What to Eat When for the Perfect Workout

Two-time Olympic Gold Medalist swimmer Megan Quann Jendrick, author of Get Wet, Get Fit: The Complete Guide to Getting a Swimmer's Body, shares tips on what the best foods are to eat at different times of the day for optimal workout results.

If you're getting ready for a workout, you have to take into account what you're going to be doing. The average workout, regardless of sport, usually works all types of muscle fibers, taxes your body's glycogen stores, calls upon fat for fuel, and pushes you hard for long periods of time. To give your body the best chance of (figuratively) surviving these tests of fortitude, you have to give it the right fuel. You wouldn't expect to see the world's best race car drivers putting cheap and inadequate fuel into the engines of their high-priced, top-of-the-line vehicles, so don't do it to yourself.

Carbohydrates (glucose) are stored as glycogen in the body. During exercise, these stores are called upon at higher intensity levels. Because fats are broken down and put to use slowly, they are usually burned during lower-intensity exercise. Because workouts consist of both low- and high-intensity sets, you need both in your pre-workout meal, with fats being consumed in lesser quantities. Protein, a source of amino acids and the major component of muscle, should also be consumed to keep up your strength and round out a well-balanced meal that will prepare your body for the stress that will ensue.

A quality breakfast would include things like whole grains, whole wheat bread, and oatmeal (but not the instant kind) as sources of carbohydrates.

Peanut butter is an example of a tasty source of unsaturated fat, assuming you choose an organic brand.

Organic foods in general are good options, but you have to remember that in most countries the rules aren't very clear on what can and can't be considered organic. Often, people pay three or even four times the amount of a similar product simply because it says "organic" and it's really of no better quality than the alternative. But as a practice, remember that the more food is altered frozen, cooked, fried, processed -- the more nutrients are taken away. As such, we encourage you to get foods as fresh as possible and cook them as soon as possible.

When thinking of your protein needs, yogurt and fat-free or low-fat milk are choices of dairy products that also provide fat. Eggs are not only a good source of protein but also the most obvious breakfast food.

Something worth considering is your approach to breakfast. What do you consider breakfast food? Many bodybuilders eat chicken, steak, or fish every morning. They eat oatmeal at what most people consider "dinnertime." Oatmeal is a food that most people enjoy, but simply at a later time of the day. Don't forget that the nutritional value of a food doesn't change, so if you enjoy it and don't mind having it within your first meal or two of the day, you should give it a try.

During Workout
Generally, in the realm of exercise nutrition, people think of only "pre" and "post" exercise nutrition. By doing so they're missing out on a very valuable opportunity to replenish the body and increase peak performance. Science has told us that glycogen stores are about depleted when exercise exceeds 45 to 60 minutes, leaving the body with less functional fuel to use. At this point, something like a single carbohydrate gel packet or sixteen to thirty-two ounces of a carbohydrate drink is of great benefit to the training athlete. Another commonly marketed option is bars. Gatorade and PowerBar both make several of these products, but we generally recommend against them during and immediately after exercise because they take much longer to break down and become useful. Thus we consider the other options superior choices for consumption during strenuous activity.

Of the gels and drinks you can find or make on your own, it generally comes down to a personal choice. Which do you prefer? Both are quickly broken down, and both -- if made of quality ingredients -- will help you fight off fatigue during long sessions of training. Even Gummi Bears can come through in a pinch.

For some people, drinks with high sugar content can be upsetting to their stomach. If this happens to you, don't worry -- it isn't uncommon and may very well make the decision -- gel or drink -- easier to reach.

Oddly enough, some coaches still hate to see their athletes taking in these types of carbohydrate supplements. Some say that they're nothing more than marketing, while others take more of an "old-school" approach and assume that if they didn't need them, no one does. Luckily, science has disproved the initial argument, and a slew of world records in all sports over the past decade may push away the latter. One study conducted back in 1983 by the American Physiological Society, well before the vast majority of marketed supplements hit the shelves, found that carbohydrate supplementation during exercise greatly increased the amount of time it took athletes to reach a level of fatigue that altered their performance. Countless studies since have proven those same results.

By the time a workout is over, whether it was an hour of lifting weights, a two-hour swim, or running long distances preparing for a triathlon or marathon, the body has used up its glycogen stores and many muscle fibers have been broken down and are in need of repair. Fats, being the most abundant source of fuel in the body and more slowly broken down, are of less importance at this stage.

Immediately after a workout, exercising athletes should be on a mission to repair the damage done. It's the best thing one can do to prepare himself or herself to come back better next time. You want fast-acting sources of carbohydrates, and you want amino acids that can be put to work right away to repair lean tissue.

Many athletes have a favorite brand of protein powder that they like to take after exercise. This is a great start; a whey protein powder is a fast-acting, easily and quickly digested nutrient source that will go a good way toward repairing your muscles. Unfortunately, it isn't enough. It's like getting dressed and forgetting to put your shoes on: you're missing something. Most protein shakes don't have much sugar, which is generally a good thing at other points of the day. After intense training, though, you want something to blunt any catabolism -- muscle breakdown -- taking place in the body.

There are some good options out there pertaining to products that include carbohydrates and protein together, but these are often highly touted as some miracle supplement (which they aren't) and thus are quite costly. If you want to go the shake route, which is used with great results by countless elite athletes, a simple solution is to buy your favorite brand of plain whey protein powder and add dextrose sugar, which is the food industry name for the biologically active form of glucose, a monosaccharide.

Regular table sugar is a disaccharide and its technical name is sucrose. Because of the structural difference, plain cane sugar has to be broken down into glucose before use. As such, it makes more sense, to aid in the quickest recovery, to ingest the simplest form of sugar with your post-workout shake. You can find this in some food stores, but also online at a variety of retailers.

Many people dislike the taste of protein powders, calling them "chalky" or simply not caring for the artificial flavors many possess. For these people, another beneficial drink to take in (remember, liquids are easier to digest than whole foods and thus superior in this situation) is a yogurt drink. Yoplait makes Nouriche and Dannon has created Frusion. Generally these products contain a 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, which is called the "optimum blend" by many nutrition experts.

So at this point we're going to assume you have your favorite food picked out to have in your bag, or at least somewhere readily available, as soon as you hop out of the pool. Don't be afraid to mix it up every once in a while; even if you find something you like, it's a good idea to go with something else you like for a couple days here and there. That way, you don't get bored with it. There isn't much worse in the nutrition realm than finding some delicious, nutritious food that you soon begin to pass on because you tire of it. Ask any competitive bodybuilder how he feels about chicken and broccoli, and you'll quickly understand!

While the intake of nutrients immediately after you finish your exercise session is fairly important, true post-workout nutrition is only beginning at this stage. Your muscles don't grow (or repair) while they're under stress -- as when working out -- so you have to give them what they need when they do have the opportunity to regenerate. That time is between workouts. Equally important after that initial liquid intake of nutrients is a whole-food meal rich in complex carbohydrates and solid proteins. At this point, adding a little fat into your meal isn't a real issue, but fats do slow the digestive process and for that reason we generally suggest keeping them to a minimum right after working out and i n the first full meal afterward.

As mentioned in the breakfast section, if it's something you enjoy, there's really no food that can be eaten only at a certain time of day. That said, eggs are again a great choice here, as are brown rice, potatoes, fish, and chicken. Take this meal sixty to ninety minutes after you finish your liquid meal.

Before Bed
The final meal of the day is often the most neglected in many respects: it's the one you take right before going to bed. When should it be eaten? What should it consist of? When these are answered, the next question is "Why?"

People tend to look at sleep as a peaceful time, a time of "nothing," because aside from their dreams, they don't consider it a stage where much happens. That opinion is actually about as far from the truth as one could get. Sure, you dream, but the body undergoes more repair and growth during sleep than it ever could while awake.

Many people have heard of human growth hormone. It usually gets a bad rap -- maybe you just saw on television another athlete busted for cheating with it -- or it's marketed as some wonder drug for those wanting to fight aging. In any case, a certain amount of this hormone occurs naturally in the body and can provide a host of benefits when allowed to do so.

Human growth hormone in the body is secreted by the pituitary gland. Its principal functions are to stimulate not only growth, as the name suggests, but cell repair. The major release of this hormone in the body takes place after you fall asleep. During sleep, the body also tries to repair the muscles, rest the mind, and revitalize after a hard day. Obviously, the more sleep (to an extent) you get, the better you feel. But still, even after a continuous eight hours of sleep, many people -- especially athletes -- wake up feeling weak and tired. Generally, this is because their bodies have been breaking down during the night instead of building up. This happens because proper nutrients haven't been fed to the body for several hours.

Because you don't eat during sleep, your body can use only what it has on hand. Effectively, your repair during sleep is about as productive as your last meal. Was it rich in nutrients, or was it something high in insulin-spiking sugar like ice cream?

As you've seen, proper nutrition involves a vast change from the traditional "three square meals" model. If you eat breakfast upon waking, lunch at noon, and dinner after work, you're really at a disadvantage because on top of those eight hours of sleep, you didn't eat in the three or four hours you were last awake.

Truth be told, there's very little you can do this side of intravenous injection -- which is obviously not an option -- to provide your body with amino acids throughout the course of an entire night's rest. What you can do, though, is give your body the best possible source of vitamins and minerals prior to bed that, if taken in the proper forms, can slowly break down and trickle into your system while you rest.

Eating before bed has been known to cause problems for some people in the form of stomach discomfort. Sometimes this is because the timing is new to their body, and it will go away after a couple of days' practice. Others merely can't handle the influx of food before lying flat on their backs for hours at a time. In general, though, people are receptive to this new meal. If you're not, practice with different foods until you find one that works for you, because there's bound to be something available.

We talked earlier about nutrient timing when it had to do with workouts. As you see, there's no difference before sleep. You need the right nutrients at the right time.

Protein supports muscle growth, carbohydrates promote active energy, and fats are a source of fuel and vitamins. At this stage, because we aren't preparing the body for stress, the two most important food classes are going to be protein and fats. Fats, again, have the added benefit of slowing digestion, which further slows the breakdown of food, and offers the advantage of providing your body nutrients for a longer period of time.

An excellent example choice for a bedtime meal is cottage cheese eaten about 15 minutes before bed because it's high in protein that is derived from milk and is therefore slowly released. Other options include caseinate protein powders and skim milk.

Get a complete training regimen that will enable everyone to achieve the body of their dreams through swimming with Get Wet, Get Fit.

Megan Quann Jendrick, author of Get Wet Get Fit: The Complete Guide to Getting a Swimmer's Body (Copyright © 2008 by Megan Jendrick and Nathan Jendrick), won two gold medals in the 2000 Olympics and is a longtime member of the U.S. National swim team. She has won ten titles and ten U.S. Open titles, and set twenty-six American records.

Nathan Jendrick, her husband, is an amateur bodybuilder, competitive swimmer, personal trainer, and freelance writer. A frequent contributor to TimedFinals.com and creator and host of the Deck Pass radio show, he is the author of Dunks, Doubles, Doping: How Steroids Are Killing American Athletics.

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