Knowing not just what to eat to fuel your activities, but also when to eat it, can be a bit of a minefield, especially since we are now being bombarded with a whole host of marketing for the latest in sports nutrition (including dubious drinks and energy gels). As someone who does a lot of exercise and has participated in many endurance events, I am often asked about the best way to eat for both performance and recovery. This article is designed to help you to keep your energy levels high and your recovery rapid.
What you eat or drink prior to exercising largely depends on the type of exercise that you will be doing, and your own unique physiology. Personally, I become nauseous if I exercise within two hours of eating, so I recommend that you experiment and plan accordingly. If you are training in the morning, remember that you will have had an overnight fast and your liver glycogen levels will be low. Glycogen is a polysaccharide (complex sugar) consisting of many glucose (simple sugar) molecules and acts as a secondary source of energy to keep blood sugar levels constant. If you are planning on performing long or intense workout first thing in the morning, a banana or a bowl of berries one hour before you start will probably be adequate, especially if combined with a small to moderate amount of protein, in a smoothie. Another option pre-exercise would be some sprouted buckwheat with quinoa milk, which is a good source of complex carbohydrates. Alternatively you can follow the example of Rich Roll, the inspirational Ultraman triathlete who uses a blend of dark greens, orange and blueberries prior to one of his punishing workouts (1). According to the UK Strength and Conditioning Association, intense training when blood glycogen levels are low not only has negative effects on performance, but also leads to loss of lean muscle mass via certain enzymatic pathways in the muscles involving the amino acids alanine and glutamine – the very thing that we don’t want. For the recreational athlete this is not likely to be problematic, but bear it in mind if you are wanting to bulk up. Good hydration is also vital (see below).
For less intense exercise or a standard moderate-intensity exercise class, the most important thing is hydration, so by drinking a green juice (see recipe), you will supply your body with some simple sugars, protein and electrolytes in a readily absorbable, delicious drink which will enable you to sail through the workout without necessarily having to eat first.
Chronic dehydration is a problem for many athletes, leading to reduced blood volume, increased core temperature, increased glycogen oxidation and reduced sweating, all of which have a detrimental effect on performance (2). Those following a living and raw foods lifestyle are generally less likely to become chronically dehydrated since they are consuming water-rich foods and will often be using nutritious juices, but exercising in hot weather or at altitude will increase water demand, so it is still vitally important to maintain good hydration, no matter what time of day you are exercising.
Again, hydration and electrolyte balance is the most important thing here. For those involved in exercise lasting 90 minutes or less, water is the best fluid replacement. Whilst there has been an explosion in the number of sports drinks hitting the market recently, these are of very dubious value to most people and contain all sorts of horrible chemicals that anyone seeking optimal health would do very well to avoid. For a long run in hot weather during which a lot of sweat will be lost, you will want to consider a drink that replaces lost electrolytes. The two best drinks for this on a living foods diet are green juice, as above, and coconut water. You might even want to mix the two together. I have devoted a section to sports drinks and their alternatives in my latest book, “The Whole Body Solution”. Suffice it to say that unless you are exercising at a high intensity for more than 90 minutes, or less than that in a hot climate, you’re unlikely to need anything more than water to maintain good hydration and performance.
If you are involved in an endurance event lasting several hours, that is a different matter – you will need to eat. Many elite endurance athletes literally eat on the go, and have their own favourite recipes (for example, Scott Jurek, the world’s greatest ultramarathon runner, can be found racing whilst munching through a home-made burrito in his book “Eat and Run”). For many, however, the thought of eating whilst running would induce feelings of nausea, so a drink may be preferable. Complex carbohydrates, with or without a small amount of protein are best. For a long and hard training session lasting a few hours, you’ll be aiming for an intake of 100 to 200 calories per hour, depending on your physical size. Since liquid nutrition is more easily assimilated, a good option would be a fairly dilute green smoothie, or a green juice blended with a small amount of banana or low glycaemic berries. It’s important to focus on low GI (glycaemic index) foods to maintain low body fat levels, since as well as maintaining a sense of fullness, low GI foods cause a greater rate of fat oxidation (3).
For long hikes of several hours, raw bars are a lifesaver, and made a frequent appearance on my menu when I climbed Kilimanjaro two years ago (along with raw onion bread, raw crackers, raw granola, wheatgrass juice sachets and as much water as I could drink). Whilst these options often represent poor food combining, you can’t exactly take a Vitamix or a juicer up a mountain, or indeed on your bike if you’re cycling distances in excess of 100 miles.
The purpose of the post-training or post-competition meal is, according to sports nutrition experts at Liverpool John Moores University, to “replace muscle and liver glycogen stores, replace fluids and electrolytes lost in sweat, promote protein synthesis and attenuate immunosuppression induced by the stress of competition.” In other words, recovery. Intense exercise depletes the body of water, electrolytes and protein, and increases the demand for the thousands of antioxidants that we know we need for optimal health, longevity and anti-ageing. Get this meal wrong and you are potentially setting yourself up for illness, accelerated ageing, muscle wastage and energy depletion, which is surely the exact opposite of why we are exercising in the first place!
Research shows that combining protein with carbohydrate within thirty minutes of exercise nearly doubles the insulin response, which results in more stored glycogen. The optimal carbohydrate to protein ratio for this effect is 4:1 (four grams of carbohydrate for every one gram of protein). Eating more protein than that, however, has a negative impact because it slows rehydration and glycogen replenishment.Traditional sports nutritionists will advise that to replace glycogen, we need high sugar foods and even yucky energy gels. I would recommend using a green juice or coconut water for hydration after a race, followed by, within an hour of finishing, my berry smoothie (recipe below). This will replace lost electrolytes and provide not only easily digestible protein, but also the plethora of antioxidants that we need to mop up all those damaging free radicals produced by intense exercise. An alternative to this, which I often use after long runs, is chia seed porridge with raw almond milk, which you’ll find on page 49 of The Whole Body Solution. When you start to get hungry again, that is the time to eat lots of green leaves, green leafy sprouts and some soaked seeds for an additional protein source. For sure, there will always be people whose post-competition meal is a huge curry and several pints of beer (I know, I used to train with one!), but those who pay this little attention to their recovery will be “rewarded” with pain and accelerated degeneration.
By giving ourselves the most hydrating, nutrient-rich meals, our reward will be a faster recovery and an ability to train harder and for longer next time. Please note that for those with a cancer diagnosis, a fruit smoothie such as this is to be avoided, since sugar of any kind feeds cancer cells and is inappropriate. Happy training!
- Rich Roll: Finding Ultra, Crown Publishing Group, 2012
- Sawka MN, Burke LM, Eichner ER, Maughan RJ, Montain SJ, Stachenfeld NS: Exercise and fluid replacement. American College of Sports Medicine 2007, Med Sci Sports Exerc 39(2):377-90
- Stevenson EJ, Astbury NM, Simpson EJ, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA: Fat oxidation during exercise and satiety during recovery are increased following a low glycaemic index breakfast in sedentary women. J Nutr 2009, 139(5):80-85.
400ml pure water or coconut water
1 small banana
1 handful of fresh or frozen mixed berries (I use blueberries, cherries and blackberries for maximum free-radical neutralising)
1 tablespoon raw tahini
½ to 1 scoop Sunwarrior “Warrior Blend” vanilla protein powder
1-2 teaspoons maca powder
4 ice cubes if using fresh berries
Your choice of superfoods/whole food supplements/green powder (I use raw B12 and Juice Plus capsules – http://www.juiceplus.co.uk/+mt016459)
Blend the banana, tahini, water, berries, protein powder and ice cubes on high speed until smooth. Add the superfood powders and process on a low speed for no more than 10 seconds. Drink, relax and recover!
Green juice (all ingredients should be organic)
4 sticks celery
1 large handful sunflower greens
1 large handful pea shoots
1 tablespoon E3Live (liquid blue-green algae, optional)
1 inch ginger root (optional)
1 clove garlic (optional)
Half a lime
Run all the above ingredients through a heavy-duty juicer (I use my Green Star Elite juicer for this) and enjoy before, during and/or after your workout.