Posted In Move

The science of food: how to get the most out of your workout

8th December 2015

Eating and exercising are two of my favourite things - but how do they inter-relate? Get the facts and learn how to make my favourite pre and post workout protein shake.

Eating and exercising. Two of my favourite things to do!  How do they inter-relate? The size, timing, and content of your pre- and post-exercise meals and snacks can play an important role in your energy levels during your workout, how well your body recovers and rebuilds after your workout, and whether the calories you eat will be used as fuel to burn calories, used to build muscle or stored as fat. 

I’ve done lot of research on this because I find it fascinating.  Most of what is written appears to be directed at men who want to body-build, which is largely not helpful to me or my target demographic.  However I think I have managed to understand enough of the principles to be able to adapt the data there is to the extent it is possible to come up with general guidelines. Remember that fuelling is highly dependent on a number of variables related to your body, your lifestyle, your fitness regime and your goals; what follows is necessarily quite non-specific.


Before exercise
Make sure you hydrate throughout the day. It takes 2-3 hours for your body to absorb water, so remembering to grab a bottle of water just before you workout to drink during your workout is not going to cut it. Being just one per cent dehydrated can cause a drop in metabolism and energy enough to significantly hinder your workout.

During exercise
As water contains oxygen, drinking throughout your workout can help you sustain the intensity you need to maximize your caloric burn.

After exercise
Coconut water is a great way to re-hydrate after exercise as it is will restore essential electrolytes. I usually make my post workout shake or smoothie with coconut water.

The actual quantity you need to drink is dependent on how intense and for what duration you exercise, as well as your sex, age, height, BMI and how much you sweat. The best marker is the colour of your pee! If it gets too dark after you’ve been working out, you haven’t been drinking enough water. Learn what is right for your body. Be careful with over-hydration. I have had hyponatremia before and it is no fun.

Calories and Macros

Restricting calories does not lead to a better body and almost certainly doesn’t allow you to get fitter. Have you ever tried to workout hard, but felt absolutely drained? Or does your body feel lethargic for days after a hard workout? The chances are that you simply aren’t fuelling your body enough to make significant metabolic changes. In fact, you may actually be slowing your metabolism down and encouraging the body to store fat!  Make sure you eat enough to sustain your lifestyle.

Many people, and particularly girls and women, don’t pay enough attention to getting the protein their muscles need to rebuild. If you don’t, you are going to get very little out of your workout as both cardio-based and strength workouts require protein for building muscles.  Contrary to what the low-carb craze may have suggested, carbohydrates are essential.  They are our main source of fuel. You cannot do intense workouts without carbs – you simply won’t have enough energy.

The easiest way to protect against ‘muscle catabolism’ (the breakdown of muscle resulting in a slower basal metabolic rate) is to fuel correctly around your workout. A protein dense, low GI carb snack an hour before your workout will increase the flow of amino acids to your muscles during training.  A protein based snack within the hour after your workout will be a good way to ensure you benefit from the exercise you have done,  recover your muscles well so you can train again more quickly, and give your body the nutrients it needs for the rest of your day. A protein shake using either dairy or plant based protein is a good way to do this.  I often make one an hour before I work out, drinking half of it then and the other half post workout.

TMA Emerald Energiser Workout Smoothie:

One small handful kale
One small handful spinach
½ avocado
½ frozen banana (I freeze peeled halved bananas in ziplock bags on the last day you could eat them – when they are about to turn brown)
200ml raw coconut water
100ml fresh coconut milk
1 scoop vanilla protein powder (I use Lomax Lean Development)
1 tbs ground chia seeds
1 tsp spirulina and 1 tsp lucuma powder  (Add any of your favourite superfood powders.  You may not be able to handle the spirulina but please try – it is so good for you!)

Blend until smooth. I use a NUTRiBULLET to make my shakes and smoothies.

Green smoothie

Proviso: Early morning workouts 

There is a body of research that suggests that working out on a totally empty stomach is the fastest way to burn fat since there is no food for your body to use as fuel. While that might sound great, the flipside of course is that an empty stomach is usually accompanied by low energy. If you are starving and lethargic, you won’t work out at full capacity and could end up burning a lot less calories than you might have done had you hit the gym with something in your system. If you like to workout first thing, the best thing to do is experiment to check if you can exercise to full capacity on an empty stomach. If you can’t, eat the minimum you require in order that you can. Some people swear by bulletproof®  coffee as the best sustenance to fuel a fat burning maximum intensity morning workout.

Eat to train: Train to eat 

Many fitness professionals follow this kind of cycle. Don’t get caught up in it unless you too have hours to dedicate to the gym. You probably do not need protein shakes on days you aren’t working out, unless you’re using them as meal substitutes.

We hope that this and our last MOVE post have been a useful guide in helping you get the most out of your workout!

Green smoothie

Photograph credits:

Shona is wearing personalised sports bra from DBA Apparel, cassini leggings from Heyjo and training shoes from Under Armour. Her water container is from Style PB and her favourite coconut water is Mighty Bee. Photographed in Gymclass London.

On purpose, Shona is leaning over and not breathing in. She received a few emails about “that perfect body” and “did you have your children via surrogate or do you edit the blog photos?”.  Absolutely not to both. Stomach tyres when leaning over are totally acceptable. Every healthy body is totally acceptable. There is no such thing as a perfect body. TMA will never edit any bodies on this site ever, especially Shona’s.