7 eating habits that can help you get the most from your workouts
If you’re trying to be the most bloated version of yourself but aren’t focused on eating, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The benefits of exercise are only partially determined by what you actually do at the gym. Other factors, such as your diet, affect your physical performance, as well as your health.
“Nutrition is what fuels everything you do. It’s gasoline in the car ”, says Albert Matheny, RD, CSCS, co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab, Promix Nutrition, and Arena. If you eat well and have the right timing, “you’ll have more energy, which will make it easier to exercise,” says Matheny. But “the reverse is also true”, he adds. Simply put, filling up on the wrong foods and missing some key consumption windows can make it harder to get everything done during workouts and meet your fitness goals.
Read ahead and keep our basic eating habits in mind, so you can get the most from your workout, every time.
1. Plan meals and snacks.
Making food an afterthought is an easy way to torpedo your fitness goals. “Too many people don’t plan their diet and then make bad choices when they’re hungry,” says Joey Gochnour, RDN, NASM-CPT, a certified sports dietitian at Nutrition and fitness professional. Consider when you will actually have time to eat, your physical needs for the day, and when you will need the most energy to exercise. (Pro tip: Before hitting the gym, grab a simple carb, like sweet cherries. Think: Bing, Rabbit, and Sweetheart.) Next, create meals to suit your schedule. (More on the actual timing later.)
Just keep this in mind: these meals and snacks don’t have to be complicated. “You don’t need to have a large baking capacity to put peanut butter on a bagel, pour a bowl of cereal or oatmeal, or make a sandwich with fruit and a glass of milk.” , explains Gochnour.
2. Make sure you are eating enough.
Undernourishment is a surprisingly easy trap to fall if you’re regularly moderating beasts in the gym – and one that can quickly catch up with you. “If you are chronically undernourished in calories and protein, you may not be able to recover properly between workouts,” says Spencer Nadolsky, DO, chief medical officer of Renaissance periodization. This means that you may not be able to train as hard as you would like, whether that’s running faster or longer, or lifting heavier weights with more reps.
To calculate how much fuel you will need each day to reach your goals, Nadolsky recommends consulting the National Institutes of Health’s Bodyweight planning tool. There you can enter your current stats, such as height, weight, and activity level, as well as your goals. The planner will help you determine exactly how many calories you should eat per day.
“In terms of protein goals, you can keep it simple and aim for around 0.75 grams per pound,” he says. So, if you weigh 180, try to eat around 135 grams of protein per day.
3. Keep anti-inflammatory foods in the mix.
Some inflammation in your body is a normal part of the post-workout healing process, but too much can actually interfere with your recovery, says Samantha Cassette, MS, RD, a nutrition and wellness expert who is co-author of Sugar shock. “Food can be a powerful way to control exercise-induced inflammation to help you recover faster and potentially reduce pain and soreness,” she says.
Anti-inflammatory foods tend to be high in antioxidants, Cassetty says. So vegetables and fruits are big, especially sweet cherries (not to be confused with their tart counterparts). Research published in the Nutrition Journal found that eating sweet Bing cherries, in particular, can drastically reduce inflammatory biomarkers in the body. (Bonus: eat them on the regular can even help prevent chronic inflammatory diseases like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and cancer.)
4. Eat something easy to digest before a workout.
Each person and their needs are slightly different, but in general you want to think about the digestive time of what you eat, says Matheny. “Typically, you want to eat something before your workout that will digest faster, like simple carbs,” explains Matheny, listing PB&J and oatmeal as possible options. “It raises your blood sugar and gives you some energy.” Foods to avoid before training include those that are high in fat, protein, and fiber, as they are slower to digest.
Timing matters too. If you consume carbohydrates, Matheny recommends eating 20-30 minutes before a workout for optimal results. If you have something a little heavier, one to two hours before departure is best.
5. Always refuel after exercise.
“Before, we used to tell everyone to eat [a meal] immediately after training to help recover, but if you eat [something] a few hours before a workout, you don’t have to rush to have that meal, ”says Nadolsky.
Ideally, however, you’ll want to eat within two hours of your workout and you’ll want to eat a lot of protein. “Your muscles need protein to help them repair and rebuild, which will help you maximize your strength gains,” says Cassetty. “Your body also needs carbohydrates to replace what was used for energy during your workout. If you neglect to eat, you are missing out on the chance to replace that muscle tissue, so you won’t get the maximum benefit from your workout, and it can even interfere with your ability to recover.
6. Use food to help you sleep better and recover faster.
Appropriate rest and recovery can help you get back to it tomorrow. “Diet and sleep patterns are closely related,” says Cassetty. She points to a small study of 26 adults who found that people who ate a high-fiber diet spent more time in deep sleep than other participants, while those who ate sugary foods regularly were more awake at night.
“A nutritious diet has also been shown to help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep,” says Cassetty. “Basically, if you don’t eat well, your sleep can suffer. And if you eat nutritious, fiber-rich whole foods as part of a healthy diet, you’re less likely to experience sleep problems.
Note: the same sweet cherries that can reduce inflammation also contain melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycle. While Cassetty says eating a bowl of cherries alone won’t automatically make you fall for it, cherries can help when you pair them with good sleep hygiene, like keeping your bedroom dark and not spending too much time on your phone before bed.
7. Don’t forget the H2O.
Even being a little dehydrated can make you feel bad at the gym. The American College of Sports Medicine said in a common position statement with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that 2% or more dehydration “can compromise cognitive function and aerobic exercise performance, especially in hot weather”.
While hydration during your workout is important, Matheny says it’s especially crucial before the main event. “It’s not going to do this if you’ve been drinking coffee all day and then drinking a bottle of water before you work out,” he says. “You have to drink all day.
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