Whether you are trying to lose weight, put on muscle, or simply get fitter - how you eat is just as important as the training you do. If you've made a good start with your fitness plan, but are struggling to take your training to the next level, you may find that when you eat, as well as what you eat, could play a big part in pushing the boundaries. This is for two main reasons:
• What and when you eat plays a huge part in how you feel when you exercise and therefore can influence how hard you push yourself. You should be pushing yourself to the limits every training session, and you're not going to make much progress if you go to the gym feeling sluggish and end up plodding along on the treadmill, hardly breaking a sweat.
• What you eat before and after exercise can affect muscle recovery and therefore to maximise on your hard work, getting the right fuel at the right times can lead to faster progress.
So, here are four tips to make your eating habits work for you to maximise the results from your training:
1. Eat a healthy breakfast
This rule applies whatever your goals may be. Most of the energy you got from your dinner the previous night will be used up by the morning, meaning your muscle glycogen (stored carbohydrates that power your training), will likely be low. And whether trying to gain muscle or lose weight, you're not going to get much out of your morning gym session if you're feeling tired or lightheaded when you exercise. So make sure to eat to give your body the energy it needs to get a really productive session in.
Despite many people claiming that eating breakfast 'kickstarts' your metabolism, there is no clear evidence of this. But there are definitely benefits: it has been shown that people who eat breakfast tend to expend more energy during the day (1). And especially if you have a high fibre breakfast, you are likely to feel fuller for longer, reducing the likelihood of making poor food choices later in the day (2). So even if you don’t work out in the morning, getting a healthy breakfast in will set you up for the day and lead to healthier habits. The best quick breakfasts for providing complex carbohydrates needed to fuel your sessions, along with protein for muscle recovery and fibre to keep you full, include:
· A smoothie, made with at least 50% vegetables, mixed with fruit, water, plus a vegan protein powder
· Wholegrain toast with peanut butter or homemade chia seed jam
· Porridge made with almond milk, topped with a nut butter and sliced fruit
2. Size of your meals
On the other side of things, if you eat too much before a workout, you may feel slowed down and sluggish. As a general guideline:
• Large meals - leave at least 3 hours before exercising
• Small meals - leave at least 2 hours before exercising
• Snacks - eat these 30-60 minutes before exercising
3. Eating after you exercise
Muscle protein breakdown occurs during exercise. But don’t worry, it's the process you have to go through to promote muscle protein synthesis (muscle growth), which increases for up to 48 hours after working out. Because muscle protein synthesis peaks immediately after exercise, then reduces over time, intake of dietary protein soon after exercise is important to maximise muscle growth. However, this 'window of opportunity' is not as small as many gym-goers believe, so you do not need to instantly rush to neck a protein shake within five minutes of your workout – up to 30 minutes is fine. This is especially true if you follow tip number one, as the protein you consume in the hours before your workout will by now be absorbed and available in the bloodstream to aid muscle recovery and growth. In fact, spreading your protein intake more evenly during the day after training is more effective at promoting muscle growth than fewer, larger intakes of protein (3).
An equally important factor is making sure to consume carbohydrates after you exercise, because this inhibits the muscle protein breakdown that occurs during, and for a while after, your training. Eating carbohydrates, especially simple sugary carbohydrates, quickly increase blood sugar levels, and this triggers the release of insulin to try and bring blood sugar levels back down. Usually, you would want to avoid insulin spikes, but after exercise, increased insulin helps to drive nutrients, including amino acids, into the muscle cells, preventing muscle protein breakdown (4). So a small glass of fruit juice, some natural sweets or dextrose tablets, or a tablespoon of jam / syrup along with your protein source will aid muscle recovery, without promoting fat gain. Eating carbohydrates on the days you train also ensures that you replenish your muscle glycogen so you are ready to perform your best on your next session.
So, in short, make sure to consume protein (10-20g) and simple carbohydrates (15-40g, depending on the intensity of your workout, your weight, your goals, etc) soon after your workouts, even if you are following a low carbohydrate diet. And make sure to spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day, not just immediately after training, as muscle protein synthesis will continue for up to 48 hours after you’ve finished.
4. Stay hydrated
You need to drink enough fluids to avoid becoming dehydrated before, during, and after your workouts. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends to:
· Drink about 2-3 cups of water during the 2-3 hours before your workout.
· Drink about 1-2 cups of water every 30-40 minutes during your workout. This can be adjusted according to your workout intensity and the weather.
· Drink about 2-3 cups of water for every pound of weight you lose during the exercise.
Most importantly - learn from your experiences!
Everyone is different when it comes to eating around exercise, and will depend on your fitness levels, your goals, your weight, and personal preferences. Notice how your body feels during workouts in response to your eating patterns and how your diet affects the progress you make, so you can adapt to what works best for you to achieve your fitness goals sooner.
1. Wyatt, H., Grunwald, G., Mosca, C., Klem, M., Wing, R., & Hill, J. (2002). Long-term weight loss and breakfast in subjects in the National Weight Control Registry. Obesity Research, 10(2), 78-82.
2. Turconi G, Bazzano R, Caramella R, Porrini M, Crovetti R, Lanzola E (1995). The effects of high intakes of fibre ingested at breakfast on satiety. Eur J Clin Nutr. 49: 281-285.
3. Areta, J., Burke, L., Ross, M., Camera, D., West, D., Broad, E., Coffey, V. (2013). Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. Journal of Physiology, 591(9), 2319-2331.
4. Biolo, & Wolfe. (1993). Insulin action on protein metabolism. Bailliere's Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 7(4), 989-1005.