How Can Nutrition Impact Your Performance? A Dietitian Weighs In

This article has been reviewed by Jeannie Versagli, RD, LDN. Jeannie is a Registered Dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a national professional organization, and is licensed in nutrition with the State of Delaware.

by Deion Clifton

Happy New Year! Now that we’ve reached a new year, you may be thinking about some of the unhealthy decisions you’ve made throughout the past year, month, week, or even day. Suppose you are like most of the nation and plan to create a new year’s resolution based on meeting and crushing your fitness goals. In that case, I, along with some help from one of our registered dietitians here at HAC, have some tips!

When it comes to working out and meeting your fitness goals, nutrition and exercise go hand in hand. Your diet plays a significant role in helping to supply the energy you may need to get through practice or finish out that gym session you have scheduled for this afternoon. A solid nutritional plan is key to living the healthy lifestyle you’re working hard to build.

What Does a Healthy Diet Look Like?

Consuming calories, carbs, protein, and water in moderation is an effective way of supplying the energy needed to make it through a workout. These different diet components contribute to your energy levels and exercise performance.

  • Calories are a unit of energy in our bodies. We increase our energy stores through the food and fluids we consume daily.
  • Carbohydrates supply fuel for the body. In a past article written by HAC dietitian Jeannie Versagli, she referred to carbs as “the body’s gasoline.” They are the preferred source of fuel for the body. Jeannie says the body stores carbs in the muscle and the liver. When stored carbs deplete, a person will become fatigued, decreasing performance and stamina.
  • Drinking water before, during, and after a workout will help ensure that you stay hydrated and keep your body at the right temperature. It will also help replenish the fluids lost to sweat during exercise.
  • Protein helps grow muscle and repair tissues. You can also store it as energy after the depletion of all carbohydrates.

Our in-house café makes it easy to get in that quick pre-workout or recovery meal on the go. All members and guests of the club can get their breakfast, lunch, dinner, smoothie, or snack from the café. Jeannie says she often advises clients to stop by the HAC Café after a workout.

Pre-Workout Nutrition

A good pre-workout meal will consist of a healthy mix of carbohydrates and protein. Remember, “carbs are the body’s gasoline.” The harder you plan to work out, the more carbohydrates you should eat! Carbs are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen and are the primary fuel source for our bodies. Glycogen is a fuel stored in the muscle and liver. You can only have as much glycogen as you’ve had carbohydrates. Jeannie recommends we consume “an easily digestible carbohydrate that is low in fiber one hour before exercising.” This food should equate to about 1 gram of carbs per kilogram (roughly 2.2 pounds) of body weight. Your snack should be small in portion to prevent any uneasiness during the workout.

Make sure that your pre-workout snack also includes a little bit of protein in it. Our body stores the protein to aid in regenerating the small muscular tears during strength training. According to the National Library of Medicine, it’s a myth to say that a high-protein diet will promote muscle growth (Nutrition and athletic performance, 2021). Protein does indeed help with muscular development; however, it can also be held as extra fat if you overeat it. Too much-consumed protein can lead to dehydration, a loss of calcium, and, eventually, kidney problems. Some signs of overeating protein are unexplained exhaustion, irritability, headaches, and diarrhea.

Water should ALWAYS be a part of your diet whether you’re exercising regularly or not. Try to drink about a cup of water BEFORE starting your workout. The recommended dosage is 250-350mL (roughly 1 – 1.5 cups) of water before a workout. About ½ to one cup (120-240mL) of water is recommended every 15-20 minutes while exercising. Since your body can shed several liters of water in just one hour of exercise, it’s crucial to ensure you have excess water in your system. A lack of water will lead to dehydration. Drinking the recommended amount of water will allow you to stay hydrated throughout your workout.

What are some good snacks to eat before a workout? Remember, you want something easily digestible and low in fiber, something rich in carbohydrates with enough protein to help restore those torn muscular fibers during rest periods. Here are a few examples of what your pre-workout snack should look like:

  • Bananas are one of the better options to have for a pre-workout snack. This fruit is high in simple carbs and low in fat, making it easily digestible. It’s also rich in potassium which helps to support muscle health and contractions.
  • Apples & peanut butter are other nutritious snacks if you’re not overeating. They are both nutritious foods alone. Together, they supply a healthy balance of fiber, protein, and fat.
  • Dried fruits are “good carbs.” They are a good source of carbohydrates and are easily digestible. Researchers recommend eating a handful of nuts and raisins at least 30 minutes before a workout to receive a healthy balance of carbs, protein, and fiber.
  • Whole grain toast with almond butter also supplies a healthy mix of carbs, protein, and fat. Though any nut butter would supply the nutrients needed to make it through your workout, almonds provide the most protein and fiber.

Your pre-workout snack should be eaten one to three hours before you exercise. However, everyone is different; some people can eat a snack within the recommended period, while others cannot. The type of pre-workout snack you eat and when you eat it can also depend on the exercise you plan to do. In the case of a runner, they might want to have a decent breakfast or a liquid breakfast before their run. The time of your workout is also essential in some cases. Jeannie recommends eating your pre-workout snack the evening before bed if you know you’ll get up early to work out.

Post-Workout Nutrition

Your post-workout nutrition has more to do with refueling your body and recovery than anything else. A post-workout meal should be rich in protein, carbohydrates, and fat (also known as macronutrients). These are all critical to your body’s recovery process. Protein after a workout provides your body with the amino acids needed to rebuild damaged muscle. Healthline recommends we consume 0.14-0.23 grams of protein per pound of body weight within the first hour after ending a workout.

Carbs are the primary nutrient our body uses in the recovery process. During our activity, we’ve exhausted most, if not all, of our fuel source and need to refill the tank. Jeannie recommends consuming at least 25 grams of carbs within the first hour after working out. You’ll want to eat or drink about two to three times more carbs than protein after a workout, as this helps to ensure glycogen resynthesizes properly. Problems will surely arise for those who fail to eat after a workout. Symptoms such as fatigue or disorientation can occur if you do not eat enough. Specialists also attribute muscular damage to a neglected post-workout meal. If you neglect post-workout meals often, the necessary repairs to those ripped fibers cannot be made, which could negatively affect your body.

As I stated earlier, water should ALWAYS be a part of your diet! Hydrating before, during, and after a workout is the best way to reduce the risk of dehydration. But water isn’t the only thing we can drink for replenishment. While water is essential for hydration, you may need to replenish those electrolytes as well. Electrolytes are minerals in your body that carry an electric charge. These minerals affect many of our bodily functions. Electrolytes often flush out through our sweat, so we must replace the calcium, fluid, and potassium we may have lost. Electrolytes can be replenished through either food or fluids.

What does a good post-workout snack look like? Remember, you should be looking to eat something that will REFUEL the lost nutrients in your body. Refueling your body with macronutrients is the key to a successful recovery. The following would classify as a good post-workout snack:

  • Low fat chocolate milk is rich in carbohydrates and has a good amount of protein and little fat. It also contains cocoa which is high in flavonoids and antioxidants. It’s also a fluid that holds electrolytes (sodium-potassium), phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium, which allows the body to absorb liquids better after a workout. Jeannie views chocolate milk as one of the best post-workout snacks.
  • Oat milk has more nutrients, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals than other non-dairy milk, such as almond milk. Jeannie views oat milk as the best option for dairy replacement. Smoothies with low fat or oat milk, if made right, can provide all the nutrients you need to replenish your body.
  • Low-fat yogurt and fruit is another excellent post-exercise meal because it has the minerals that help with fluid reabsorption plus carbohydrates and protein to help with refueling.
  • Half a turkey sandwich would be a good post-snack for your average man or woman. Keep in mind that if you are eating a sandwich, you will get the most out of using whole-grain bread. Jeannie recommends using high-fiber bread. Look for bread that’s at least 3-5 grams of fiber per slice. You want good, complex carbohydrates. Next, you would want 2-3 ounces of turkey. In total, this would give you about 210-250 calories.

Your pre and post-workout nutrition is an essential part of your progress and your recovery. One of the goals of exercising is to get into the habit of eating well all the time. It doesn’t take a large meal to feed your body the nutrients it needs before and after a workout. So, don’t make the mistake of depriving yourself of the macronutrients your body is asking for. Take the extra time to prepare a pre and post-workout snack, eating at least one hour before your workout and no longer than one hour afterward. When you eat during the recommended periods, your body can utilize those nutrients more efficiently. It’s crucial to replenish your body within an hour post-exercise because that’s when it is screaming for nutrients. In other words, that’s when you’ll get the most “bang for your buck.”

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