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Improper nourishment is a surprisingly common fitness obstacle. Many active people often don’t eat enough essential nutrients, especially around the times of their workouts. If you’re one of those people, you may find that you become irritable, nauseated and shaky halfway through your exercise. Or maybe you’re having trouble losing fat or adding muscle. Perhaps you’d rather lie down on the treadmill than actually use it. And it’s possible you’re feeling highly susceptible to every germ that someone else wipes on a barbell.

With so many studies published both in research journals and mainstream media, it’s often hard to know what and when to eat to fuel your workout, but you can start to overcome this obstacle with a little nutrition know-how about preworkout snacks, postworkout eating and, on the days when you’re training for long periods of time, about how to keep your engine running while you’re on the go.

Nutrient Needs

Research done in 2004 by Pamela Hinton, PhD, assistant professor of dietetics at the University of Missouri in Columbia, showed that the majority of male and female collegiate athletes were not eating enough calories, carbohydrates or protein. In fact, just 15 percent of the athletes consumed enough carbohydrates, and only 26 percent were getting enough protein. Disordered eating, such as semi-starvation or bingeing, was also common. Active people, as well as elite athletes, should be concerned about eating correctly.

“Poor nutrition decreases athletic performance and cognitive function for both groups of people,” Hinton says. “It also negatively affects mood, can cause lasting health problems, and decreases levels of male and female reproductive hormones and growth factors, leading to irreversible loss of bone mass.” In women, Hinton says, inadequate nutrition can also mean disrupted menstrual cycles and iron deficiency, especially among endurance athletes (such as distance runners) and vegetarians.

Along with requiring more calories and nutrients for fuel and repair, exercise also contributes to oxidative stress, a biological process that causes an imbalance between pro-oxidants and antioxidants (not unlike the rusting process that occurs when metal is exposed to air). Oxidative stress can cause inflammation, and it has been implicated as a contributor to chronic ailments such as heart disease. Luckily, a tasty selection of powerful antioxidants can help fight oxidative stress. It’s best to consume them as whole foods in the form of colorful fruits and vegetables, especially berries, citrus fruits, and dark, leafy greens. Also high on the list: moderate amounts of red wine, green tea and dark chocolate.

All in the Timing

When you eat is as important as what you eat. More nutrients aren’t always better. “Unfortunately, you can consume the protein of an entire cow, but if your muscles are not receptive at that particular time, the protein will be wasted,” explain John Ivy, PhD, and Robert Portman, PhD, in Nutrient Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition. Your body has different nutritional needs at different times. Timing your nutrition intake around your workouts means that you’ll still have plenty of energy by your third mile on the treadmill or the third period of the game, and that when you leave the gym or field, you’ll already be on the road to recovery.

1. Preworkout phase (one to two hours beforehand): During this time, consume 14 to 22 ounces of fluid to stay hydrated. Preworkout meals should be high in easily digested carbohydrates (70 to 80 percent of calories) with low to moderate levels of fat (less than 15 percent of calories), protein (10 to 12 percent), and fiber for quick digestion and less stomach upset, according to Chris Carmichael, author of Food for Fitness: Eat Right to Train Right (Berkley Trade, 2005). Good snack choices include a whole-grain bagel and low-fat yogurt, or a banana and a glass of milk.

2. The energy phase (during the workout itself): The main goal is to start hydrated and stay hydrated: Drink at least 6 to 12 ounces of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes. For workouts longer than 60 minutes, ensure a steady supply of carbohydrates and electrolytes, too. Consuming some protein during heavy and extended training will help limit muscle breakdown (see below), but during most exercise your main focus should be on getting enough water, electrolytes and high-quality carbs. Good choices include sports drinks and fruit juices high in naturally occurring fructose. Processed sugars will deliver the same desired spike in blood sugar but are less healthy for you overall.

3. The anabolic phase (the 45-minute window following a workout): During this time, the body starts repairing training damage by replenishing muscle glycogen, synthesizing muscle protein and boosting the immune system. Consume high-glycemic carbs along with a rapidly absorbed protein in a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio (such as a fruit smoothie and whey-protein combo). This moves the body from a catabolic (“breaking down”) to anabolic (“building up”) state and helps the protein get where it needs to go. Keep the overall sugar intake sensible, though – this isn’t a license to eat a king-sized candy bar. Fruit juice, such as pomegranate, is a better choice since it also contains valuable antioxidants that help reduce inflammation. Antioxidants are good anytime, but especially after and between workouts when recovery and repair are the main goals.

4. The growth phase: In the intervening period between one anabolic phase and your next workout or energy phase, the goal is to buffer the immune system, promote overall recovery, and keep protein synthesis and tissue repair humming along. Gradually taper carbohydrate intake for the first four hours after the workout to maintain the anabolic state and heightened level of insulin sensitivity. Shift from the sugar-based meal in the anabolic phase toward slowly digested, low-glycemic carb sources such as whole grains and vegetables to help keep blood-sugar levels stable. Grains and produce also contain many other important nutrients, along with soluble and insoluble fiber.

During this between-workout phase, eat regular meals higher in protein and lower in carbs; a ratio of 5 to 8 grams of protein per gram of carbohydrate works. Good examples include a chicken breast plus a small portion of brown rice and a salad, or, grilled fish wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla with some veggies.

It’s also important to eat fats from plant and fish sources, which provide valuable fatty acids (particularly omega-3s, which research shows are important for maintaining optimum health and treating many chronic health conditions). Avoid highly processed hydrogenated and trans fats.

Putting it Together

Following the basic principles of nutrition quality, quantity and timing will help you maximize the benefits of your training. Proper nutrients boost your performance, build muscle and burn fat, and help the body quickly repair any damage caused by activity. Eating more of what your active body needs, when it needs it, will keep you performing well in the gym – and feeling healthier no matter where you are.

Me? Undernourished?

Sometimes the signs of poor sports nutrition can be subtle. If any of these points describe you, you may not be meeting your body’s nutritional needs:

  • Diminished athletic performance, “hitting the wall” early in a workout, lack of overall progress and trouble meeting goals.
  • Fatigue, lethargy and weakness, resulting in poor motivation to work out.
  • Headaches, “sugar shakes,” nausea, fainting.
  • Loss of bone density, resulting in increased stress fractures.
  • More minor injuries and illness due to poor recovery.
  • Disrupted menstruation and ovulation in women.
  • “Brain fog,” lack of concentration, mood swings, irritability.
  • Periods of extreme food restriction, often alternated with uncontrolled appetite and binges.

Nutritional Guidelines for the Very Active

For very active individuals, exercise increases the overall need for calories and for many nutrients, including the three major nutrient groups: protein, fat and carbohydrates. Be sure you’re getting a proper balance.

Protein intake for people who regularly participate in endurance activities should be approximately 0.5 to 0.6 grams per pound of body weight a day (0.7 to 0.8 grams per pound for weightlifters and other strength-training athletes), according to a 2000 joint position statement by the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Dietetics Association and Dieticians of Canada. Some experts recommend even more: John Ivy, PhD, and Robert Portman, PhD, authors of Nutrient Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition, suggest consuming as much as 1.25 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.

Fat intake should hover between 20 to 25 percent of total calories.

Carbohydrate intake is important for all active people, especially endurance trainers such as distance cyclists, who might be on the bike for two or more hours. Chris Carmichael, author of Food for Fitness: Eat Right to Train Right, recommends aiming for 2.5 to 3 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day.

This article originally appeared as “Time to Eat” in the June 2006 issue of Experience Life.

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