The foods we eat before and after exercise can have a big impact on our performance and recovery. Here are our top tips for snacking to get the most out of your exercise!
Hydration is an essential component of pre- and post-exercise nutrition. Adequate hydration is needed for muscle contraction, regulating body temperature and maintaining blood volume.
Exercising while dehydrated can reduce performance, as we might feel fatigued, nauseous or unable to concentrate. To make sure that you start your exercise in a well-hydrated state, drink fluid gradually before your session (instead of large gulps immediately beforehand). Depending on the temperature and duration of your exercise, you might need to hydrate during your session. Afterwards, rehydrate to replace fluids lost during exercise (especially if exercising in hot conditions). In general, water is the best choice – pair with food to replace electrolytes.
2. Avoid an upset stomach
The timing of your snacks around exercise can be the difference between a queasy stomach and a seamless workout! If you are having a meal beforehand, aim to have it 2-4 hours before your exercise to allow time for digestion. If you are having a snack beforehand, this could be 1-2 hours beforehand to fuel your workout.
Eating foods that are high in fats or fibre can slow down digestion. While it’s very important to include fats and fibre in your diet for overall health, slowed digestion with exercise may lead to an uncomfortable session. This is very individual, but it could be a good idea to choose foods that are easier to digest if eating before exercising.
3. Fuel your workout
Glucose, the main energy source for exercise, is broken down from carbohydrates and stored by the body in the form of glycogen. It’s a good idea to have carbohydrate foods before exercising to prepare your glycogen stores. This will ensure that you’ll have a good source of energy to fuel your exercise.
Let’s put this into practice: we need carbohydrate foods to fuel exercise and foods that are lower in fibre and fat before exercising. Examples of carbohydrate snacks that are easy to digest include: banana on toast, or a small serving of pasta with a tomato-based sauce, or cereal with fruit and yoghurt.
4. Be prepared
If you feel incredibly hungry after exercising, it can be difficult to think clearly about choosing a snack that promotes your goals. In this scenario, you might head to the nearest vending machine or supermarket and buy the first thing that catches your eye – which is unlikely to support your goals.
Instead, make it easy for your post-workout self and bring your own snacks. If your exercise is outdoors, choose something that can handle warmer temperatures, like a muesli/nut bar. If you’ll be exercising inside, you could consider bringing yoghurt & fruit with a cooler brick. Develop your own custom list of snacks, so that you have some easy go-to’s after exercising.
5. Choose mostly wholefoods
When selecting your pre- and post-exercise snacks, aim for mostly wholefoods. These are foods which have little added or taken away – put simply, foods in (or very close to) their natural state (e.g. fresh produce).
Why consider wholefoods when planning exercise snacks? Firstly, a pattern of choosing wholefoods over ultra-processed foods contributes to better long-term health (which is often one of our goals with exercise).
Secondly, we can get more nutrition bang for our buck with wholefoods compared to highly processed foods. For example, whey protein isolate powder is a very efficient source of protein (in terms of protein for energy). We can get the same protein for a similar amount of energy with chicken breast, plus a range of other nutrients like B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron. While supplements like protein powder can help to meet protein requirements without blowing the energy budget, it means we might miss out on the suite of essential nutrients we could otherwise get from the wholefood alternatives e.g. chicken, fish, yoghurt or eggs. This is just an example, but the principle applies for other exercise supplements such as pre-workouts, protein bars or fibre supplements.
6. Recovery nutrition
Food and drink after exercise are often termed as “recovery nutrition”. Recovery nutrition is highly individualised, but some principles for foods include:
- A good source of carbohydrate to replenish muscle fuel stores (glycogen)
- Protein to promote muscle repair
- Fluid & electrolytes for rehydration
What does this look like in food terms? Dairy foods are an excellent example of snacks that tick all the above boxes: e.g. yoghurt, flavoured milk or a smoothie made with fruit & yoghurt. Another great option with room to adjust for individual preference is a wrap/sandwich/bread roll with lean meat (e.g. chicken or tuna) and salad, plus water to drink.
7. Event or competition days
When it comes to a competition day, our advice is to keep it simple. Stick to your tried and tested snacks before an event and avoid trying new foods on the day. New snacks might have an unfamiliar effect in your body and cause a negative impact on your performance.
It’s a good idea to trial your snacks and hydration during training to help ensure that they will work for you on the day.
Remember that while the food we eat around exercise is important for performance and recovery, it only makes up a small part of our day. If you have specific health goals, the foods that you eat most of the time (i.e. the rest of the day) will have the biggest impact on working towards those goals.
If you would like support with planning your nutrition around exercise or working towards health goals, the team of Accredited Practicing Dietitians at The Healthy Eating Clinic can help. Call us on 02 6174 4663.
At The Healthy Eating Clinic, we want to equip you with habit-based nutrition advice so that you can eat well for the rest of your life! Make an appointment today