We’re all over physical recovery, but what about nutrition and recovery? Consuming a healthy, balanced, nutritious diet is important for optimum health and even more so for those who engage in exercise on a regular basis. The food we eat can play a massive role in exercise performance and recovery, and by consuming adequate nutrients for your activity level you can ensure that you are creating the best possible environment for the best possible results.
What is good nutrition?
A balanced diet consists of macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients include carbohydrates, fats and protein and micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. These nutrients all play a part in essential body functions such as digestion and the regulation of body temperature, and these same nutrients assist in exercise performance and in the recovery process after exercise.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy and act as the primary fuel source.
There are two main types of carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are easily broken down by the body, are readily absorbed and are available in the form of sugars such as glucose, table sugar, fruit and white starches that lack dietary fibre. Complex carbohydrates contain fibre, are broken down slowly and are available in whole grain foods such as brown bread, brown rice and in beans and pulses.
When carbohydrate stores are depleted, fats are utilised as a fuel source. Fats are also used for body functions such as hormone regulation. Fats are separated into four main categories, saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans. Unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are generally thought to be healthier and are found in foods such as nuts and avocados. Saturated and trans fats are thought to be harmful to heart health and are found in dairy products and in meat.
Protein is essential in all structural components of body tissues and provides the building blocks for the muscles, the skin and hair. Protein is found in foods such as meat, animal products, and protein powder, and this macronutrient is especially important for those who exercise as it helps to repair and heal the muscles after physical activity.
The Exercise and Nutrition Connection
When we exercise, the body is placed under stress, and when we train with weights specifically, we create microscopic tears in the muscles and temporary damage that needs to be repaired. This damage may seem counterproductive to the overall goal of exercise, however, every time the body endures this stress, the muscles repair stronger and more toned than the previous time.
This regular and temporary muscle damage increases the need for nutrients to assist in the recovery process. It is important that adequate amounts of the most suitable foods are consumed prior to exercise for performance ability, and that nutrients are replenished after exercise to aid in recovery.
The body processes different nutrients in different ways, at different times, in different environments; timing is everything when it comes to exercise nutrition.
Pre Workout Nutrition
When we exercise, the muscles are stimulated to contract and this process requires energy. The body utilises its preferred fuel source first which is glucose, broken down from carbohydrates and stored in the muscles. This simple sugar is in the perfect form to provide immediate energy to the muscles and the amount of glucose available can have a dramatic effect on exercise performance.
The best foods for energy are carbohydrates, however, the type of carbohydrate and the timing can affect the amount of immediate energy it provides. As mentioned earlier, high fibre carbohydrates are digested slowly so if you are choosing to provide the body with energy from high fibre foods, they are best consumed several hours before physical activity so that they have time to be broken down into the appropriate form for the body to use. White carbohydrates such as white rice are broken down quicker and can provide energy more efficiently pre-workout, however, the best type of carbohydrates to provide energy fast are simple sugars. Sugars can be consumed an hour or less before exercise and as due to their simple structure, very little digestion is required so they’ll provide the body with energy that can be used almost immediately.
Post Workout Nutrition
When we exercise the body runs on available fuel sources, however, if we exercise for a long period without adequate nutrition to support this volume of activity, the body will reach what is called a ‘catabolic state’, and start to break down muscle tissue for fuel. This can also happen post workout if the body does not receive adequate nutrients quickly. This is particularly important if you are wishing to build muscle, as the last thing you’ll want after spending time putting in the hard work at the gym, is for your muscles to start breaking down and ruin your efforts.
There is a window of opportunity approximately 45 minutes post-exercise, and it is during this time that an easily digestible meal or drink should be consumed to ensure that the body remains in an anabolic, muscle-building state. During this window, your muscles are in the best possible condition to take on nutrients and utilise them in the repairing of the muscles.
Protein is required to assist in muscle repair, but as the carbohydrate stores are depleted during exercise, it is important to provide this macronutrient in your post workout meal too. Protein shakes are a popular choice as they need very little digestion so are processed faster in the body with the protein reaching the muscles quickly. If you can’t eat or drink immediately after exercise, try to make sure that you consume a meal containing both protein and carbohydrates within 2 hours after completing your workout.
Keeping hydrated both before, during and after exercise will have a massive effect on your energy levels and performance. The body depends on water to function at its peak and uses this highly oxygenated essential liquid in many body processes. When we exercise, this water is depleted through sweat so needs to be restored. If working out for long periods or in warm environments, it may be a good idea to add an electrolyte supplement to your water so that it is sufficiently absorbed and retained to properly hydrate the body.
Things To Consider
What you consume pre and post workout massively depends on your goals. If your main priority is fat loss then it is important that you are providing enough fuel for your body to endure exercise, while not overeating calories as this will be detrimental to your goal. If you are exercising for sport then performance will be your main priority, so consuming the correct nutrients at the correct times will be important, and it would be wise to take into account the need to eat to support muscle function and growth, while ensuring that your activity and food consumption is balanced to avoid unwanted fat gain that could potentially hinder your performance. If your main goal is to build lean muscle, then you will need to consume enough food to provide energy for strenuous workouts and enough protein to allow the muscles to grow.
Regardless of your reason for training, what you consume will have a significant impact on your exercise performance and results, and for this reason, it should be measured to ensure that you are quite literally, feeding your goals.
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