Fueling for Fitness

Youniverse Contributor: Alexis Joseph, MS, RD, LD, of Hummusapien

Whether you’re hitting the gym at Youfit or training for a triathlon, a well-designed fueling plan is a surefire way to enhance energy, speed up recovery time, boost performance, and reduce the risk of injury. The real questions are which foods are best, how much of those foods is optimal and when should they be consumed in order to properly fuel the body? Cardiovascular and strength training activities deplete energy stores and break down muscle tissue, thus increasing the body’s need for carbohydrates and protein—two macronutrients that are critically important to maximize performance. Understanding the role that these nutrients play in fueling for fitness will have you making the most out of your workouts in no time!

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Eating every three to four hours (think three moderately sized meals plus two to three small snacks) will not only help stabilize your metabolism but will also help spread your energy throughout the day and enable you to recover more quickly from workouts. Eating breakfast is even more important for athletes and active individuals than it is for those who are sedentary since athletes’ bodies are recovering throughout the night. Be sure to start the day with a balanced breakfast featuring a fruit or vegetable, a whole grain and ample protein. Examples include oatmeal with almond butter and berries, an egg sandwich on whole-grain bread with tomato and avocado or a peanut butter banana smoothie with chia seeds.

Before heading to your Youfit Club, you’ll want to consume a pre-workout snack that’s rich in carbohydrates to top off your energy stores. A small amount of protein in your meal will help reduce post-workout soreness as well. The size of that snack will depend on the length and intensity of your workout. For a low-intensity workout, consume a snack with no more than 200 calories about an hour or two before heading to Youfit. Examples include a medium banana, whole-grain toast with jam or a brown rice cake with a thin smear of peanut butter.

For a higher-intensity workout, consume a meal with roughly 300–400 calories three to four hours before exercise. Good choices include a fruit smoothie with a sprinkle of granola on top, oatmeal with raisins and slivered almonds or a banana peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread. For optimal digestion, avoid snacks that are super high in fiber and fat. Remember, carb is key when pre!

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Before, during and after exercise, it’s extremely important to replace sweat losses and stay well hydrated. Dehydration can lead not only to fatigue but also to impaired mental clarity and overall performance. Did you know that losing just 2% of total body weight can impede performance? As a general rule for replenishing fluid stores, drink two to three cups of water per pound lost. For a moderate to high- intensity workout lasting longer than an hour, a sports drink or small snack (such as a small granola bar) may be necessary to replenish electrolyte and carbohydrate stores. Consuming adequate fluid with that snack will help speed up the fuel transport to muscle. Coconut water is a great natural choice since it contains simple sugars and is an excellent source of potassium.

Now that you’ve completed your Youfit workout, it’s time to repair and rebuild that muscle with nutritious food! Resistance training (lifting weights) tears muscle tissues, so your body goes into repair mode after training. Consuming protein helps repairs those tears!

When you work out, you deplete energy in the form of glycogen stores. The brain relies on glycogen for fuel, so if you don’t replace it, your body will break down muscle tissue into amino acids and use that for fuel. The last thing we want is our body breaking down the muscle we just worked! Consuming carbohydrates post-workout in addition to that protein helps shuttle protein to the muscle. Once again, make sure the meal isn’t too high in fat or fiber, which slows the transport of protein to muscle. Remember, carb and pro when post!

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If your workout was primarily cardiovascular (running, elliptical, tennis, soccer), your meal should be high in carbohydrates. Examples include oatmeal with almond milk and berries, whole-grain toast with hummus and tomato slices, or a fruit smoothie. If your workout was primarily resistance training (weight lifting), your meal should ideally have a three-to-one ratio of carbohydrates to protein. For example, a typical post workout meal may have 60 grams of carbohydrates and 20 grams of protein. Excellent choices include grilled salmon with a baked sweet potato, chicken stir-fry with broccoli and brown rice, a veggie omelet with salsa and whole-grain toast, or whole-grain pasta with tofu. To maximize muscle growth, consume about 20–30 grams of high-quality protein after working out. It’s important to note that the body only metabolizes 20–30 grams of protein at a time, so it’s not necessary to consume a protein shake and a high-protein post workout meal.

While supplements are becoming increasingly popular in the fitness world, a well-designed diet should provide the energy and nutrients you need to sustain your workouts, build muscle, enhance energy and promote optimal performance. Since supplements are not regulated by the FDA, there is no guarantee of their safety, purity or effectiveness. However, supplementing may be useful for those looking to maintain blood glucose, optimize performance or promote hydration.

A high-quality protein powder is a convenient way to increase protein intake after a workout if you don’t have time to make a meal. There are several great options on the market today, including plant-based proteins such as brown rice, hemp or pea protein or grass-fed whey protein. To ensure you’re getting the cleanest protein powder, choose one without additives, artificial sweeteners and flavors. For example, rather than choosing a supplement with sucralose (an artificial sweetener), opt for one that’s sweetened naturally with stevia or honey.