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Jonny Holland, Performance Nutritionist shares top tip for fueling for exercise and performance. 

Eating to fuel your exercise and performance is a good idea no matter what your goals are. Most people that I see on a day to day basis over complicate eating with exercise but it’s something that should be simplified more often than not. Too often I hear people say “I don’t know what to eat and when”.

Yeah, it will get more detailed for the hardcore marathon runner or triathlete in the office but most people need to start with the basics and shouldn’t get too bogged down in what is the most optimal choice.

When I speak about performance I don’t mean elite performance. Everyone wants to perform to their best. After all, if you perform well you will probably have enjoyed yourself which will help you to go out exercising again and you’ll build a habit over time.

Different goals will change how you fuel and recover from exercise. High intensity exercise such as team sports, repeated sprint efforts, spinning and gym sessions are all fueled predominantly by carbohydrates. Lower intensity sports and activities have less of a reliance on carbohydrates unless they are for a prolonged period of time.

Regardless of your goal you should be looking to eat some protein around 1-2 hours either side of your exercise. This could be some milk, lean meat, fish, whey protein, yogurt or a mixture of legumes and lentils. Protein helps to repair and build muscle which will be used no matter what type of exercise you are doing.

The next thing you should be thinking about is carbohydrate. What type of exercise are you doing? How intense is it? How long will it go on for? What time of the day is it? The higher the intensity and the longer the exercise session goes on the more carbohydrate you will need to have. You can store carbohydrate in your muscle so you don’t need to eat a large portion just before you set off on your run but having some carbohydrates before your exercise can be a good idea.

The most difficult part of pre exercise nutrition is managing your digestion and that’s where the quality and quantity of your food becomes very individual. Some people can eat on the way into the gym and others need to eat 2-3 hours beforehand so they don’t feel sick during a workout. The closer you get to your exercise the simpler the digestion of that food should be. For example, fibre and dietary fat both slow down digestion. Therefore, the closer you get to exercising the less of these you would include in your meal. If you are eating 2-3 hours away from your exercise then you can include a bit more fibre and fat.

Foods that are high in fat are nuts and seeds, oils and nut butters. High fibre foods are some fruits, cruciferous vegetables, potatoes containing the skin and wholegrains.

Some people like to exercise in a fasted state and that’s fine too but the emphasis should be on getting a high protein meal soon enough after the workout is finished. There has been plenty of talk surrounding fasted sessions burning more fat. This isn’t the same as burning more body fat. You will burn the same amount of calories in a fasted or fed state so body fat levels will react the same way if body composition changes are your sole focus. There may be some benefits to fasted training if you’re at more of an elite level and looking for adaptations to that training session but fasted sessions should be used as part of a balanced programme and not done all the time.

Some good examples of pre workout snacks are:

  • Greek yogurt with fruit and granola
  • Avonmore protein milk
  • Whey protein with some fruit
  • Slim bagel with turkey slices and relish
  • Glass of milk
  • Oats/cereals/cereal bars with low fat milk
  • Smoothie (banana, berries, whey protein/yogurt, milk/water and add oats if you need more carbohydrate)

Post workout meals will depend on when you’re training again. If you are doing two sessions in one day or training with the same muscle groups within the next 24 hours then you should be looking to consume some protein with carbohydrates.

Examples of these are:

  • Sweet chilli chicken stir fry with vegetables and low oil content
  • Lean steak, sweet potato and vegetables
  • Chicken/turkey wrap with relish, salad and a piece of fruit
  • Cereals/porridge oats with a yogurt and fruit
  • Smoothie (same as above)
  • Chocolate milk
  • Lentil and quinoa curry

If you’re not training within the next 24 hours you can open up your options to include some healthy, unsaturated fats. These meals can include:

  • Omelette cooked in olive oil/rapeseed oil with bacon medallions or smoked salmon
  • Poached eggs with avocado on toast.
  • Tuna and cheese toastie

Make sure to drink plenty of fluid before, during and after a workout. Dehydration will affect physical and mental energy. Milk is promoted as an excellent pre and post training drink because of the combination of protein, carbs and electrolytes which aid hydration status so don’t ditch the cow’s milk for milk substitutes just yet.

A lot of people drink coffee or use caffeine supplements before training. These can aid performance and cognition but make sure you’re getting the most out of these drinks. Caffeine takes 45-60 minutes to reach peak blood concentrations so aim to have your coffee or pre workout drink before you leave the house or office.

Caffeine also has a half life of about 5 hours so you won’t run out of juice too quickly. This can however upset your sleeping pattern so caution should be taken when training in the evening.

What you eat before and after exercise will improve your performance, recovery and general health. Play around with different meals, snacks and timings and find what suits you as an individual. What works for you may not work for someone else.