When people first start working out, they usually have a vague idea of what they want to achieve. But very few actually track their fitness goals, or their food intake, which makes it harder to see the changes.
The best way to start is to create specific objectives. Some of the most common examples include:
- To lose weight.
- To build muscle.
- To increase strength.
- To run a marathon.
- To improve general fitness levels.
Once you know what you want your end result to be, come up with a plan of action. Start by assessing where you are now, and identify any areas you could work on. The NHS guideline for those aged 19 to 64 years is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week, which is an excellent aim.
But how should your diet change with this change in your physical routine?
Healthy foods for basic workouts
To achieve peak performance during exercise, it's important to fuel your body with healthy food. This helps with stamina, building strength and staying energised. Failing to prepare your body properly can result in a slower post-exercise recovery time. To help get the most out of your workout, here are five power foods to include in your diet:
Bananas are an ideal pre-workout snack. Not only are they a great source of carbohydrates, which are essential for energy, but they're also packed full of potassium to help with nerve and muscle function. Giving your body a boost of potassium before a workout is also beneficial, as the mineral is lost through sweat.
Exercise is a great way to boost energy levels, but you want to feel pumped before a workout too. This is where carbohydrates come in - but it's important to eat the right ones. Wholegrain foods, such as brown rice, rolled oats, corn and wholegrain bread, are all sources of good carbs. They're also low GI foods, which means the energy they provide is gradually released into your body.
Smoothies are a popular pre-workout choice - and with good reason. Throw in a mix of fruit such as berries and bananas, vegetables like kale or carrot, some yoghurt and maybe protein powder. You'll find yourself with an ideal blend of essential vitamins and minerals that includes calcium, vitamin C and iron - everything your body needs for maximum performance.
Protein is essential when working out, as it helps repair your body's muscles and tissue. Chicken and turkey are good sources of lean protein, as is fish such as salmon. Non-meat protein sources include eggs, nuts and tofu.
The ingredients used to make hummus are just what you need to get your workout off to the right start. It contains unsaturated fats, protein and carbohydrates, all of which help optimise your energy levels when you need it most. Enjoy with sticks of raw veg or with a wholemeal pitta.
Diets for advanced exercise
For more intensive training, it is important to give your body the appropriate amount of protein in order to stay healthy and improve fitness. Protein is part of every cell of the body. It helps build and repair tissue, while also assisting the production of a number of chemicals such as hormones, and the development of enzymes. The body needs relatively large amounts of protein because it doesn't have an existing supply to draw on whenever it's required.
Here are four of the best protein-packed foods that can help during training, and make for a handy pre- or post-workout snack.
Packed with gut-friendly probiotic bacteria, calcium and nearly double the amount of protein found in regular yoghurt, Greek yoghurt is easy to eat before a workout. Add a little fruit or multigrain such as granola for a natural sugar boost.
Turkey and chicken breasts are packed with protein that is perfect for building muscle and maintaining energy levels during exercise. Eat with brown rice and steamed vegetables such as broccoli for a healthy meal.
Sardines can sometimes be overlooked, but these little guys are filled to the brim with protein and omega-3 fatty acid. You'll also find they're a rich source of vitamin D, which is great for bone strength. Have them on toasted wholegrain bread for a quick snack - they're especially delicious in tomato sauce!
Nuts are one of the easiest sources of protein to grab as you're flying out the door to start your workout. A handful of mixed nuts such as peanuts and cashews are packed with protein and healthy unsaturated fats - not to mention essential minerals such as iron, calcium, potassium and zinc. To stay low on sodium, buy unsalted or roasted.
What to avoid
The fuel you put into your body before exercising is critical to your performance - and what you decide to leave out is just as important. Some foods will give you a boost, while others will improve your energy levels for a while, only to lead to a slump soon afterwards.
Here are five foods that we recommend avoiding if you want to get the most out of your workout.
Spicy foods are renowned for leading to heartburn and indigestion - two problems you can do without during your workout. They're likely to make you uncomfortable, which will only cut your session short and leave you feeling unwell.
It can be all too tempting to overload on sugary snacks before your workout, but this is unlikely to have the energy-boosting effect you'd hoped for. You might feel invigorated for half an hour or so, but you'll soon come down from your high and feel unable to carry on.
You're prone to the same problem if you take in too many artificial sweeteners ahead of your workout. These are typically found in soft drinks but also some foods you might not have considered, such as some jams.
Fried foods aren't great for your diet at the best of times and this is certainly the case when it comes to working out. They are difficult to digest and won't give you the slow release you need to sustain your energy levels while exercising.
The last problem you need during exercise is dehydration. This can lead to severe headaches and, in extreme situations, may cause you to pass out. It is better to avoid salty foods and make sure you drink plenty of water pre-exercise and post-exercise.
Diet is something that is all too often overlooked by people getting into exercise and looking to improve their health. Even people who aren't doing regular exercise will find that they look and feel better when they put the right fuel into their bodies, and often it makes the difference between a good workout and a great one.