Fuelling yourself the right way; exercise.
Having an active lifestyle and breaking a sweat a few times a week is one of the best things we can do to support our short and long-term health.
Fuelling ourselves the right way is critically important; not only will it ensure we're recovering right, but also that we're performing how we should and enjoying our training / exercise as well.
Unfortunately, physical activity has become synonymous with weight loss and whilst exercise is a great tool for managing your weight, it shouldn't be the only reason you engage it.
Exercise has so many more benefits that changing a number on a scale; from improving mental health to increasing muscle mass and even reducing the impact of sarcopenia (age related loss of lean muscle).
In this article we're going to discuss how you can go about fuelling yourself the right way for your workout and get the absolute most out of your training!
What to eat to improve your performance
The human body is a wonderfully complex organic machine that runs predominantly on carbohydrate. More accurately, we use our stored carbohydrate, referred to as glycogen, to fuel our day-to-day requirements and any additional physical activity on top of that.
Our glycogen stores are broken down and used during exercise to provide our muscle with energy to function. The longer and or more intense we train, the more our glycogen stores deplete. If we begin to run out of glycogen, our athletic performance may take a hit. If you think about an endurance athlete, this is the stage when they "hit the wall" and, due to glycogen depletion, their body begins to rely more on fat and protein to produce energy (which is not as efficient).
To perform as best we can, the goal should then be to ensure our glycogen stores are topped up and to even provide an alternative for them during training / an event.
A diet higher in carbohydrate can ensure our stores are topped up for our workout. Ensuring around 50 - 60% of your total energy intake is coming from carbohydrate is a great start.
The kind of carbohydrate you eat and when is also important for performance. For example, complex carbohydrate may not be a great choice to have in around a workout. Complex carbs are more difficult to digest and take longer to appear in the blood stream as blood glucose (which can be used to provide energy in place of glycogen).
Simple carbs around and during training would be much more effective. They aren't as difficult to digest and some absorb very rapidly, appearing as blood glucose / blood sugar much quicker than their complex carb counterparts.
One of my favourite whole food recommendations for performance-based carbohydrate ingestion is to keep some dried fruit on hand; a perfect pre workout snack! These are even great to have during exercise, and may be of particularly benefit to those engaging in endurance exercise.
Protein and carbohydrate together are also a great option! These may be better suited for those engaging in a weight lifting workout as having dietary protein before exercise can reduce muscle protein breakdown and improve recovery times! A protein bar would be a great option here!
Complex carbs, such as brown rice or oats, would be great to have for other meals during the day; these can help replenish your glycogen stores and fuel recovery during the rest of the day.
It's important to note that a high fat, low carb diet (known as a ketogenic or "keto" diet) can be better suited for some. It's worth warning however that it can be difficult to follow when you're first starting out and is rather restrictive.
What to eat to recover as best you can
Performing at your best is one thing, but recovery is just as, if not more so, important to focus on too. The recovery process occurs between one workout to another; it is the time in which our body repairs and adapts, leading to even greater performance in the next workout!
The foundation of recovery is supplying your muscle with the "bricks" and energy it needs to rebuild and adapt; the "bricks" being protein and the energy being our calorie intake.
The importance of protein intake
Increasing our dietary protein intake is incredibly important for improving our recovery time, as well as increasing our performance and body composition.
We should aim to include high quality protein sources in our diet multiple times a day. A high-quality protein source is simply one that provides all of the essential amino acids; the building blocks of a protein. These are typically from animal sources, with dairy products being regarded as the best option. Some dairy protein sources you want to include more of would be; a quality whey protein powder, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, protein bars and other high protein snacks.
For vegans and vegetarians, plant-based sources are considered low quality protein sources. This is simply due to their protein content often lacking the entire spectrum of essential amino acids. A simple way around this is to combine one or more sources! We should all aim to include more veggie options in our diet; not only are they more nutritionally dense (on average) but are also regarded as the more sustainable choice.
The importance of energy intake
One of the most often overlooked factors in fuelling ourselves the right way is ensuring that we're eating enough. As we mentioned previously, exercise and your diet should not always be seen as a route to further weight loss; your life is more than just chasing a number on a scale.
Treat yourself more like an athlete! If we focus on aesthetics over athletics, we're likely to hold ourselves back. But, if we flip our attention to focus on athletics, then aesthetics will quickly follow!
My advice would be to figure out what you need to eat to maintain your current weight (using an online calculator) and either eat in around that or increase your calorie intake between 2.5% to 5% on top of this. This will help ensure you're having enough food to perform at your best and adequately recover.
Sports scientists recommend that we increase our food intake to between 44 - 50 kcals per kg of bodyweight when strength and performance improvements are the goal.
The importance of dietary fat intake
Let's not forget about dietary fat!
Dietary fat is important for overall health, helping us store vitamins, insulate organs and even produce hormones! Increasing your intake of certain fats, like omega 3s, can even assist in recovery as well as improve other aspects of health, including your mental health!
Fats come in a variety of forms; some healthier than others. We want to minimize our consumption of trans and saturated fats (typically found in processed foods and animal fats) and increase our intake of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
You can find these in foods like nut butter (such as peanut butter, almond butter etc.), oily fish (such as salmon and mackerel) and, more generally, plant-based fats. These are described as healthy fat and can help protect our heart, brain and more!
Exercise is one of the best activities we can engage in to look after ourselves and live long, healthy, happy lives. Fuelling ourselves the right way is really important; not only to perform how we’d like, but to recover adequately as well!
There are lots of ways to achieve these goals and finding out the best approach for yourself is important. A diet with adequate fuel and materials to recovery is important so we can really get the most out of our workouts. We shouldn’t always make changes to our diets purely for the sake of managing our weight.
Why not shift it next time to seeing just how great you can perform? Focus on athletics over aesthetics and reinvigorate your relationship with your body, how it performs and how you feel around food!