Nutrition plays a huge role in how well you can perform when exercising. This role varies between different sports and activities, but there are some general rules to follow.
Remember: As you demand more from your body, your body demands more from what you eat and drink.
Planning your day effectively sets you on the road to recovery. Eating a nutritious meal within the hour of your workout and getting a good night's sleep are 2 top tips for making the most of your time. You may have heard conflicting information on whether a plant-based diet is good or bad for exercise performance. The answer is neither, overall diet quality is the important part. Think about your diet as a whole, rather than trying to eat food that fits into a specific group, such as low fat or avoiding artificial sweeteners.
Protein is the first macronutrient (a nutrient we need in the diet in large amounts) that comes to mind when exercise is mentioned. When exercising, especially weight training, muscle is essentially torn and needs reconstructing. To build muscle, the body requires amino acids, which are the units that make up proteins. The body can’t produce 9 essential amino acids, so we need to get them from our diet. Take a look at our Guide to Protein for more information.
Carbohydrate often gets a bad name, but it’s an important macro. Amongst other uses, it spares protein to carry out its other jobs (like repairing muscles) other than providing energy. Have a look at our Why Carbs Aren’t Bad article. Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in the body. During anaerobic exercise, such as sprinting and weight lifting, the body uses carbohydrate, and if that runs out, protein. During aerobic exercise, such as swimming or walking, if the glycogen stores run low, this is when you feel tired.
Similarly to carbs, fat is often seen negatively. Fat is actually the most calorie dense macronutrient, so it’s a great source of energy. Give our Good Fats and Bad Fats article a read for more information.
When there’s not enough carbohydrate in the diet, the body starts to use protein as fuel after exercise. This means there’s less protein available for recovery, which can hinder results. If you’ve heard of carb loading, this is where the idea fits in, it ensures the body has enough fuel so performance isn’t affected, particularly for endurance athletes. The more you exercise, the more carbohydrate you need.
Vitamins and minerals, or micronutrients, are also key. Micronutrients have functions throughout the day, from training to sleeping. For example, B vitamins help the body to use the nutrients from food for energy, while zinc is involved in reconstructing tissue[8, 9].
Drinking enough fluids is also important. Water helps with digestion, regulating body temperature and circulation, transporting nutrients and oxygen to cells, removing waste products, and providing lubrication and cushioning to joints.
When we exercise we produce heat, and sweating is a way to cool down. A loss of 2% body weight in fluid can seriously impair the ability to do muscular work, so it’s crucial to sip water, not just during exercise, but regularly throughout the day.
As you increase your exercise levels, your body’s demand for certain nutrients also increases. Your body will require more energy so up goes your calorie needs.
When you sweat you lose fluids and electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium and chloride. Stay hydrated throughout the day, and, as well as consuming foods, electrolytes can also be topped up with sports drinks.
Folate and vitamin B12 are vital for proper red blood cell functioning which deliver nutrients to cells[13, 14]. Iron ensures that red blood cells can transport oxygen effectively, so a lack of iron can lead to tiredness. Calcium and vitamin D help maintain bone health and reduce the risk of fractures.
Sleeping and recovery are one and the same. Sleep gives the body time to start restoration processes. Tryptophan, and magnesium regulate the sleep hormone melatonin. Not getting enough could lead to poorer quality sleep and consequently a slower recovery.
Correct fuelling for a workout is important. Have a small meal, which includes carbs, about an hour before a session. However, the most crucial time to effectively fuel for a workout is after your previous workout. Have a protein and carbohydrate based meal within the hour after a training session[19,20].
As there are so many ways to exercise, the easiest way to categorise is into aerobic (otherwise known as cardio) and strength training. Aerobic exercise is longer and more sustained, while strength training tends to involve intervals of intense exercise with the aim often being muscle growth.
With strength training, eating protein from the right sources ensures you get all the amino acids you need. There is one essential amino acid that deserves a shout out; leucine. We need around 2.5g of leucine per meal in combination with other amino acids to kick start the building of muscle[21, 22]. You can make sure you’re getting enough by eating a meal with complete protein sources such as soy, or rice and beans.
For longer exercises, eating enough carbohydrates provides the energy required to prevent fatigue and help you to reach peak performance.
Eating a varied diet will provide all the nutrients your body needs. It’s best to aim for whole foods because most nutrients are more effective when eaten with others. Absorption can depend on what else is eaten, for instance, fat soluble vitamins like vitamin D are better absorbed with fat. Read our How Well are the Vitamins and Minerals in Huel Absorbed article for more information.
There has been a lot of talk recently about whether a plant-based diet is better for performance and that people who didn’t consume meat couldn’t reach their full exercise potential. A plant-based diet is neither better or worse for exercise performance than an omnivorous or a heavy meat based diet. It’s the overall quality of the diet that is key[26, 27]. For instance, a diet lacking calcium and vitamin D, whether it includes meat or not, will lead to poorer bone health. Where the benefits of a plant-based diet come in is environmental impact. For example, plant sources can produce as much as eight times more protein for the same carbon emissions as animal sources. Take a look at our How to Eat More Plant-based Foods article for more information.
A plant-based diet can also increase diet quality through an increase in fibre and a lowering of saturated fat[29, 30]. It can be nutrient-dense, but it’s likely that a vitamin B12 supplement will be required. Read more on the 26 Essential Vitamins and Minerals article.
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