Updated: Apr 23, 2019
Food can make or break a workout. We’ve all been there, you thought that protein bar would be the perfect pre-workout snack, but midway into your run, you’re not so sure anymore. Most of us enjoy food for the pleasure, however, it’s important to remember that food is more than just yummy flavors and textures; food is fuel for your body. If you don’t properly fuel up before a workout, believe me, you will regret it. Here's what you need to know about how to eat for a great workout.
What Nutrients Are Essential For Optimal Performance?
Our bodies perform best when they are sufficiently powered through the consumption of key nutrients. This means that simply by eating certain types of food, we can get the most out of our workouts. For example, nutritionists advocate for eating a diet consisting of 50% carbohydrates, 30% fat, and 15% protein. Yes, I’m telling you that 50% of your diet should be carbs! The main function of carbs is to provide your body with energy. They do this by breaking down glucose, which is the main energy source for the human body. This is the reason that endurance athletes, such as marathon runners, fuel their workout with slow-burning carbs, like oatmeal; they need to make sure they have enough energy to last them the duration of the run.
Protein builds and maintains muscle mass. This explains why body builders incorporate a lot of protein into their diets. Protein, like carbs, also acts as a source of energy. Some diets, like the paleo diet, teach the body to derive its energy solely from protein, not carbs.
Fats are also essential for optimum nutrition. Why is that? You guessed it; fats are yet another source of energy for the body. When the body finishes burning carbs, it turns to fat. This is why high intensity exercise is effective for burning fats. The body quickly burns carbs, so it switches to fats. Don’t be fooled though, the body needs some fat. Besides providing an energy source, fat also protects organs and absorbs vitamins.
The Best Pre-Workout Foods
It’s important to realize that the nutrient ratios that constitute optimal health may not necessarily make the best pre-workout meal. For example, while steak is a great source of protein, it is probably not the best idea to eat a steak before working out. Instead, choose your pre-workout foods based on the type of exercise you will be doing. As we saw earlier, endurance exercises, like running, should be preceded by slow-burning carbs. Some examples of good pre-endurance workout foods are bananas, brown rice, real-food granola or protein bars (such as RX Bars), and whole-grain bread with natural nut butter. All of these foods are easily broken down into simple sugars, which will provide the body with the best source of energy for an endurance workout.
If you are doing a lifting workout, you should also eat mostly carbs, however, you should also add in a protein. For example, have a piece of toast with an egg. Eggs are a great, low-calorie but high-protein food. You’ll want to make sure you have a bit of protein before and after lifting in order to help your muscles grow and recover.
No matter what type of workout you’re doing, you’ll want to make sure that you don’t eat too far in advance, but also avoid eating right before exercising. It varies by person, but a good rule of thumb is to eat about an hour before exercising. This allows your body to partially digest the food, and harvest the energy. However, it is far enough in advance that you’ll have less of a chance of getting sick during your workout. Also, it’s crucial that you don’t eat too much before working out. Try to have a light snack, but it’s better to be a little hungry than too full while exercising.
What About Eating After a Workout?
It’s absolutely necessary to fuel your body after a workout, as well as before. You need to restore the nutrients you lost, so have a protein-rich snack, along with plenty of water. If you sweat a lot, you’ll need more than just water in order to replenish electrolytes. Avoid sugary recovery drinks, though. Instead, choose a water supplement, such as NUUN, that’s low in sugar and calories, but restores the vital nutrients that leave the body through sweat. Remember, properly fueling your body has positive effects in all aspects of life.
Photos by Emma Steiner
Originally published by Spoon University.