Sports nutrition is one of the most debated and contested fields in science right now. With the traditional high carbohydrate approach under siege from the low carb high fat proponents there has never been more confusion. Personally, I think it is a good thing because sports nutrition needs an overhaul and the traditional approaches have resulted in a number of products and recommendations that have ended up damaging health (such as sports drinks and chocolate milk) more than helping people perform better.
My approach is based on the principle that high performance is only possible if we are as healthy as possible. I’ve broken it down into 3 steps based on what you can eat before, during and after your workouts to perform great in your movement practice, and to improve your health at the same time. It is a simple approach that works if you stick to it over the long term.
Step 1: Eat Smarter Before Exercise
The most important thing you need to do before your workout is to provide your blood, organs, muscles, and brain with the fuels that you need to perform. To do your workout at your best you will need a supply of water, amino acids (protein), and glucose (carbohydrate). You can get glucose from your blood and from stored glycogen in your muscles and liver. For most people most of the time you can get everything that you need from a well-balanced reasonable meal about 2-3 hours before your workout or practice.
Your pre-workout meal should have some protein, complex carbohydrates, fibre, antioxidants, and a small amount of healthy fats. Protein will help to help preserve your muscle mass and to make sure that there are amino acids in your blood when your muscles need them. Carbohydrates will help to fuel your muscles and preserve your muscle and liver glycogen stores. I recommend eating real foods and not sports drinks and gels. If you are trying to lose fat and increase your muscle mass, then you can emphasize protein more than carbohydrate and move more of your carbohydrates to after your workout. Healthy fats help to provide your body with vitamins and minerals and can help to manage the inflammatory process.
Most people are constantly dehydrated so drinking some water before your workout will help you perform at your best during practice. I fill up my water bottle with cold water and the juice from ½ of a fresh lemon or lime along with a small pinch of sea salt. If I feel like I need an energy boost, then I’ll also add a teaspoon of raw organic honey. If I have a strength training workout, I’ll add some branch-chain amino acids.
For morning workouts, if you are into performing at a higher level, or you have a hard workout planned then it is a good idea to have a pre-exercise snack to make sure you have enough nutrients in your blood and muscle to fuel your activities. Your pre-workout snack should be no more than a cup in volume and you should eat it 60-30 minutes before your workout. Because starches/carbs are turned to sugar in the blood easily, this snack should be carbohydrate centred. Protein, fat and fibre take a long time to digest, making them less than ideal just before a workout. Indigestion will remind you of this if you have a fish and chip dinner just before your boot camp class! Ideally, this starchy snack will be easily digested and convenient. Examples include fresh fruit, oatmeal, mashed sweet potatoes, rice crackers with organic nut butter, carrots and hummus, quinoa salad and squash. Pre-workout smoothies are excellent as the blender can help to break down the foods to make them easier to digest and absorb.
Today's POWER-UP: Key Points for Fuelling Before your Workout
Eat a meal that is high in carbs about two to three hours before exercise (about 60g). This meal should include protein, fat, fibre, and antioxidants as well.
If you are limited to/prefer eating closer to your training, try a smaller high GI carbohydrate meal +BCAA. If you are eating less than an hour before a workout, you may want to consider a liquid form of fuel such as a smoothie.
Practice and tweak these recommendations to find what fits with YOUR body and YOUR schedule. Nutrition is highly individual!
Dive Deeper: Examples of Pre-Workout Carbohydrates to Start Your Workout Right
If you are exercising in the morning, a great option is oatmeal and banana. This will give you enough carbohydrates with low glycemic load to keep your blood sugar steady into your workout. If you feel you would like a little more protein and fat, you could mix in some nut butter (almond or peanut), or even a scoop of protein powder if you are eating well ahead of your training.
In the afternoon you may need a snack if your lunch is too long before your workout. Banana and nut butter on whole grain toast is another great option for a high carbohydrate meal.
If you feel that you need something a bit more substantial, you might choose to have a bigger meal of fish, quinoa or rice with some sweet potato and other veggies. Remember, everyone reacts differently to food and exercise and you need to practice and refine what works best for you.
If you are an athlete who needs a snack within the hour before exercise, applesauce makes a nice, easily digestible snack. Applesauce is easily transported and could be a great snack to leave in your bag in case you need a little more fuel before a workout. Another whole food option is banana oat balls. Simply mash a banana with 1 cup of oats (double or triple this to make many more) and form little balls. Bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. These are another great high carb, easily digestible, easily transportable snack if you are feeling a little hungry before a training session.