Sports nutritionist Rob Hobson helps elite athletes with their diets but you don’t have to be an top rower or runner to benefit from his brilliant advice. Here’s how, what and when to eat to get the most out of your workouts.
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Diet is vital for performance, whether you’re a runner, play team sports or lift weights, but trying to figure out what exactly you should be eating can be tricky.
I work with Team GB athletes and other professional sports people. The basics of healthy eating apply to everyone and much of my advice can be applied to women with busy lives who also train hard. Basically, you don’t have to be an elite athlete to benefit from fuelling your body well for exercise.
Food myths and a misunderstanding of dietary advice (I often meet sporty women who don’t eat enough carbs, for example, because they worry about weight gain) can leave you tired, which affects your ability to perform at your best. That can be frustrating when you’re trying to shave some seconds off your 10k run time or hit a PB deadlift. Fuelling your body correctly can help avoid injury too. Trying to lift a heavy bar bell when you’re lacking in energy could mean bad form which could lead to injury.
Then there’s the problem of lack of time – you might have to sprint from work to your 6pm gym class, for example, without a second to think about food. Tight schedules can mean you unintentionally skip meals or grab something on the go, which may not be the healthiest option to support all the hard work you put into your training.
So here are my top tips to help you get the most from your diet, to help you fire on all cylinders throughout the day.
Make sure you’re eating enough
A common mistake with busy women who train a lot is that they are under-fuelling. They then wonder why they feel shattered or crave unhealthy snacks. Try to match your energy intake with your energy output, which may vary from day to day depending on your training schedule. The easiest way to do this is by adjusting your intake of carbohydrates. On the days when you are training, you are likely to need more energy, so up your carbohydrate intake, which could mean having a grain salad for lunch or including more potatoes, rice or pasta with your evening meal. Always choose carbohydrates that are high in fibre, such as brown rice, pasta, bread or wholegrains like oats, as this will supply you with a slow release of energy. Then on rest days, eat fewer carbs.
While we’re on the subject, repeat after me: carbs are not your enemy
Negativity towards carbohydrates has made some people worried to include them in their diet for fear of gaining weight. Women footballers, for example, often under-fuel before matches. But carbs will provide the energy you need to fuel your daily life while adding essential nutrients to your diet, such as fibre and B vitamins required for energy metabolism (ie the process of burning food to release energy and storing what’s left for when it’s needed). Suppose you are doing long periods of endurance training or events lasting more than an hour. Carbohydrates such as glucose and fructose, found in energy gels and drinks, can be useful ways to support your energy requirements.
Meal planning will help you fuel and nourish yourself properly. Work out what family meals will work for you, not solely for your children’s tastes and nutritional needs. Make sure you have the right snacks and 'emergency' meal and snack ideas if caught short for time. For example, if you don’t have time for eggs in the morning, stock up on ingredients for an oat, fruit and protein powder shake to drink on the go. Keep a stash of healthy snacks in your handbag, gym bag, office drawer and car so there is always something to grab if time works against you. Go for nuts, seeds, bananas, dried fruit, energy bars (try Nakd bars, £9 for 18) or a protein shake, which is a really convenient way to get this nutrient into your diet during the day or after your workout (try Healthspan Elite Clear Whey Protein Isolate – Zesty Lemon, £34 for 750g bag).
Eat at the right time
This is important if you want to perform at your best when training. If you train first thing in the morning, get a good source of carbohydrates, such as pasta, rice, couscous or another wholegrain such as barley, in your meal the night before.
Training in a fasted state (eg before you’ve had breakfast) works for some and has benefits if you’re training for an endurance event. This is referred to as ‘training low’, as in training with low carbohydrate availability, and can be incorporated into your training schedule once or twice a week. The idea is that this type of training helps the body to adapt to burn more fat, thus sparing its carb stores. This can be an advantage during an endurance event as the body has a huge amount of energy stored as fat in the body, whereas carbohydrate stores are limited so must be replaced during the race. Please note this approach is not for everyone as some people find it hard to train in the absence of carbohydrates.
Post-workout, make sure you have something nourishing to hand to eat afterwards, especially if you have a commute or school run, and could get distracted and miss breakfast. You should have a well balanced meal, including both carbohydrates and protein – something like eggs on toast or porridge with fruit and nuts.
Training in the evening can make it tricky when it comes to deciding when and what to eat. If you have eaten lunch quite early and are training mid-evening, then try a light snack shortly before working out, like a small amount of yoghurt with chopped banana or half a toasted bagel with peanut butter, as your blood sugar levels could be quite low and the carbs will help to fuel your workout. Then after your evening workout, assuming you are eating a little later than usual, keep it nice and light with a piece of protein, veggies or salad and a small amount of wholegrain or legumes. Again, it really is down to the individual, what else you have eaten across the day, how hard you train and what your goals are. If you’re trying to lose weight, for example, you may ditch the carbs in the evening especially if you had carbs as a snack before your workout.
It is easy to get into the habit of picking at food but always dedicate time to sit down and eat. Try to schedule mealtimes when you plan your day in the morning. Picking can stave off the desire to eat something proper and nourishing, which will inevitably impact your energy levels and put you in the wrong frame of mind. When you plan your meals, always choose a good source of protein with a bit of wholegrain or other high-fibre carbohydrates and plenty of veggies to create a balanced plate of food to keep you energised.
Drip feed your protein
Protein is essential for muscle growth and repair, but it is not the be-all and end-all that many believe. Athletes engaged in regular physical activity are advised to eat 1-1.2g of protein per kg body weight. This is a good benchmark if you train regularly and have a hectic lifestyle. So a woman who weighs 60kg needs between 60g and 72g of protein daily. An average egg contains around 7g, while a small cooked chicken breast contains 30g. You can only absorb around 25g of protein in a sitting, so include a little protein with every meal to help support your body's recovery in between training sessions. On heavy training days, which may involve a lot of weight-bearing exercises, you may want to opt for a protein shake within an hour of training, as a post-workout snack.
“Food first” is always the preferred approach to diet but supplements can sometimes be beneficial. There are two ways to approach supplements: bridging a nutrient gap or improving performance outcomes. You might take protein powder post-workout to help with muscle repair or B6 for to stop PMS symptoms impacting on your training, for example. Take a balanced approach rather than ‘suck-it-and-see’, as the wrong type of supplement could negatively impact on your training efforts – seek advice from a qualified sports nutritionist if you are unsure.
Fill up on fruits and veggies
Yes, I know it's boring, but the fact is that few people eat at least five a day, including those who train regularly. Vegetables, in particular, are often left in the fridge when people are time-poor, as they reach instead for something easy to snack on. But if you want to fuel and perform like an athlete, they’re vital. A busy lifestyle with lots of training can impact your immunity, so including plenty of fruit and veggies in your diet will give you a good supply of vitamins such as A, C and E, which support your immune system. They also help to hydrate and ward off common dietary insufficiencies in women, such as iron. Foods like beetroot and dark green vegetables also contain nitrates, which can help performance by dilating blood vessels to improve blood flow to working muscles. Keep chopped veggies in the fridge in an airtight container so if you reach into the fridge for something to nibble they are there and ready to go. Peppers, carrots and cauliflower work well, especially when dipped in hummus and keep spiralised courgette in the fridge ready prepared. This makes a meal in minutes alongside a protein like prawns and a jar of pasta sauce (also one of your five a day).
Remember to hydrate during the day and especially while you're exercising. When you're busy, it can be easy to forget to drink, leaving you tired and unable to concentrate correctly. The brain fog associated with dehydration can also leave you feeling stressed, anxious and unable to focus – not ideal when you’re heading to the gym. The easiest way to check if you are correctly hydrated is when your pee runs light yellow/clear. You don't need to focus on water alone – herbal teas, miso soup and fruit salad all count. And make drinking water part of your routine - when you wake up you have a glass, have a glass with every meal, after you brush your teeth, and so on.