How Hydrating and Eating Well Can Lead to Improved Fitness

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An airman partakes of a salad bar.
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Brian Vick, a 35th Communication Squadron client system technician, places a piece of broccoli in his bowl at the Grissom Dining Facility at Misawa Air Base, Japan, July 5, 2018. (Airman 1st Class Collette Brooks/U.S. Air Force photo)

When to eat and what to eat are constant questions that affect your fitness performance, weight loss/gain goals and overall health.

I was recently challenged with a question by email that asked, "What should I eat/drink before, during and after my workout? My goal is to perform better in my running, swimming, PT test and following Spec Ops training."

The answer will vary, depending on your goal, but understanding the After, Before and During (ABD's) of Workout Nutrition will help all groups reach their fitness goals better. I saw the "ABD's of Recovery Nutrition" presentation of Paul Moore of Fitness4 Pros at a recent Mid-Atlantic National Strength and Conditioning Association regional conference and thought it was a brilliant way to discuss nutrition throughout the training cycle.

This understanding of what foods and drinks work best for performance gains requires a constant search for the individual. Here are some suggestions that will help you figure out what and when to eat. It depends on your individual likes, dislikes and goals.

If you are preparing to ace a fitness test or compete in a race or another athletic event, sports nutrition is vital to your performance. You have to experiment with immediate energy of carbohydrates (from fruits), juices, sports drinks, protein and fat sources to find what works best for you. Keep track of what and how much you ate and drank, and how you slept that night on your best performance days. Repeating those optimal days is obviously your goal to make it through tough training programs and fitness entrance testing.

You may even be exercising for more than one session per day and for several hours a day. If so, you really need to eat and hydrate well, and larger quantities of quality food usually will help you recover from multiple workouts per day.

For instance:

After a Workout

This could be a few of your regularly scheduled meals, depending upon the time of day you work out. The fitness performance group needs to focus immediately on carbohydrate replacement, as well as protein consumption for glycogen stores and muscle repair/growth for the next workout, respectively. Find what carbohydrates and proteins work best for you, but I would make sure that these meals are not only a post-workout meal but also a pre-workout meal for the next workout later in the day or early the following day.

Supplements tend to come into play during the post-workout nutrition game. I am not personally into supplementing daily, other than some omega-3 and omega-6 capsules and some multivitamins rich in all the B vitamins.

For a quick fix and to replace food in a pinch, I will take some whey protein powder with some chocolate milk. See the list below of quality carbs and protein sources that work great as post-workout meal ideas.

Before a Workout

If you are training for long, tough training programs -- coupled with a high-intensity effort for testing your maximums in calisthenics, miles of running and hundreds of yards of swimming -- you should eat a majority of carbohydrates no less than 45-60 minutes before exercise sessions. Choose low fiber, low fat and low/medium on the glycemic index for immediate and sustainable carbohydrate energy. I like baby carrots, bananas and apples for performance-testing, pre-workout snacks.

Many of my weekly four-mile timed beach runs and two-mile ocean swims at SEAL training were preceded with these fruits and vegetables. I often joke that baby carrots and apples helped me get through SEAL training.

During a Workout

Unless you are working out for extended periods to get used to 8-10 hours of training at Special Operations School, food intake during normal one- to two-hour workouts is not needed. However, during high-intensity training off and on throughout the day, you should be eating a higher carbohydrate diet but mixed with some light protein snacks as well.

The carbs are there to fuel you through the rest of the workout day, and the protein comes in to assist with added calories and help you recover when the day/long workout is complete. Consider this an endurance athlete's approach to training. You need to sustain high repetitions of body-weight movements, along with some strength and power for moving heavier team-building objects and endurance. You also need calories to handle many miles of running, rucking or swimming.

Great ideas are:

Carbohydrate options: Multigrain breads and pastas, cereals, vegetables (romaine lettuce, broccoli, asparagus, carrots) and fruits (tomatoes, strawberries, apples, berries, oranges, grapes and bananas) make great carbohydrates for energy. However, if you need to add some calories for either weight gain or weight maintenance, add in a limited amount of post-meal milk shakes. Chocolate milk provides a great mix of carbs and protein.

Protein options: Meats, fish, chicken, eggs, nuts, almonds, beans, milk, milk shakes with additional whey protein powder (optional) and peanut butter. I eat brown rice and lima beans between workouts during snack time or have a few servings with a main course of meat or fish for a good balance of plant and animal protein.

Fat options: Fish, nuts, olive oils, omega-3 fortified products (milk, margarine, peanut butter). I typically get most of these fats from nuts and fish, but I also supplement the omega-3 fatty acids most important to longevity and healthy recovery.

Not only does the performance group need to super-hydrate due to hard workouts, especially when they are excessively sweaty, but you also need to add electrolytes (sodium potassium, magnesium, calcium) as well. So foods and drinks rich in many of these elements are essential to your recovery from significant water and electrolyte loss.

If I can wring out my shirt after a workout, I will add more of these "salts" into my post-exercise diet. Sure, you can add sports drinks but stay away from the "energy" drinks that are loaded with caffeine. These are not what you need. Sports drinks with sodium, potassium and carbohydrates (sugar) are your best bet for hydration during and after hard, sweaty exercise. Bananas and water are also sufficient in most cases.

Here are some ideas for hydration:

After workouts, one of my favorite post-exercise snacks is a can of chicken noodle soup. It is loaded with potassium, sodium, carbs and protein; has about 3-4 times the potassium of a banana; and contains about 5-6 times the potassium of Gatorade. If you are not sweating much or are not in an arid environment, water should be enough to hydrate you.

Before workouts, do not drink too much if you are doing significant running. The bouncing potentially will cause cramping.

During workouts, sip water or a carbohydrate/electrolyte mix every 10-15 minutes to maintain high-intensity performance training.

A ballpark equation for the daily consumption of liquids for a highly active person is: 50%-75% of body weight in pounds = ounces per day of H2O.

Finding the right mix of carbohydrates, protein, fats, electrolytes and water depend on your age, sex, weight, activity level and goals. Whenever you have a killer good workout or test scores and feel great afterward, make a note of everything you did that day. Very often, it is the formula that works best for you and your fitness performance goals.

Good luck with your nutrition and performance fitness program, and I hope you see improvement soon. Workouts can be obtained easily at the Military.com Fitness Ebook Store. Send me an email, and I may post it up as an article next week. You can contact me at stew@stewsmith.com.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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