Fuel your Fitness: How to Choose the Right Foods to Make the Most of Your Workout
By Erika Hawley, FNTP
When things start to get serious in your fitness routine, learning to properly fuel your workouts can make a major difference in your performance, your energy, and your recovery. The world of performance nutrition can be overwhelming; so, where do you start? Is it important to get pre-workout to energize and fuel the workout? What’s the deal with carb-loading or post-workout protein shakes? The short answer: it depends! The fuels needed in high intensity exercise (sprinting, for example) is different from lower intensity exercise, like a slow jog. Appropriately fueling your workout will depend on the intensity and duration of your training as well as YOUR unique needs!
The first step to determining the right fuel for your workout is to determine the level of intensity. The exercise intensity is based on how hard the activity feels to you, your heart rate, breathing rate, sweat, and level of fatigue. If you are able to hold a conversation in between your heavy breathing, you are likely in a low to moderate intensity; if your lungs are burning or you just hit a PR? You’re crossing over into the high intensity side, my friend.
Once you have a clearer picture of the level of intensity of your workout, we can start to get nerdy with our nutrition and add in some extra support to fuel our function!
Low to Moderate Intensity Exercise
The primary fuel source for low to moderate intensity activity is FAT. That means for longer endurance workouts or low impact cardio (think: biking, jogging, swimming, yoga) focusing on protein and fat sources will be key. Not only is fat the preferred fuel source for endurance sports, it’s also necessary for our body’s anti-inflammatory and recovery process! Fat intake has even been considered as a dietary predictor of future injury for runners!
If your fitness routine is focused around low or moderate intensity, think about adjusting your carb and fat intake by increasing a variety of lipid-rich foods: avocados, coconut oil, flax seeds, chia seeds, pasture-raised eggs and meat, etc.
Higher Intensity Exercise
When you want to have POWER in your workouts, we need to be thinking about carbohydrates. Carbs give your body a quick boost and have the ability to help buffer the stress of a high-intensity training session. Carbs are available to your body for this quick fuel when they are consumed hours or days before your session AND during recovery. It’s not just about having a quick carb fix before a session, we need to be thinking about the bigger picture!
Fun fact: during high intensity sports (for under an hour) small amounts of carbohydrates (including mouth-rinsing!) can enhance performance and have an impact on the central nervous system.
So, if you have a HIIT day or are training with intensity (think: close to maximum PR lifting, sprinting, etc) give yourself a quick carb source with some protein and fiber. Grabbing a banana or gluten free toast with nut butter is a perfect combo to fuel your intense sweat sesh!
Let’s remember to stay flexible
It’s not as simple as “fat for slow workouts” and “carbs for fast workouts”; With the body, there is always more to the story. We want to try and introduce balance and variety so that our body can choose what fuel source it prefers in the moment.
The goal is for us to build metabolic flexibility, or as Mike T Nelson explains: “People tend to focus on either fat metabolism or carbohydrate metabolism. But metabolic flexibility is actually looking at BOTH and how your body switches back and forth between the two”. Essentially, metabolic flexibility allows you to get the best of both worlds by using carbohydrates for fuel during exercise and fats to fuel the rest of our day.
One last, very important fuel source to remember: PROTEIN! If you are crushing it in the gym, your muscles need protein in order to recover, repair, and rebuild. One of the best ways to do this is by adding a post-workout protein shake. However, if you often struggle with energy in your day or in your workouts, pre-workout is not always the right solution to reach for. For most of us, the caffeine and added sugar in pre-workout can have a massive impact on our body: giving us a sharp spike with a quick crash of energy. Instead, try some Branch-Chain-Amino-Acids or BCAA’s! These are the building blocks of protein that give your body the perfect boost and buffer for your workout. If you supplement with BCAA’s prior to exercise, research suggests improvement on muscle growth, reduced muscle wasting, and improved recovery. When you’re shopping for a brand, make sure to read ingredient labels for added sugar or other bafoonery. Or, if you want a sure thing- grab Empirica’s BCAA’s; they are the cleanest in the land (and the fruit punch flavor is pretty rad!)
If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed, take a deep breath and remember: your body is on your team and it is always going to do the best it can for you. While it is true that the body has preferred fuel sources, it all depends on context. Your body is beautifully complex and, although we may try, we will never reach a ‘perfect’ macronutrient ratio every single day because our body and needs are always changing! The main goal is to always provide the body with a variety of nutrients and fuel rather than limiting some or overloading others. This way, the body has an abundance of resources to choose from and can learn to adapt and be flexible!
- Metabolic Flexibility - using carbs AND fats https://miketnelson.com/the-argument-to-use-carbs-and-fats/
- Carbs for training and competition- examples, etc. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21660838/
- Effects of pre-workouts with creatine & amino acids on aerobic & anaerobic performance https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20156347/
- Fat intake and injury in female runners- increase fat intake to avoid injury for endurance sports https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18173851/
- Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation to Support Muscle Anabolism Following Exercise https://www.gssiweb.org/sports-science-exchange/article/branched-chain-amino-acid-supplementation-to-support-muscle-anabolism-following-exercise