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Foods Before Workouts: Proteins And Carbs Key To Fuelling Workouts

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Leading a step class and spinning session hours apart, Tamara Grand estimates she burns about 1,400 calories — equal to what some people eat in a whole day.

It's a particularly heavy stretch of cardio for the fitness trainer and exercise enthusiast, who works at the Port Moody Recreation Complex. And Grand has nutrition on the brain well before suiting up for classes, prepping meals and snacks to ensure she stays energized.

One recent day following a breakfast of pumpkin pancakes, Grand planned to have a smoothie containing a scoop of protein powder, fruit and a few handfuls of raw spinach an hour before spin class. She says the beverage gives her the carbohydrates she needs post-workout to refuel and replenish for spinning, along with the protein needed for muscle-building.

On days where she's training on her own, the mother of three likes to get an early start when her energy is highest. But whether it's a lengthy day of exercise or a solo session lifting weights, breakfast is always a must, such as teaming fruit with oatmeal or toast and eggs.

"If I don't eat properly, if I don't feel properly, I notice within about 30 minutes of the workout I start to lose my energy, and I'm looking for ways to cut corners and get out of it faster," says Grand, a resident of the Vancouver suburb of Port Moody who blogs about fitness and nutrition at fitknitchick.com.

For many trying to integrate exercise into their weekly routines, it can be tough enough to fit in a workout — let alone musing about what to nosh on ahead of time.

As a result, some individuals heading out for a run, bike ride, swim or group fitness class may give little thought to what — and how much — they should eat before and after exercise.

Nicole Springle, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic Canada in Toronto, says individuals should leave a maximum of four hours between their last meal and a workout. She generally advises people to try to eat within about two hours of training.

"You want to have something that's going to have some low-sugar carbohydrates...not too high in fibre, which can sometimes be difficult to digest," says Springle.

Story Continues Below: Check out the full list of must-have carbs before and after your workout session and why they're good for you:

Carbs To Eat Before And After Workouts
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Some potential options of a pre-workout snack could be a slice of whole-grain bread with peanut butter, crackers with low-fat cheese or fruit with yogurt.

"It's something that's got the carbohydrates to lift the energy stores because carbohydrates are what you're burning during exercise. It's what you need to lift your energy and your blood sugars, but also the protein in there just to basically kind of keep your energy running until you get to your workout."

For those with an hour or less to spare before a workout, Springle says individuals can often ditch the protein because the body will probably be fine in terms of satiety, or feeling full.

"You're going to be burning during your workout the carbohydrates that you ate the night before or the day before," she says. "Really, the purpose of (eating beforehand) is actually to give your body the energy to get you to the workout and get you started and to keep you going through."

Ashley Charlebois, a registered dietitian and certified exercise physiologist in Vancouver, sometimes suggests clients heading to the gym after work split their lunch in two, eating at noon and then again 2:30 or 3 o'clock.

She recommends following the plate rule: half the dish represented by vegetables or fruit, and one-quarter each of lean protein and whole grains, such as a tuna or egg salad sandwich with a side salad or veggies.

For individuals exercising longer than 60 to 90 minutes, Charlebois says they'll want to have a high-carb food source to both help re-energize them and stave off fatigue.

After about an hour of training, she says individuals will want about 30 to 60 grams of carbs, like a banana, three Fig Newtons, one-third of a cup of dried apricots or a sports drink. People can make their own sports beverage by combining a half-litre of 100 per cent fruit juice and a half-litre of water, with one-third of a teaspoon of salt added in for some electrolytes.

For those breaking a sweat in the wee hours, some may find they don't have the stomach to eat ahead of time.

"What to do in that situation is to kind of train your body to try to eat something," says Charlebois. "That could be starting with a glass of juice and then working your way up to a fruit and then working your way up to a slice of toast with peanut butter."

Those able to wake up an hour ahead of their workout may be able to handle a light bowl of cereal and half a banana. Twenty to 30 minutes before early exercise, a glass of juice is likely the easiest option, says Charlebois.

"It absorbs the fastest, and then it still gives you the nutrients and energy that you need to fuel you throughout that workout."

Staying well-hydrated isn't just key before and during workouts but also following exercise — especially for those who find themselves feeling famished afterwards.

"Sometimes, when people are actually thirsty, they might feel like they're hungry, so important to make sure to get fluids in first," says Springle.

Grand says she starts her day drinking about 16 ounces of water after her coffee, and if she has post-workout hunger pangs, they're more noticeable if she hasn't had enough to drink.

If individuals are constantly getting cravings or feeling really hungry after exercise, Springle suggests eating a snack 15 to 30 minutes afterwards containing carbs and proteins. Fruit is a good option because it provides a source of carbs that will help the body refuel and bring up blood sugar, while protein helps individuals feel full.

While there is nothing "magical" about bananas, Springle says they offer a little more in the way of carbs than other fruits like berries; that means they may be slightly more filling and aid with recovery more than some fruits lower in carbs. For those who won't be eating a meal for three or four hours post-workout, she recommends teaming it with a protein source, like a glass of milk.

Individuals opting for nuts as a protein source will want to select raw varieties, since roasting and salting takes away from some of the beneficial fats, says Charlebois. For vegans, soy yogurts provide a good amount of protein, as does tofu, she adds.

Many protein bars have low-carb content and high protein levels — while post-exercise you'll want and need the reverse, notes Charlebois. Individuals seeking out protein bars will want those containing 15 to 20 grams of proteins, but about one gram of carbs per kilogram of their body weight. Granola bars should contain less than 10 grams of sugar.

In addition to individual tuna servings, Grand finds small portions of cheese, dried fruit and hardboiled eggs are also great, portable snacks.

Chocolate milk — which contains carbs and protein — fruit and yogurt, or a little trail mix are light offerings than can help tide people over before their next meal, says Charlebois.

"(It) will also prevent you from overeating at your dinner because that's important too — especially if your goal is to lose or maintain weight," she says. "You don't want to overindulge after you've worked really hard."

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