National Academy of Sports Medicine and is currently enrolled in a Coordinated Masters Degree Program in Nutrition at the University of Southern California, with the goal of becoming a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Whitney's work has been featured on outlets like E! News, Men’s Fitness, MSN.com, SheKnows, FabFitFun, PopSugar, The Huffington Post, Shape, Buzzfeed, and many more. Whitney is originally from Tucson, AZ and has lived in L.A. for the past eight years.