Nailing what you eat and when you eat it could unlock extra performance in the gym, on the track and wherever else you sweat
Whether you’re new to exercise or have spent years doing the hard graft, day in and day out, there’s one common denominator between us: we all need to fuel our body correctly in order to keep training hard. That’s because the difference between a standard workout and a brilliant workout could be what you’re putting into your body in the hours (and even days) beforehand.
That, however, doesn’t mean that all calories and ingredients are created equal. Rather, by making a few tweaks to your nutrition game and re-assessing how you fuel for your training, you could make significant bounds in your fitness journey. Let’s chew the fat.
Whatever your sport or training style, whether it’s bodybuilding or barre, long-distance running or lacrosse, what you ingest will have a direct effect on the way you perform. The best meals to take onboard before a session will give you enough energy without making you feel sluggish or bloated, nor will it make you feel queasy during your workout. For some, going nil-by-mouth before a morning session is the best way to avoid this, but fasted cardio doesn’t work for everyone.
If you’re a rise-and-grinder and can’t bear the thought of making a well-balanced meal before the treadmill, Huel Ready-to-drink contains all 26 essential vitamins and minerals, carbohydrates, protein, fat, fibre and phytonutrients, and is naturally gluten-free.
“If you’re looking for an increase in hypertrophy, you need to be looking at an increase in protein,” explains Huel nutrition manager Rebecca Williams MSc, SENr, RNutr. “If you’re a strength or power athlete, your focus should be on overall protein content as it’s a major macronutrient. You’re going to be aiming at around 1.6 to 2.2g of protein for every kilogram that you weigh, per day.” So, if you weigh 75kg, you should aim for 120g to 173g of protein as standard if you’re looking to gain muscle and strength
If you want to get more specific, Williams advises to “have them in frequent meals of 20 to 30 grams of protein throughout the day, so you’re drip-feeding your body with protein instead of eating 10g at breakfast and then 60g at dinner, which is typically how a lot of us eat.”
As for carbohydrates, don’t be tempted to nix them entirely. Fibrous and starchy carbohydrate sources such as quinoa and brown rice are vital to a well-balanced diet, as they are a source of slow-release energy. “These are good to have three to four hours before exercise, to give your body time to digest them,” says Williams.
Best not to load up on brown rice right before your workout; all that fibre and protein can slow digestion. For an immediate boost, you need simple sugars that turn into energy quickly. "Think a ripe banana, or a handful of jelly sweets," says William. That's right, a nutritionist just rubber-stamped Haribo. You're welcome.
Post-workout nutrition is a little more conventional. Once you've finished your session, you simply need complex carbs to power your batteries back up. "This is when carbohydrate sources will replenish muscle and liver glycogen stores – ready for the next workout." Contrary to bro science, you don't need to chug a protein shake the second you step off the gym floor. Research in the last decade has found that the 'anabolic window' – the period post-workout when your body is hungriest for muscle-building amino acids – lasts for up to six hours.
What matters more isn't when you get you protein, but that you get enough to support your goals and training levels.
That depends entirely on what you're trying to achieve. As this handy guide to counting calories explains, calories are a broad brush way to track energy in and energy out, but they can be helpful if you're looking to achieve specific weight loss or weight gain goals (at its simplest, if energy out is less than energy in, you gain weight; if it's more, you drop pounds).
You definitely don't need to count calories, though, especially if you're not tracking how many you burn with something like a smartwatch. If you're eating nutritious food and your weight isn't fluctuating dramatically, you're likely doing fine.
From protein to creatine and glutamine to collagen, it can be tempting to stock up on tubs of supplements that could give you an edge. But if your diet is naturally balanced, nutritious and high in protein, you probably don’t need them.
“A lot of sports nutritionists think of a pyramid, in which the biggest physical gains you’re going to get – and an improvement in your performance – will be from getting the core bits of your nutrition right,” says Williams. “If you can get that bottom layer bang-on, you’ve already made 80 per cent of the difference in your physical performance via nutrition.”
However, if you're struggling to hit your protein goals, shakes are a convenient way to up your numbers quickly. Especially for those who want to eat more protein without loading up on animal products, Huel Complete Protein is made from high-quality, animal-free ingredients and contains 20g of plant-based protein per serving, sourced from hemp, faba and pea protein.
“The most important thing is getting the basics right,” says Williams. “Having enough fruit and vegetables in the day, making sure you’re getting enough protein and having enough overall calorie intake in the day to support your physical goals, that’s the biggest chunk.”
The middle layer, Williams explains, is timing your meals. “Having your carbohydrates around training will support you,” she explains. “That means having enough before the workout to get you through and to replenish you afterwards.” Lastly, supplements, as Williams explains, “will give you a five per cent edge, but if you’re doing the two bottom layers correctly, you shouldn’t really need that top per cent as you’re getting everything that you need from your diet.”
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