Feeling the burn is one thing but will your diet ensure you don’t burn out? Whether you’re a casual gym bunny or you’re in training for an event such as a marathon or triathlon, what you eat can make all the difference between optimal performance and physical collapse. Eating the right foods to support your fitness regime can help to improve performance, avoid injuries and even speed up recovery, but when it comes to fit foods, few of us give nutrition the consideration it deserves.
“The energy for exercise comes from the different foods and drinks we consume. The more you exercise, the more energy you will need,” says sports dietitian Alison Garth, Gatorade Fellow at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). “This means increasing the amount you’re eating but remembering to choose nutritious options.”
Yet it is precisely in choosing nutritious options that so many of us make mistakes, says exercise physiologist Dr Adam Fraser, co-author of The Good Enough Diet. “I think we lack self-awareness about what we eat across the board. I see a lot of people make elementary errors around their diet when they’re trying to eat for their physical activity level,” he explains. Dr Fraser says the most common mistakes people make are dramatically limiting or cutting out carbohydrates in the belief it will help them lose weight, or overloading on carbs in a bid to “fuel up”.
“If people start running and think, ‘I can pig out and eat as much pasta as I want’, that will make them put on weight if they’re not doing enough exercise,” he says. “(But) I (also) see people doing a hell of a lot of exercise who decide to go on a no-carb diet, which is a disaster. “They’re burning up protein and muscle; it’s a bad idea.”
Naturopathic nutritionist Teresa Mitchell-Paterson, from the Australian College of Natural Therapies, agrees that many are mystified by the carbohydrate conundrum. “I think people think they have to increase carbohydrates without necessarily looking at what sort,” she says. “It’s got to be the ‘right’ carbs: a low-GI carbohydrate will sustain energy levels (but) there are times when high-GI carbs are needed, too.”
AIS guidelines for daily carbohydrate refuelling needs for a person training less than 60-90 minutes a day is just five to seven grams per kilo of body weight. So with so many mixed messages out there, just what does the optimum diet for an energetic exerciser look like?
Ready, set, GO!
It’s a common — but incorrect — belief that eating before exercising means the body burns only the calories consumed and not stored fat. Many fitness fanatics for whom weight loss is a goal therefore dutifully train on an empty stomach, only to struggle through their workout feeling tired, weak and lightheaded. In fact, eating a light snack before an intense workout is recommended. “Eating before training helps top up your body’s fuel and ensures you’re well hydrated,” says Alison Garth.
“Your preferences, tolerance and the type of session you’re about to do will influence the type and timing of what you eat before a session but, in general, a carbohydrate-containing meal could be consumed two to three hours prior and, if needed, a lighter snack in the one or two hours prior to the session.”
Eating a large meal immediately before exercising can lead to stomach upsets, so it’s important to allow time for digestion. Then, immediately before your session, eat a snack with a high glycaemic index (GI) so it delivers a quick energy boost but requires little digestion.
Another often-misunderstood concept is “carb loading”: eating extra carbohydrate-rich foods in the days before an intense workout. It’s beneficial because it helps top up the body’s energy reserves — ie carbohydrates broken down into glucose and stored in the muscles as glycogen. “In terms of endurance and power, you want to make sure you’ve got plenty of glycogen on board. You want those levels to be topped up because when you run out of glycogen you start to feel tired and lethargic and your performance is worse,” Dr Fraser explains.
However, carb loading is really only necessary in the day or two before an endurance event such as a marathon or triathlon; try it for days in the lead-up to your weekly Spin class and you’ll simply gain weight.
Choosing the ‘right’ carbs is also vital. Steer clear of refined foods like white pasta, rice and bread and instead choose wholegrain varieties as well as fruits, vegetables and rolled oats.
The other crucial component of a workout-ready diet is good-quality protein. Mitchell-Paterson says an error commonly made by people who weight-train is consuming too much protein in the belief it will help to build more muscle. While protein is essential for the creation and repair of muscle, overdosing won’t help. In fact, high-protein diets can displace other important nutrients in the diet.
“People think when they’re doing weight training they’ve got to have masses of protein, (but) the maximum is about two grams per kilo of body weight,” she explains.
Good-quality sources of protein include lean red meat, chicken, fish, eggs and tempeh. Dr Fraser says the optimal lunch or dinner plate for someone doing a lot of exercise should be 50 per cent non-starchy carbohydrates such as vegetables, a quarter good-quality protein and a quarter starchy carbs such as pasta, rice or bread.
Off and racing
If you decide to step up your physical activity from three weekly gym sessions to training for an event such as a half marathon or ocean swim, your diet will need to change, too. “You need to eat for the type of exercise you’re doing. For instance, if you are a marathon runner your requirements will be different from those of a sprinter,” says Lauren Burns, who won a gold medal in taekwondo at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“With mindfulness, planning and preparation, you can eat wonderfully diverse and interesting food that will give greater satiety and much higher nutritional value.”
If you’re attempting an endurance activity, eating during the event is important. “If you’re going to do a 180km bike ride, for example, eat something immediately before you go and have something with you for the ride like sports drinks or a banana — things that are easily digestible,” says Dr Fraser.
Proper hydration is also essential. Water aids digestion and absorption of food and removes toxins and waste from the body. Signs of dehydration include fatigue, headaches and dark-coloured urine. “With a moderate amount of exercise, drinking eight to 10 glasses of pure, clean water per day will enhance nutrient absorption, assist weight loss and detoxification and keep you properly hydrated,” says Burns.
“A more intense exercise regime will require more like two litres per day, depending on the activity.” She recommends adding a dash of pear or apple juice, combined with a pinch of celtic salt, to water to assist in replacing salts and minerals lost via perspiration during exercise.
Eating well during a period of more intensive exercise can help to boost immunity and avoid injuries. A diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables will provide much-needed vitamins and minerals. “When you get to that extreme there needs to be some sort of supplementation or juicing your vegetables to get the maximum magnesium, which helps with muscle recovery and muscle function,” says Mitchell-Paterson. “Vitamins A and D are very important. Low levels are implicated in sportspeople who constantly get sick.”
Seeking professional advice can also be helpful when stepping up your training. “If you’ve suffered from something like glandular fever or you have any injuries, I’d recommend specific nutritional or naturopathic advice,” Mitchell-Paterson says.
Burns agrees. “Throughout my athletic career, I was always a big fan of seeking out a variety of experts, (including) a naturopath, homoeopath, physio and massage therapists,” she says. “This was one of the most important things I did, as I had a wealth of knowledge at my disposal. Diet was absolutely imperative to (my) performance, preparation, recovery and mood.”