Just as with a car engine, your body needs fuel to run—or bike, swim, hike, climb, ski, work out in the gym—particularly at higher intensity levels when you’re active. That’s why it’s important to feed your body healthy fuel to ensure that you restore what your body has lost during intensive training. Here’s how to do it.
Fact 1: Food is power.
Food provides the body with a justification and mechanism to run, jump and play when and where we want to regardless of terrain, ambient temperature and oxygen load. Food can be absorbed and/or metabolized immediately, if conditions are favorable and need is presented—like drinking a sports drink before a workout—or later stored as specific macronutrients for future endeavors.
If the body does not recoup spent energy (generally carbohydrates/sugar) as quickly as possible, it will most likely tap muscle tissue for immediate metabolic needs, which in turn intensifies a post-inflammatory response. In other words, your body will have a difficult time recovering, healing and getting stronger if it’s not given the right fuel post-workout.
Fact 2: Not all food generates potential energy equally.
Carbohydrates can be quickly consumed, absorbed and converted to energy (ATP) for all types of exercise. That’s why grocery store shelves are loaded with carb-infused sports and performance bars, drinks, gels, etc. Unfortunately, as carb consumption increases with need, so does the dependency. In fact, as insulin rises due to carb load, fat is prevented and limited from making energy contributions to your body while you’re active, which is not ideal, particularly for longer workouts—unless you like running with a Gatorade IV in your veins.
Fat, on the other hand, is more metabolically efficient and can provide us with seemingly “unlimited” ATP with fewer consequences. The only problem is time and intensity—it takes time for the body to access and break down fat for exercise. The general rule is if you can say your name comfortably during your one-plus hour of exercise, you are in a good position to burn off some fat stores.
Protein is the least efficient nutrient to be converted to ATP because the body does not like to waste the amino acids in protein if it can help it. But the body will metabolize them, particularly when diet is not adequate.
Fact 3: Menu planning matters.
Meal planning is the most important variable you can control, other than your workouts, to maximize your athletic potential. There are three phases on what you should eat and when you should eat it to fuel your sport to get the most benefit.
Phase 1: Preparation
The objective in this phase is to prepare the body for performance. If we assume that that the body is needing carbs, fluid, a handful of important amino acids, plus vitamins and minerals to get it started, then a meal plan should reflect this. Timing is critical as the body needs time to move and store macro- and micronutrients in the muscles, liver, blood, etc.
If the workout is hours away, eat sensibly with purpose. I generally recommend a moderate load of starchy vegetables and/or fruity carbs (between 45-60 grams), a quality plant-based or leaner meat- or dairy-based protein (around 20 grams), and plenty of fluids (at least 16 ounces). Healthy fats like nuts, seeds or avocado are preferred, but optional. Electrolytes are generally in our foods that we consume and not factored in until your start exercising for duration.
If the workout is within one hour, I recommend “topping off” glycogen stores with an easily digestible carb, such as a small energy bar, a piece of fruit (banana, raisins, watermelon) or a carb-loaded sports drink. In addition, it’s important to stay hydrated. Drink as tolerated, but consume at least 8 ounces of liquid 15 minutes prior to a workout.
If the workout is early in the morning, it is imperative to stock up on fluids and some carbs if your workout is longer than 30 minutes. Otherwise, you will feel really “hangry” and your workout could be compromised.
Phase 2: Sustaining
The objective during this phase is to maintain blood sugars for fueling your central nervous system, and to a lesser degree muscles, to keep hydrated with fluids and electrolytes, and to continue introducing helpful amino acids and fatty acids into the metabolic equation.
If your workout is less than one hour regardless of intensity, keep hydrated with water. There is no need for extra sugar as your body is going to utilize pre-existing carbs, protein and fat stores for energy. A sports drink would not be the worst thing, but if you don’t wish to add extra sugar calories in your system, no need to consume one.
If your workout is 1 to 2 hours, I would strongly recommend refueling your carbs every 45 minutes. Opt for a chug of a sports drink every 10 minutes or refuel with a portable snack or two, like bars, gels, salted crunchy things, ripe fruit, etc. What you choose depends on the type of training, preference for sweet or salty and convenience. Electrolytes should be considered, especially if you prefer drinking water only. In that specific case, I would introduce electrolytes drops into water or make sure you are eating something with salt.
On hydration, consume 4 to 8 ounces of liquid every 15 to 20 minutes of continual exercising. A drink with moderate caffeine is okay.
If your training exceeds 2 hours, add a 20-gram protein bar plus a handful of raw nuts for every 2 hours you train.
Phase 3: Recovery
This phase is sometimes lost in translation. Recovery actually starts before the workout ends and it never stops. The act of doing exercise breaks the body down, and it takes effort from the body to fix it back up so you can exercise again and again.
Within 20 minutes of stopping exercise, your highest priority is to refuel with lost carbs, fluids/electrolytes and amino acids. At this point, consider eating or drinking the last of your sports drinks/water, bars, nuts, fruit. Listen to your body: If you are hungry, eat and drink!
After a workout, I recommend consuming a moderate, well-balanced meal or a series of well-planned snacks with 60-plus grams of carbs, around 30 grams of protein and 10-20 grams of fat. Drink fluids generously. I don’t encourage “junk eating.” The body needs foods that restore, heal and promote an anabolic effect. Eat sensibly with healthier options in mind. Whole grains and/or legumes, a good source of protein (can be plant-based), healthy fats (like nuts, avocado or even fatty fish), and an abundance of dark colored veggies and fruit. I personally like to finish with some dark chocolate for added yumminess and the healing benefits.
It is amazing how the body responds favorably with a well-planned menu. Eat with purpose or function in mind. Plan ahead. There are no guarantees, but I assure you, if you do not supply the body what it needs, recovery will be long and ugly.