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How to eat for exercise

It's important to remember the food you eat plays a vital role in the way you feel and perform any exercise.

It doesn't matter whether you're an amateur or a professional athlete – everything you eat and drink has an affect on your body when you exercise. And it's not just what you eat beforehand that counts – you need a balanced
diet every day, the right snack before you start and then the correct meal afterwards to help your body recover and repair. Here's how to get the best out of your body by making smart food choices.

While you might put a lot of emphasis on the food you eat before exercise, it's important to realise what you eat every day plays the biggest part in your performance. The food you eat before you exercise will have little benefit on your overall performance. Eating before you work out is merely the last step to make you feel comfortable and confident during your exercise session. You need to provide your body with a healthy, balanced diet consisting of carbohydrates, sufficient protein, healthy fats, and adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Do: Eat a healthy, balanced diet made up of a wide variety of foods from all food groups every day.

Don't: Live on takeaways and convenience foods nor skip meals.

Your body can only burn food it has already digested and absorbed, so there's no point eating right before you exercise in the hope that it will give you more energy. In fact, eating a large meal will only cause you to feel  sluggish and may even cause an upset stomach, cramping or diarrhoea. Foods high in fibre, fat, or protein take longer to digest and can increase your risk of stomach discomfort while exercising, so eat such foods long before you start – especially if your workout involves running.

Do: As a general rule, eat a carbohydrate-containing meal with a small amount of protein three to four hours before exercise, or a snack (such as a banana or a small pottle of yoghurt) one to two hours before exercise.

Don't: Eat a meal right before you're about to exercise.

A 90-minute or less workout: You shouldn't need to eat when exercising for fewer than 90 minutes if you follow Steps 1 and 2 above. If you do feel tired, it may mean you haven't eaten enough carbohydrates before you  started, your diet is not well-balanced, you ate too much or too closely to exercising, or you're dehydrated.

A 90-minute or more workout: A moderate to high-intensity workout for longer than 90 minutes is called an endurance event. Consuming extra carbohydrates is recommended as your body doesn't have an endless supply. To enable your body to access this energy, you need foods with readily-available carbohydrates – such as sports drinks, easy-to-eat muesli bars, or sugary confectionery. Research with athletes shows 30-60g of  carbohydrates (equivalent to 500-1000ml sports drink or 12-24 jelly babies) needs to be consumed each hour of exercising to delay fatigue.

Do: Consume easily digested carbohydrate-containing snacks if exercising for longer than 90 minutes.

Don't: Load up on lollies during a sports game or one-hour workout.

How well you recover nutritionally after a workout determines how well you will perform at the next workout. The best recovery? Refuel, repair and rehydrate.

Refuel your glycogen stores (carbohydrates). Eat a carbohydrate-containing meal within two hours of your training.

Repair your damaged muscles with protein. During your workout it's likely muscle protein has broken down. So including protein in your recovery meal can increase protein building. To reap the most benefits, include carbohydrates with this protein.

Rehydrate with fluid as soon as you possibly can. Most of us finish our workouts at least a little bit dehydrated, and we continue to lose fluid through breathing and perspiration. Not replacing your fluid losses after training can negatively affect your recovery, daily activities and then the following workout. The best way to monitor how dehydrated you are is to look at the colour of your urine. The darker your urine, the more fluid you need. Aim for pale, straw-coloured urine.

Do: Rehydrate after exercising. Eat a snack/meal containing low-GI carbohydrates and protein.

Don't: Fall into the trap of eating high-GI carbohydrate foods or high-fat foods as a reward for exercising. This will counteract all your hard work.

What to eat three to four hours before exercise:

  •     Baked beans on toast
  •     Roll made with ham and salad, plus a banana
  •     Pasta with lean meat, chicken or lentils and vegetables
  •     Baked potato with reduced-fat cheese and coleslaw
  •     Toasted sandwich made with reduced-fat cheese and tomato, plus a small pottle of  low-fat yoghurt

What to eat one to two hours before exercise:

  •     Fruit
  •     Small pottle of  low-fat yoghurt
  •     Glass of low-fat chocolate milk
  •     Cereal bar
  •     Bowl of cereal and trim milk

What to eat up to two hours after exercise:

  •     Lean meat, chicken or fish with potato and vegetables
  •     Seafood risotto with a side salad
  •     Stir-fry with lean red meat or chicken, vegetables and rice
  •     Homemade pizzas made on English muffins with lean meat, reduced-fat cheese and vegetables
  •     Roll made with banana, reduced-fat ricotta and honey, plus an orange

What about sports drinks?

If you are working out for fewer than 60 minutes, sports drinks are not needed. Sports drinks are great for the endurance athlete aiming for peak performance, but if you're exercising at a moderate intensity, or playing a social game of touch, water is the better option. You'll save kilojoules and stay hydrated!

First published: Mar 2009



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