Diet and nutrition are the critical counterpoints to a regular exercise program. Both proteins and carbohydrates are essential for preparing for your workouts, as well as for recovering from them.
To feed the rigorous demands of working out, you need to prepare your body for exercise and then repair it from the associated stresses. Proteins and carbs provide both the fuel that drives you during your workouts, as well as the building blocks that help you recover.
If you don’t eat before exercise, you won’t have adequate fuel to get you through an intense workout. Instead, you’ll feel tired and weak and have limited endurance. That’s because complex carbs provide the energy that fuels muscle contractions.
Carbohydrates are broken down by the body into glucose, which is used as energy. Any glucose not immediately used is stored in the muscles and the liver, in the form of glycogen.
Glycogen is the source of energy most often used for exercise. Because it is immediately accessible, glycogen is used for any short, intense bouts of exercise, from sprinting to weight lifting. Glycogen also supplies energy during the first few minutes of any sport. Though fat helps to fuel activity during long, slow-duration exercise, glycogen is still needed to help break down the fat into something the muscles can use.
Adequate carbohydrate intake also helps prevent protein from being used as energy. If the body doesn’t have enough carbohydrate, protein is broken down to make glucose for energy. That’s undesirable because proteins are the building blocks for muscles, bones and other vital tissues.
Though carbohydrates are the human body’s key source of energy, not all carbs are created equally. Simple carbohydrates, or sugars, can cause a spike in blood sugar, thereby stimulating excess insulin production, which causes a fast drop in blood sugar. This creates a vicious cycle of hunger and eating, followed by more hunger and more eating. Stick with complex carbohydrates of the fibrous variety, such as legumes, brown rice, whole oats, and vegetables. These are digested slowly and do not cause a spike in blood sugar (glucose).
Depending on your ability to break down food, you need at least an hour, perhaps 90 minutes, to properly digest before commencing exercise. You only need a small amount of food (about 200 calories), primarily consisting of carbohydrates. Small portions of food are easily broken down and digested, providing more immediate energy.
However, carbohydrates are also vital in the post-workout period. Eating carbs in your post-training meal will kick-start the muscle-building process. If you lack carbohydrates, you’ll fail to support the growth process. That’s because muscle glycogen not only provides fuel for hard training, but it also supports recovery.
Carbohydrates directly support muscle-building by fueling muscles and helping them to remain anabolic. Energy-starved muscles quickly fall out of an anabolic state and fail to grow. Carbs also create a special hormonal environment that plays a critical role in growth — they initiate the release of insulin, which increases protein uptake by muscles. Insulin also helps muscles take in testosterone, the body’s chief muscle-building hormone.
Carbohydrates aren’t just the most important nutrient for exercising muscles; they are essential for brain and CNS function.
Consume at least 50 grams of carbohydrates (in addition to protein) in the meal following your workout to kick-start the rebuilding process. If you don’t gain body fat from eating that much, boost it to 70-80 grams.
Also, be sure to eat an adequate portion of protein in your post-training meal; anywhere from 70-100 grams should be sufficient for muscle repair.and growth.
Protein ingestion also helps athletes recover from exercise. After all, proteins are the building blocks of muscle tissue. They aid in the repair of exercise-induced damage to muscle fibers. Unless a protein-containing meal is consumed during the recovery period, muscle breakdown will exceed muscle synthesis, resulting in the loss of muscle mass.
Some proteins digest faster than others. Whey protein, egg whites and some fish rapidly reach the bloodstream, while casein protein, red meat, poultry and whole eggs are slower. Faster-digesting proteins are best in the morning to reverse the overnight fast when the body sometimes falls out of a growth state. They’re also best before and after training, when the body needs immediate sources of protein to help prevent muscle breakdown. At other times of day, slower-digesting proteins do just fine.
Proteins and carbohydrates are best eaten together because they work synergistically, upgrading the ability to drive amino acids into muscles and resulting in growth.
Adults should get 45 percent to 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrates, 20 percent to 35 percent from fat, and 10 to 35 percent from protein, according to the National Academy of Science.
A triathlete, marathoner of other endurance athlete might get 60 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates and 20 percent each from fats and proteins. But a dedicated weight trainer or body builder may lower the percentage of carbs and increase the percentage of protein, finding a balance more along the lines of 50 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent fat and 30 protein.
Some people might have a hard time breaking their daily macronutrient intake into percentages. For these people, keeping track of their total protein ingestion might be easier.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein for persons over 18 years of age, irrespective of physical activity status, is 0.8 gram per kilogram of body weight per day (1 kilogram equals 2.2 pounds).
However, many sports nutrition experts (American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic Association) have concluded that protein requirements are higher for athletes.
The protein recommendations for endurance athletes are 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, whereas those for resistance and strength-trained athletes may be as high as 1.6 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.
Remember, you’ll get the most out of your training if you prepare for and repair from your workouts. Pushing your body hard to improve health and fitness requires you to nourish it. By giving your body everything it needs, you’ll get the most out of it.