Exercise nutrition: What to eat before, during and after exercise

Whether it's playing tennis, rugby, swimming or jogging, exercising people need to eat as nutritious and as balanced a diet as they can, to fuel their body correctly and efficiently. Good nutrition, like any competent structure, has basic ground rules. Following these rules and getting plenty of practice implementing them, will help exercisers in whatever field, activity or sport, feel great, perform better and achieve their goals more easily and healthily What diet is best for active exercising people?

Diet ratios

All people who exercise regularly need a diet that provides enough energy in the form of carbohydrates and fats as well as essential protein, vitamins and minerals. There have been many debates about specific amounts and percentages, but worldwide all the elite human performance institutes have generally come to an agreement. It should mean a diet containing 55-60 percent of calories from carbohydrates (10 to 15 percent from sugars and the rest from starches), no more than 30 percent of calories from fat, and the remaining (about 10-15 percent) from protein.

That translates into eating a variety of foods every day - grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, lean meats, and low fat dairy products. The base foundation of the diet is recommended to be derived from carbohydrates in the form of starches and sugars. Fluids, especially water, are also important to the winning combination. Dehydration can stop even the finest athletes from producing quality results.

Are carbohydrates important for exercising?

When starches or sugars are eaten, your body changes them all to glucose, which is the only form of carbohydrate that is used directly for energy by your muscles. It doesn't matter if these carbohydrates are in the form of starches (in vegetables and grains), sucrose (table sugar), fructose (found in fruits and juices) or lactose (milk sugar), all are digested and ultimately changed to glucose.

The body uses this glucose in the blood for energy. Most glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles themselves. During exercise, glycogen is broken down in the muscles and thus provides the required energy. As a general rule, there is enough glycogen in the human muscular system to supply fuel for 90-120 minutes of sustained physical activity.

Most exercise doesn't use up these glycogen stores, so eating carbohydrates during the activity usually isn't necessary. But for some intensely active exercising individuals and competitive athletes, eating or drinking carbohydrates during exercise certainly helps maintain their blood glucose and energy levels.

Most active people need not be concerned with "carbohydrate loading," which is the special technique of eating a great deal of carbohydrates for several days before an endurance event. Instead, the focus should be on eating enough carbohydrate on a daily routine basis. The best way to ensure that plenty of energy is available for exercise and fitness building activities is to strive, whenever possible, to eat a nutritious, balanced diet that is high in carbohydrates and low in fat, with as much variety as you can manage.

Do fitness conscious and active individuals need extra protein or protein supplements?

Muscles and aesthetic appearances develop from training and exercise. A certain amount of protein is needed to help build the muscles, but a nutritious, balanced diet that includes two or three servings from the meat/bean/egg group (6-7 ounces total) and two to three servings of dairy every day will supply all of the protein that working muscles need.
However, to state categorically that extra servings of protein, or protein supplements do not assist in muscle development, is not strictly correct, as the global sports science jury is still very much 'out' concerning a conclusive stance in this area. A fully comprehensive understanding of the body's biochemical mechanisms regarding protein synthesis is still very far from complete, despite statements to the contrary from some of the less 'informed' research organisations, usually with something to sell, following closely behind!

Suffice to say for the present; those wishing to be lean and fit, whilst seeking moderate and aesthetic toned muscular proportions, need not spend their money on supplementary protein sources, and can happily rely upon efficient attention to normal dietary protein intakes.

What should an exercising person eat before, during and after exercise?

Nutrition before exercise

  • Consume high carbohydrate foods like bananas, bagels or fruit juices. These foods are broken down and absorbed quickly to provide glucose for the muscles.
  • The timing of this meal depends on individual preference for eating before exercise, but research has conclusively revealed that eating something from between 1 to 4 hours before exercise, helps to keep plenty of blood glucose available for the working muscles.
  • It is also very critical to drink plenty of cool water before exercise to keep those muscles well hydrated.

Nutrition during exercise

  • Perspiration and physical exertion depletes the body of fluids necessary for an optimal performance and leads to significant dehydration. It is important to drink plenty of cool water, at least a half a cup of water every 20 minutes of exercise. Adding a teaspoon of sugar, a little fruit juice or a small amount of cordial/squash to plain water and can sometimes also encourage fluid intake.
  • Usually, there is no need to worry about replacing carbohydrates unless the exercise lasts over 90 minutes and is intensive and continuous. When this happens, drinking a sports drink or other beverage with some sugar in it will fuel and hydrate the muscles being exercised.
  • Mixing no more than 4 teaspoon of sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and some flavouring (like a teaspoon of lemon juice/ tablespoon of fruit squash) in 8 ounces of water can make a reasonably effective sports drink you can create at home.

Nutrition after exercise

If the exercise was strenuous and lasted a long time, glycogen stores may well need refuelling. Consuming foods and beverages high in carbohydrates right after exercise will certainly replenish glycogen stores if they have become low after exercising.

But no matter how intense the exercise was it's very important to then drink plenty of water and eat a meal that contains lots of carbohydrate rich foods such as grains, pastas, potatoes, vegetables and fruits. A teaspoon of sugar, (at only 15 calories per teaspoon), adds flavour to these foods and may increase the appeal to your taste buds, but you should remember that like all carbohydrates, sugar has 4 calories per gram and there are 4 grams to a teaspoon.

The basic rules here are really very simple, and when followed, will most certainly ensure you get the best health benefits from your exercise, whatever form it may take, by preparing your body properly and ensuring it has the required elements to maximise recovery and improvement afterwards.

This article is courtesy of Alan Gordon

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