What to eat and not to eat when training

The meals you eat before and after a workout have a direct impact on performance and recovery, explains sports dietitian Gabrielle Maston.

Before training

The right pre-workout meal will give you enough energy and drive to smash your workout, while the wrong one will ruin it. It’s a careful balance – you don’t want to eat so much that you feel sick, but you also don’t want to under-eat so that you feel hungry and run out of energy. Here’s a list of the foods you should and shouldn’t eat pre-workout.

Must eat

Sweet potato: This low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrate is a rich source of slow-release energy and nutrients. The orange pigment of the sweet potato means it’s a good source of vitamin A, which is crucial to aid in the repair and growth of body tissues, including muscle.

Coffee: This stimulant is used globally because of its known effects on energy levels and improving attention. Use coffee to your advantage to boost your performance and to decrease fatigue and muscle pain. Take a shot of coffee 30-45 minutes pre-workout to get the maximum performance benefits.

Protein powder in milk: Drinking milk and protein whey prior to a workout will give your body the essential amino acids it needs to start rebuilding muscle while you’re exercising. Milk contains a mix of whey and casein protein. Whey is easily digestible and enters the blood stream quickly, whereas casein is a slow-release protein. Together, they’re the perfect combination to stimulate muscle growth during and after workouts.

Smoked salmon: Oily fish like tuna, salmon, mackerel and cod are excellent sources of complete proteins and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are important for reducing inflammation and keeping your heart healthy.

Greek yoghurt: This contains probiotics, which are good for your gut health and immunity. If you suffer from bloating, constipation or loose stools, the probiotics in yoghurt may help alleviate some of these symptoms.

Must not eat

Sports gels: These are very popular among endurance athletes, but they contain a lot of energy in the form of sugar. If your goal is to lean up and decrease body fat, consuming too much sugar prior to exercise will stop you from going into a fat-burning mode and leave you feeling hungry.

Fizzy drinks: Carbonated beverages can cause the digestive system to fill with gas, producing flatulence and worse still, acid reflux. Reflux can also be triggered by many other factors, including a high fat intake, eating too much food in one go, eating too close to exercise and alcohol consumption.

Milk: If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, have a sensitive gut or are lactose intolerant, milk and other dairy products may be problematic. If you find you have an urgency to go to the bathroom soon after drinking milk, it may be best to avoid it to prevent any unexpected surprises during your workout.

Alcohol: If you’re trying to get lean, alcohol will stop you from achieving your body composition goals. It’s an energy source that’s often accompanied by added sugar. The body prioritises the burning of alcohol to clear its toxic contents from the body, so during this time, it stores all the other nutrients you’re consuming as body fat instead of using it as fuel.

Fast food: Foods like greasy burgers contain a lot of fat and very little nutrients for muscle repair. A high fat intake prior to a workout may cause you to feel sluggish and experience reflux (heartburn). Reflux can make you feel unwell, causing you to cut your workouts short.

After training

Your post-workout meal needs to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and begin to replenish muscle glycogen stores. It’s just as important as the pre-workout – if you don’t choose the right food, you may slow your recovery, which could potentially keep you away from the gym due to sore muscles and low energy levels.

Must eat

Yoghurt: Yoghurt has a unique combination of whey protein and carbohydrates that’s easy to digest and tastes great. It also contains natural probiotics – good bacteria to help regulate your digestive system and keep your gut healthy. When you have a healthy gut, you have a healthy immune system, which will keep you at the gym all year long.

Red meat: Red meat contains creatine, which helps the muscles produce more energy, giving you the boost you need when you’re lifting weights. For women, red meat also contains the highest levels of iron compared to any other animal source. Each 100g of steak will provide 2.7mg of iron, and women need 18mg of iron daily for good health. If you’re dragging your feet during workouts, you could be low in iron. Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, breathlessness, dizziness and headaches.

Fruit: Any type of fruit will make the perfect post-exercise recovery snack. Packed full of minerals, vitamins, water and fibre, it will help you replenish muscle glycogen stores after a hard workout.

Whey: This type of protein contains a variety of essential amino acids and is particularly high in leucine, isoleucine and valine. These three form what’s known as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). They’re essential for stimulating muscle protein synthesis and are the perfect antidote for sore muscles.

Eggs: Eggs are one of the best whole food natural sources of protein and they contain a ton of nutrients your body needs for post-workout recovery. Most of the protein in an egg comes from the white, which also contains riboflavin (vitamin B2). Riboflavin is used to help break down macronutrient carbohydrates, protein and fats, so it has a really important job in maintaining the body’s energy levels.

Must not eat

Fast food: This contains high levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar. It provides a lot of energy, but not enough nutrients and protein for muscle recovery. To improve your fast food choices, go for sushi, sandwiches or high-protein salads. These types of meals will sit lighter in the stomach and give you the hit of protein you need for muscle recovery.

Energy bars: These are quick and easy, but contain a lot of energy and sugar that may hamper your muscle gains. Energy bars are highly processed and don’t contain enough protein. For on-the-go snacks, try a tin of tuna, a protein shake, a glass of milk or boiled eggs.

Sport drinks: Unless you’re running marathons or doing the Tour de France, you don’t need all that sugar. A 600ml bottle contains 15 teaspoons of sugar, which means you’ll need to cycle 34km every week to burn that off! Instead, aim for slow-release carbohydrates that will dampen your hunger levels and provide the nutrition you need for recovery. Go for carbohydrates such as basmati rice, pasta, wholegrain bread, sweet potato and quinoa.

2-minute noodles: These contain a lot of processed carbohydrates and salt with very little fibre, micronutrients and protein. If they’re the only thing in your pantry, turn them into
an improved workout recovery meal by adding a tin of tuna and steamed frozen veggies to increase the nutrient density.

Soft drink: This is really high in sugar and low in nutrients. One 600ml bottle of soft drink contains around 16 teaspoons of sugar! If you drink a bottle every day after the gym, it’s not an effective recovery snack – think about the fact that it would take 2 hours and 20 minutes or 21km of running on the treadmill to burn off that amount of sugar.