The amounts and types of food you eat before and after a workout can make a significant difference in the benefits you gain from exercising

By Wendy Cuthbert | March 2016

When we think of fuelling our workouts with food, we tend to consider devoting this strategy to maximizing our performance on that particular day. But the planning and timing of nutrition intake surrounding workouts has a far greater impact, affecting not just immediate athletic performance, but also overall energy levels, appearance, mood - even sleep.

Many changes are set in motion when sound principles in workout snacking are adopted, according to Ben Sit, registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition and founder of Evolved Sport and Nutrition in Toronto. Sit says small changes in diet that are related to workouts, both in timing and food choices, will usually have a noticeable impact within a couple of weeks: waistlines get smaller, muscle mass improves, energy levels rise and you will notice better workouts and more satisfying sleep.

The key, Sit says, is to know what your body needs nutritionally while finding ways to accommodate your personal tastes and tolerances.

Here are some principles to keep in mind:

- Pre-workout

1. Snack modestly

Abby Langer, registered dietitian in Toronto, says eating something small, such as an apple or a few crackers with cheese, an hour or so before embarking on any fitness activity is critical. A small snack puts fuel in your tank and sets the stage for a stronger workout, she says.

However, Langer cautions, too often she sees clients who overestimate their needs and upcoming calorie burn by taking in too many calories (both before and after a workout). This tendency can be influenced by marketing that pushes sports supplements promoted by sports celebrities. If you're grabbing a ready-made supplement, such as a fitness smoothie or energy bar, paying attention to nutrition labels is key and make sure the snack matches the intensity of your activity, Langer says. Most weekend fitness buffs (working out for less than an hour) don't need the high-calorie fitness snacks an endurance athlete might need.

2. Avoid fat

Although much is known about the importance of healthy fats, this isn't the time to toss back some almonds or smear peanut butter on your apple. Because fat takes longer for the stomach to digest and draws blood away from your muscles, eating fats before an activity can seriously affect the quality of your workout.

On the other hand, eating too much fat afterward also can have negative affects. "I typically recommend that people stay away from fat," Sit says. "It usually reacts differently in people's stomachs, and it also slows down the digestion a lot more." Low-fat dairy is a better bet than something like cheese or nuts, he says.

- Post-workout

1. Optimal refuelling windows

Sit says that there's a very specific window - 20 to 45 minutes after your workout - when your muscles crave nutrition to repair the damage inflicted during the workout activity. (Note that this is one type of damage you should embrace: it's the goal of working out.) You should try to eat in a particular way during that time in order to get the best result from our workout, he says.

2. Mix it up

Our bodies need both carbohydrates and protein for proper muscle repair; our activities dictate just how much we need of each class of nutrient. Endurance activities, such as a spin class, elliptical training or running, require more carbohydrates to top up your lost glycogen stores. However, resistance-based workouts (CrossFit, strength training) create the need for proteins to repair muscle damage, according to Sit. An ideal snack after an endurance activity would be a banana with a glass of low-fat milk. Since resistance training increases the need for a higher-protein snack, those workouts could be followed with an egg or a turkey sandwich.

3. Be a willing test subject

Although there are universal smart snacking principles, Sit cautions that plans have to be individualized to your tastes and tolerance, and that means a trial and error approach. For example, while having something small and carbohydrate-rich, such as an apple, an hour or so before working out may be ideal for all of us, not everyone is able to manage food before a workout - especially first thing in the morning, Sit says. You may have to choose a liquid form of nourishment (because getting nutrition that way can be easier) or even bring a snack along to replenish your fuel stores during your workout.

On the other hand, maybe you can't bear to think about eating after a particularly intense workout. Rather than lose the opportunity to refuel, consider a drinkable snack such as a smoothie.

4. Be flexible

You may love your paleo or raw foods regime. However, while some of the logic behind these trendy diets can be sound, they're not necessarily ideal for athletic performance, according to Sit. For example, the paleo diet - with its emphasis on protein - can affect your workout because noshing on too much protein before a workout slows down digestion, resulting in less glycogen available to your muscles and making workouts a struggle.

"One of the biggest reasons people have issues with exercise is that they can't enjoy it when they're not properly fuelled," Sit says. Once you make a few changes - replacing a sweet potato with a regular potato to supply more glycogen, for example - you will enjoy your workout more.

© 2016 Investment Executive. All rights reserved.