If you’ve worked up the motivation to leave the couch to participate in any type of exercise or workout, good for you—that’s half the battle. The other essential half of the workout equation is eating the right foods. Thankfully, fueling your workouts doesn’t need to be complicated.
Workout nutrition is about both optimizing performance and improving recovery. Real, nutrient dense food can be enough and will provide all the basic components you need to fuel your workout not just efficiently, but optimally. There is no hidden secret to going harder, faster, stronger! It’s not complicated: In essence, nutrient density is the ratio of actual nutrient content (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids) to the total energy content (calories) in a particular food.
There are, a few exceptions where you may require a more targeted approach:
- An endurance athlete training for high-level competition.
- Training as a bodybuilder with serious muscle growth in mind.
- Getting ready for a fitness competition.
If you’re exercising for general health and fitness, with modest goals and no unique physiological needs, you probably don’t need any particular workout nutrition strategies. Focus on food quality and quantity. Choose minimally processed proteins, vegetables, healthy fats and whole-food carbohydrates. Eat enough for your needs and ensure your portions are the right size, for you.
What are real foods? Find out here
When it comes to proteins, fats and carbohydrates, it’s important to understand how much you really need.
Protein is definitely important when discussing exercise, athletic performance and recovery. It is not a workout fuel as your body does not utilize protein as fuel for any kind of exercise. Athletes need protein for functional uses and to build muscles. For that purpose, most athletes do not need more than the average daily requirement of between 1.2 - 2.2 grams/kg of body weight per day.
Protein should not be your chief source of calories, but it is important you can meet your body’s needs, especially for muscle-building exercises. Real food options, both animal and plant-based, can be sufficient. There is no need to start buying unnecessary, high priced protein shakes that are definitely not ideal for optimal health.
When it comes to timing, the research is unclear on the effectiveness of both pre- and post-workout protein consumption. Although there is little definitive proof of it being a huge advantage, eating some protein both before and after your workout probably has some benefit and certainly will not hurt.
You have probably heard the much-repeated idea that athletes need a lot of carbohydrates. They give you energy and keep you going through your exercise program. Carbohydrates should make up to 70% of an athlete's (and every else’s) diet and if you give up on your sugars and processed grain products, your muscles will wither away and you may not make it to your next workout session. This can be slightly true for some. Low carbohydrate diets work really well for certain people and certain conditions, but they are not for everyone. Most people do better with a moderate amount of carbohydrates for exercise, especially if the exercise intensity is significant.
When your body needs fuel, it has one of 2 options: carbohydrates or fats. At very low intensities, fat is the primary fuel source. As the intensity increases, carbohydrate usage increases as a proportion of the total.
Very low intensity (walking, doing dishes, weeding the garden) requires low total energy expenditure which is derived predominantly from fat.
Moderate intensity (recreational bike rides, easy jogging) begins to demand a higher total energy expenditure, still predominantly from fat but with a fair percentage from carbs.
High intensity (sprinting, HIIT, CrossFit) begins to decrease fat usage and increase the reliance on carbohydrate for fuel as the intensity increases.
You might think that increasing carbohydrate consumption is only important for sprinters and weightlifters. This is misleading. Even moderate intensity workouts need some carbohydrates. In fact, since 30 minutes of jogging burns more calories during the activity than an hour of weightlifting, you may end up needing a greater absolute amount of carbohydrate for the jogging, even if the relative carbohydrate usage is lower.
How many carbohydrates you might need is very individual. That being said, the amount recommended by the US Dietary Guidelines is most probably too high for most people. Your specific needs will be dependent on your age, sex, activity level, and all the other factors affecting your recovery.
Instead of fixating on precise percentages of diet, try experimenting with your own food and discovering what allows you to feel your best. Most active people both feel and perform better when they include some carbohydrates in their eating plan. Extremely low carbohydrate diets can slow down and hinder your recovery. Ketosis is not ideal for athletic performance, especially in those activities that work the muscles to exhaustion but some athletes thrive on lower carbohydrate intakes. As long as you are consuming sufficient carbohydrates to fuel your own performance goals, then you are eating the perfect amount of carbohydrate for you.
Real foods can be a great source of carbohydrate and you do not need processed foods, gels and bars to get adequate amounts of carbohydrates for your performance. There are many delicious and highly nutritious sources of carbohydrates found in nature including:
- Seasonal fruits
- Root vegetables
- Winter squash
- Alternative roots including cassava and tapioca
- Whole grains
Fat is often underappreciated as an exercise fuel. There is a lot of evidence that supports using fats as an alternate energy source, especially when reducing your carbohydrate load. Fat is particularly important for aerobic exercise (like long-distance running), because fat is the fuel your body prefers to burn during this kind of activity.
Both the quantity and quality of these fats are important. Choosing unrefined, minimally processed fats means you are eating plenty of healthy fatty acids whilst avoiding those which can become problematic.
A few naturally occurring options include:
- Animal fats (and bacon)
- Egg yolks
- Coconut oil
- Olives and olive oil
- Avocados and avocado oil
- Nuts and seeds
On an even more basic level than getting the right macronutrient ratios, to achieve optimum athletic performance you need to eat enough food. Adequate calorie intake is important to support your athletic goals the amount of energy your actually require if often surprising.
This does not mean you need to begin counting calories, which for many, is probably not the best option. However, if athletic performance is a priority for you, you need to make a big effort to eat enough food. Eating enough food also means eating enough fat. If you begin to feel post-workout exhaustion or your performance is suffering, eat more.
Read more on fats and download your fat guide here
A common question around fueling a workout is whether nutrient timing matters. For most fitness enthusiasts nutrient timing does not matter as much as you think, especially when compared to what you eat consistently overall in a given 24-hour period.
Studies have confirmed that the “post-workout” window or “perfect time” for eating a post-workout meal really only matters if you have not been fueling consistently or eating adequately.
Whether you eat 30-minutes after a workout or 2 to 3 hours after a workout is seen pretty much the same way to the body if you are meeting your daily energy needs.
The food you eat today actually impacts tomorrow's workouts and performance more than today’s, based on digestion and maximum power output since glycogen stores (energy for your muscles) are usually replenished within a 24-hour period (provided that daily energy needs are met).
As a recreational athlete you are most likely getting sufficient carbohydrate in your daily diet, regardless of timing. It is way more important to get enough carbohydrates for your optimal performance on a daily basis than being overly concerned with timing.
For the majority of people without athletic competitions on the horizon, the workout meals will contain some combination of high-quality protein, high quality carbohydrates, healthy fats, and some fruits and vegetables. These whole foods provide the perfect blend of nutrients: protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients that build muscle, supply energy, decrease inflammation, and boost recovery.
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Complicated schemes of nutrient timing might be the athletic advantage created between winning an Olympic gold versus an Olympic silver medal, but stressing over these types of details is not necessary for most recreational athletes. Eat enough food; eat enough protein, fat, and carbohydrates without obsessing over any one of them, and spend your time thinking about more important things like how much fun it is to move your body and challenge its physical and athletic limits.