When it comes to performance, timing matters. Consuming the right fuel at the right time is a crucial part of performing your best as an athlete or active individual. Without proper fueling strategies, athletes are at risk for poor performance, injury, nutritional deficiency and extreme fatigue.
Figuring out what works best for you takes trial and error. While it’s recommended that athletes work with a sports dietitian to fine-tune what is best for their sport and individual body, there are fundamental guidelines everyone can follow.
“Eating before a workout is critical.”
Eating before a workout is critical because it supplies your body with energy, prevents dehydration, delays or prevents fatigue and even enhances mental focus. Optimally, you should consume a meal 3–4 hours prior to training. Of course, this isn’t always possible.
The longer you have between eating and training, the larger and more complex your meal can be — as there is more time for digestion. This meal should be higher in easy-to-digest carbohydrates so as to not stress the GI system while also providing easy-to-use energy. This meal should also contain small amounts of protein and fat to provide satiety. However, you should avoid fibrous foods to lessen the risk of having an upset stomach while training. Too much fiber, fat and protein delay the rate at which carbohydrates can be digested and utilized for energy, which is not great when you need energy to perform.
Then, just before training or racing, top off your energy stores with a quick-burning carbohydrate snack like a banana, sports drink or sports gel. To prevent dehydration while training, sip water (in some cases a sports beverage) frequently prior to starting your workout session.
“For short sessions lasting less than 90 minutes, it may not be necessary to take in additional fuel.”
What to consume while working out largely depends on how long and how intense your training is. Carbohydrates are the macronutrient used most for fast energy and should be consumed almost exclusively during workouts. Fats and protein can aid in satiety, recovery and mental focus during endurance training.
For short sessions lasting less than 90 minutes, it may not be necessary to take in additional fuel. To get a slight edge for shorter, more intense workouts, try adding a small bit of sports drink, sports drink rinse or gel to top off energy supplies. For longer workouts more than 90 minutes, aim to consume 30–90 grams of carbohydrates per hour. This large range of carbohydrate intake depends on your gut tolerance and type of training.
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“Resist the urge to think of this meal as a free for all.”
Your training might be over, but your role in performance isn’t complete just yet. To help your body recover quickly and be ready for the next workout session, you need recovery food — and fast. Aim to consume a small meal or snack of carbs and protein (like chocolate milk) as soon as possible after your workout ends, preferably within 30 minutes to optimize recovery benefits.
At this time, you should also be thinking of replenishing the fluids you lost. To do this, replace each pound lost during training with about 16 ounces of fluids. Once you’ve had time to stretch, shower, etc., it’s time for a full, balanced meal to completely refuel your body. Aim to get back to ‘normal’ eating 2–3 hours after training. This meal should be health-forward, consisting of complex carbohydrates (Think: squash, quinoa, oats), lean protein, healthful fats and fibrous produce to get your body back on track with normal digestion and nutrient balance. Resist the urge to think of this meal as a free for all — keep in mind you’re eating for performance. There is a big difference between eating to train hard and working out to ‘earn’ treat calories.
Adapting these basic fueling strategies will help you achieve peak performance with lower risk of injury and fatigue.
Stay tuned for more detailed sports nutrition information!