Fitting exercise into your packed schedule might not seem like a priority but it can help reduce stress and support your mental and physical health. Plus, staying active during the winter can help you feel more motivated to eat well, which is key to weight maintenance during a time when many of us just want to stay indoors and Netflix and chill.
As much as I do not like to focus on weight, it seems to be all anyone talks about this time of year. While most people exercise to help maintain or lose weight, I aim to get my clients to exercise to feel strong, energized, and healthy — and take the focus off appearance, especially considering that when it comes to physical activity most people overestimate the amount of calories they burn during a workout. It likely only takes an extra helping of mashed potatoes or a slice of pie to more than account for many workouts (further emphasizing my point to exercise for other reasons!).
With this in mind, and assuming I am talking to the average person working out a few times a week, how do you fuel a workout for optimal performance and energy without eating more than you need to?
Fuel your workout by following your hunger cues
Becoming an expert of your own hunger signals is key. Learn to recognize when you are just getting hungry and plan to have a balanced snack or meal before hunger sinks in. And when you are satisfied: stop eating — even if your plate isn’t empty. A difficult practice to master because we are programmed to finish our plates. Slow down and tune in.
Following your hunger cues will help ensure you are fueling your body with the amount of food it needs, which will ultimately help fuel a great workout. For the everyday gym goer, the key is to plan your workouts around the meals and snacks you would already be having.
Plan your workout session for two to three hours after a balanced meal with a good protein and complex carbohydrate source. For example, a roasted vegetable, feta, and chickpea salad or a salmon salad sandwich with veggies and dip.
If you plan ahead, you do not need to add in an extra snack just because you are going to the gym. However, if you haven’t eaten a meal in over four hours and are feeling hungry, consider having a small carbohydrate-rich snack before your workout such as a banana or apple.
Also make sure you drink lots of water during the day to ensure you are properly hydrated. You do not need a sports drink unless you are vigorously working out for more than an hour or exercising in a hot climate.
If you like to work out in the morning before breakfast, you might need to have a more substantial bedtime snack to ensure you have enough energy, depending on how vigorous your workout is. If you’re doing a lighter activity, like walking or yoga, your normal routine is likely sufficient.
Trial and error is the best way to see how you perform in the morning with or without food. Having a small carbohydrate-rich snack in the morning works well for many people who can’t tolerate a more substantial breakfast before a workout but need something in their stomach. One piece of toast with jam or a piece of fruit can work well and will be digested fairly quickly due to the low fat and protein content. A small smoothie works well for many people, too. Once you find what works for you, stick to it!
Unless you are working out more than once a day (e.g. playing in a tournament), just use your normal meals and snacks to recover from a workout. If you time your workouts well, you should be able to have a “recovery” meal within an hour or two after working out (i.e. your normal breakfast, lunch, or dinner).
And, as I said earlier, ensure your meals are well balanced, including about 20-30 grams of protein and a good source of complex carbohydrates, such as roasted sweet potato. A piece of cooked meat (e.g. steak or chicken breast) about the size of a deck of cards, or about a ½ cup chopped, will have approximately 25 grams of protein. To get a similar amount of protein from vegetarian sources you have to eat a bit more: about 1.5 cups cooked chickpeas or just over 1 cup of cubed firm tofu, for example.
For the everyday gym goer who is relatively healthy and working out 2-7 times a week, you can fuel and recover from your workouts with regular, balanced meals and snacks, and water. Don’t waste your money on protein powders, sports drinks, and supplements. Keeping up your workout routine during the winter will help you feel motivated to make better food choices and leave you feeling great come summer.
Melissa Baker is a registered dietitian with a masters degree in nutrition communication. She loves being a part of the exciting nutrition world, and helping to improve the health and quality of life of Canadians. Every month, Melissa examines nutrition trends in her HuffPost Canada Living franchise, "What's The Deal?" For more from Melissa, check out her blog Upbeet.ca.