Adapted with permission of VeloPress from “Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sports and Adventure” by Matthew Kadey, RD. Try free recipes at rocketfuelfoods.net.
If you’ve worked up the motivation to drag yourself off the couch for another training session, good for you—that’s half the battle. The other essential half of the workout equation is eating the right foods. Thankfully, fueling your workouts isn’t rocket science. Dial in your nutrition before, during and after exercise with these simple guidelines and recipes.
Eating properly before exercise can help you work at a higher intensity for longer, resulting in greater performance gains in the long run. Here are some important tips to follow for your pre-workout nutrition:
Take a test drive
Before a big event, experiment with different types, quantities and timing of food during your training sessions. This way you can pinpoint what works (and doesn’t) for you. For instance, some athletes can eat a larger amount of food closer to their workouts without bringing on digestive woes.
Aim to consume a larger meal that contains a good balance of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats 2 to 3 hours before a workout, and then follow this up with a smaller snack consisting of 150 to 300 calories 30 to 60 minutes before training. This gives you enough time to digest the meal and also provides a little pre-workout energy boost.
Not so fast
When gearing up for a sweat sesh, research suggests that opting for a lower-glycemic-index nibble before working out can bring about performance benefits. A low-glycemic snack (such as apple slices with nut butter or low-fat yogurt with berries) will raise your blood sugar more slowly, resulting in sustained energy as well as improved fat burning. Save the sugary chews and gels for during your race or training session.
Less is more
Too much fiber, protein and fat in your pre-workout nosh can weigh you down. That’s because these items slow down digestion and can result in digestive discomfort during exercise. So put away the bean soup or grilled steak for another time.
Recipe: Apple Sweet Potato Mash
High in complex carbohydrates, the sweet spud can provide some long-lasting energy for your impending exercise pursuit. But there’s no need to put your workout on hold while you roast or boil one up when this nifty microwave mash gets the job done quickly. Some add-ins, such as maple syrup, applesauce and crunchy pumpkin seeds, provide more motivation to work out.
Dairy-free, Gluten-free, Paleo-friendly, Vegan or Vegetarian
Active Time: 10 min.
Although digestion rates vary, you’ll likely perform better if you give yourself 30 minutes or more for digestion.
1 medium-sized sweet potato, peeled and cubed
1/3 cup plain applesauce
2 teaspoons pure maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger (optional)
1 tablespoon raisins
1 tablespoon raw shelled pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
Place sweet potato cubes and 1 tablespoon water in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and poke a few holes in the plastic to allow for venting. Microwave on high for 6 minutes, or until potato is fork-tender. The bowl will be very hot, so use oven mitts or a dish towel to remove from microwave.
Add applesauce, maple syrup, allspice and ground ginger (if using) to bowl and mash together. Top with raisins and pumpkin seeds.
Game Changers: Replace applesauce with pear sauce. Mash in cinnamon instead of allspice. Use dried cranberries instead of raisins. Swap out pumpkin seeds for sunflower seeds.
When out for the long haul, your body requires the right kind of fuel to perform its best. Here’s how to get it done:
Watch the clock
Clearly, not all workouts require carrying a feedbag around your neck. Generally, if you’re exercising for an hour or less, you should not require any supplemental calories to get you to the end of a workout. Push into the 60- to 90-minute time frame and some athletes will notice performance benefits from consuming a bit of extra energy. If you’re exercising vigorously for 90-plus minutes, however, there is plenty of research demonstrating the need for consuming calories to keep blood sugar and muscle energy reserves from dipping too low.
Go hard for carbs
To keep up the pace, seek out carb-heavy foods and drinks. Carbohydrates (blood glucose and muscle glycogen) are the preferred fuel source for high-intensity exercise, since they can be converted to energy in your muscles more efficiently than fats or protein. Also, carbohydrates are the primary fuel for your brain, so when levels sink too low, you can end up with a serious case of exercise-induced brain fog.
Do the math
For exercise sessions lasting in excess of 90 minutes, you want to aim for anywhere between 30 to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour of activity to avoid stumbling to the finish line. The exact amount needed depends on a number of factors, including individual tolerance, exercise intensity and exercise duration.
Keep it real
Gels, chomps, sports drinks and packaged energy bars have their place in helping to fuel your active pursuit. But there are plenty of benefits (less gut rot, better nutrition) of also bringing along some fuel that you created in your own kitchen. And as long as you’re meeting your overall carbohydrate needs during exercise, it’s acceptable if your DIY fuel of choice contains a small amount of protein and fat—but only a little bit, as these items can hinder digestion when consumed in greater quantities.
Dehydration can put the damper on what could have been a brag-worthy workout or race. To stay on top of your hydration needs, make it a habit of drinking 400 to 1,000 milliliters of fluid for each hour of exercise. The exact amount of fluid you need will be dictated by a number of factors, including individual sweat rate, the ambient temperature and the intensity of activity. If sweating buckets, don’t overlook the importance of taking in some electrolytes during a prolonged workout—namely 300 to 600 milligrams of sodium for each hour of activity.
Recipe: Sweet Potato Tots
Tender on the inside with a nutty crisp on the outside, these energy bombs flip a switch that tells your body to mover harder, faster and longer. So grab a bunch and get out there. The secret ingredient is coconut flour, which works its magic to absorb some of the excess moisture from the mashed potato so the tots will firm up and better keep their shape during transport. To make these even more crave-worthy, mix a couple of tablespoons of molasses into the potato mash.
Dairy-free, Gluten-free, Paleo-friendly, Vegan or Vegetarian
Active Time: 25 min.
1½ pounds sweet potatoes (about 2 medium-sized), peeled and cubed
1/4 cup coconut flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup finely chopped pecans
2 tablespoons coconut sugar or brown sugar
Steam or boil sweet potatoes until fork-tender. Place cooked sweet potato in a bowl and mash until smooth. Stir in coconut flour, cinnamon and salt. In a separate small bowl, stir together pecans and sugar.
Preheat oven to 375°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Scoop out sweet potato mixture by the tablespoon and roll between hands into a cylindrical shape. Roll in pecan mixture and place on baking sheet. Chop more pecans if needed. You should have about 24 tots.
Bake for 40 minutes, flipping halfway or until golden on the outside. They will firm up further upon cooling. Tots can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. If you want to enjoy them warm as a snack, simply microwave tots for about 30 seconds.
Game Changers: Season with allspice instead of cinnamon. Use finely chopped walnuts instead of pecans. Substitute date sugar for coconut or brown sugar.
If you want to get the most out of your training, it’s best not to take your post-workout nutrition too lightly. Make note of these after-burn nutrition guidelines to recharge like a pro:
It’s a good idea to team up carbohydrates and protein shortly after exercise cessation—carbs are used to replenish spent energy stores, and protein is needed to help repair muscular damage and encourage your muscles to become stronger in response to training. Pair them in a 4:1 ratio following endurance exercise, and closer to a 2:1 ratio following resistance exercise Endurance athletes need carbs to replenish their glycogen stocks, and the best way to do so is to consume roughly 1.25 to 1.5 grams of carbohydrates per 1 kilogram of body weight. For the resistance athlete, research has found that about 20 grams of protein following exercise is enough to speed muscle repair and growth.
Shortly after exercise, your body is primed to take up nutrients and distribute them wherever needed. That means you want to make it a priority to seek out recovery food before or soon after hitting the shower. Wait too long for your smoothie or other post-training nourishment and you could end up with muscles that aren’t fully recharged, resulting in poor subsequent exercise performance. So do your best to send something down the hatch within 60 minutes of finishing your workout.
Recipe: Salted Quinoa Almond Fudge Cups
Every good deed deserves a reward. So after a health-boosting workout, why not luxuriate in some fudge? Of course, this version has more of what you need to recover well than any typical store-bought fudge. Case in point: some protein powder, banana, and quinoa puffs are worked in for extra recovery protein and carbohydrates.
Dairy-free, Freezer-friendly, Gluten-free, Vegan or Vegetarian
Active Time: 20 min.
No mini-muffin tray? You can also mold the fudge in lightly greased ice cube trays. You may need to use a butter knife to unmold the set fudge pieces.
1/2 cup almond butter
1/2 cup protein powder
1/3 cup softened coconut oil
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4cup pure maple syrup
1 medium-sized ripe banana
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup quinoa puffs
1 teaspoon flaky salt, such as fleur de sel or Maldon
Place almond butter, protein powder, coconut oil, cocoa powder, maple syrup, banana, vanilla and cinnamon in a food processor or blender and blend until smooth. Pulse in quinoa puffs.
Divide mixture among 24 silicone mini-muffin cups or paper-lined metal mini-muffin cups. Sprinkle salt over tops. Place tray in freezer until set, about 1 hour. The fudge cups will remain fairly soft and won’t freeze solid. Unmold fudge cups and keep in an airtight container or zip-top bag in the freezer for up to 1 month. They can also be transported to an event in a cooler.
Game Changers: Swap out almond butter for peanut butter. Sweeten with brown rice syrup or honey instead of maple syrup. Replace quinoa puffs with other small cereal puffs, such as millet.
Matthew Kadey is a James Beard Award-winning food journalist, registered dietitian, and recipe developer.
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