Diet is essential in your journey to a healthy you. We get caught up in calories, low carbs, high protein, gluten-free, fat-free … you get the picture. I want to take a different route today and talk about three very important meals in the life of an athlete.
An athlete is “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports or games requiring physical strength, agility or stamina.” Athletes need to make sure that their breakfast, pre-workout and post-workout meals are carefully thought out to ensure that their bodies are getting the most from them. Keep in mind that for a lot of people breakfast may also be their pre- or post-workout meal, but I am going to assume that they are not.
The most important meal in general for everyone is breakfast. This is especially true for athletes. It will help your ability to concentrate, helps you control weight, helps decrease fatigue and helps boost brain activity. I personally like my breakfast to consist of a good balance of protein and carbohydrates. Protein helps keep you feeling full, which helps reduce overeating and helps in building muscles. Egg whites are a good example of a smart source of protein at breakfast. Carbohydrates are also important for energy. I often choose oatmeal at breakfast for fast-acting carbohydrates. Be smart and remember that skipping breakfast is one of the worst mistakes you can make.
Pre-workout meals are very important for athletes because they determine how hard you are going to be able to go in the gym or in the pool or on the bike. Your pre-workout meal serves the purpose of fueling your workout and bringing up blood glucose levels for added energy.
Your goal is to have the best work out you possibly can. Your pre-workout meal is going to help you accomplish that. Are your energy levels low during your workout? If they are, you might want to take a close look at your pre-workout nutrition. Consider having a small meal containing low-glycemic carbohydrates about 30 minutes to an hour before your workout. A few ideas might be:
— Protein shake with frozen fruit;
— Oatmeal alone or mixed with protein powder;
— An apple or banana;
— Greek Yogurt with fruit.
Or if you’re working out later in the day and have 2–3 hours between your meal and workout, you can have a regular meal consisting of a lean protein and a starchy carbohydrate.
The idea is to get your blood sugar levels up and to provide some glucose that’s needed for high-intensity exercise.
But what if you’re like me and sometimes work out in the morning and don’t want to be waking up even earlier to eat? If you’ve been skipping your pre-workout meal and haven’t noticed a decrease in performance, then don’t worry about it.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. People exercise at different times and have different goals. If your energy levels are just fine and your workouts aren’t suffering, don’t change a thing. If you feel like you’re crashing halfway through your workouts, then consider having one of the small recommended meals above before a morning workout, or a regular meal 2-3 hours before your workout later in the day. It’s all about what works for you and your body.
Athletes also need to make sure that they understand the importance of post-workout nutrition. Generally, post-workout nutrition has three specific purposes:
— Replenish glycogen;
— Decrease protein breakdown;
— Increase protein synthesis.
In other words, athletes want to:
— Replenish their energy stores;
— increase muscle size and/or muscle quality;
— repair any damage caused by the workout.
Replenishing the body with protein is usually everyone’s primary concern after a good workout. However, protein is not the only concern. During exercise sessions, stored carbohydrates can be substantially depleted. Thus, during the post-workout period, we require protein and carbohydrates.
As I’ve mentioned, post-workout nutrition requires two things:
— Protein to aid in protein synthesis;
— Carbohydrates to help replace muscle glycogen.
You can certainly eat a whole food meal that meets these requirements after exercise. However, whole food meals aren’t always practical. I know I’m not always hungry right after I exercise and having whole foods readily available isn’t always convenient. I prefer protein shakes or drinks after my workouts because they are digested and absorbed quicker, and they are much easier for me to get down after a hard workout.
The most important thing to remember is that you should be using exercise to build muscle, improve performance, lose unwanted body fat and improve your overall health. Don’t sacrifice your workout intensity just because you were too lazy to fuel your body properly. That is going to work against you in the long run. And when your workouts are done, refuel your body. You only have one. Take care of it. You want it to last you a very long time.
Michele Moulton is a certified group fitness, boot camp, TRX and Spinning instructor with more than 23 years of experience in the health and fitness industry. She is the head trainer and lead instructor at Impact Sports and Fitness. She also is the mother of two boys, Austin and Harrison.