So, it’s that time of year, when everyone is hitting the gym hard and vowing to get in shape. Good for you! Have you given any thought to how best to fuel your new exercise routine?
Misconceptions about fueling your training
Low fat won’t cut it: We’ve all been sold this idea since the 1980s that dietary fat is the enemy. I see so many people living on extremely low fat, high carbohydrate diets. I have a type of client I see often who I call the “unaware healthy” person: they eat chicken breasts, fat free yogurt, salads with no dressing, egg white omelets, and wraps. And they wonder why they have no energy, have to eat every 2 – 3 hours, and cannot put on muscle!
The fact is, our bodies are meant to run off of fat for long-burning fuel. Think about building a fire: if you use lots of small kindling, you burn through it quickly, and constantly have to add more. But if you use large logs, they burn slowly and last a long time. Fats are the logs of our diet, and carbs are the kindling. I work often with clients to help them convert their metabolism from a sugar burner to a fat burner.
You can’t fake (food) it: The other big mistake I see a lot is a reliance on “fake foods” for convenient fuel—protein bars, shakes, packaged performance snacks, hydration drinks. These are pretty uniformly full of chemicals, preservatives, and poorly sourced ingredients. For people who simply must turn to a protein powder occasionally, there are some wonderful ones sourced from pure grass-fed organic goat and cow’s milks/whey, as well as organic hemp and green algae. But I strongly believe you can get everything you need to sustain you through any type of workout from real, properly prepared whole foods.
Eat to fuel the machine
It’s important to note that bioindividuality is huge. What works for one person may have to be dramatically tweaked for another. But speaking in generalities, I start by having people eat a 40/30/30 balanced diet, of 40% carbohydrates (anything that comes from plants), 30% protein, and 30% fat. Just getting this much fat and protein makes a lot of difference for most people (while also reducing the carbs they have almost always been overeating). Athletes may find they need up to 40% protein, to allow their bodies to recover from all of the tissue breakdown that happens in training. They may also need to up their fat as well, as they have a greater need for energy.
Next, drink half your body weight in ounces of water a day, up to a maximum of 100 ounces. For every cup of coffee or soda (shame!) you drink, add another 8 ounces. Dehydration is the most common nutritional deficiency. Keeping hydrated allows your tissues and joints to work well, and will help prevent injury by allowing your connective tissues to slide over each other properly. And stay away from hydration drinks and vitamin waters! If you’re going to be sweating for more than an hour, add a pinch of unrefined real sea salt to your water for electrolytes.
Focus on using real food to meet your nutritional needs. This may mean more time spent planning, shopping, and cooking. It may mean you need to carry a small cooler bag with you, with your food for the day in it. In the long run, you’ll be healthier for it, and you’ll save money over eating out all the time.
To help control inflammation that occurs from training, I recommend supplementation with high quality fish oil daily. Even better is fermented cod liver oil, as it’s also full of vitamins and minerals.
What to eat before and after training
This depends on how long you have before training. If you only have a few minutes, eat some healthy carbs—banana, dates—as quick fuel for your muscles, which won’t sit in your stomach and make you sluggish. Be prepared to run out of steam pretty quickly though. Optimally, an hour before (or more), you’d eat a balanced meal that includes a good dose of protein and fat as well as carbs. The fat will help regulate the carb absorption and maintain a steady stream of energy. 4 ounces of fish, some sautéed spinach in olive oil, ½ an avocado, and a small piece of fruit would be perfect.
After training, you need to eat amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to help with muscle repair. It’s best to wait 30 – 60 minutes post-training, as otherwise your digestion may not have fully kicked back in—exercise suppresses it. Proteins that are easy to digest, such as fish, eggs, and spirulina, are best. You should also add some healthy carbs so your body can rebuild the glycogen stores you expended while training—think half a sweet potato, or a small scoop of brown rice.
Try adding these changes to your training regimen for 2015. May it be your strongest, healthiest year yet!