Like any complex machine that you want to keep running smoothly, your body requires the right fuel to maintain it in top condition and provide the energy you need to make your workouts as efficient and enjoyable as possible.
There are a plethora of sports drinks and energy bars on the market, but you most likely already have most of the ingredients you need for a super workout right there in your own kitchen. Not only are they less expensive, they’re healthier for you too! Most products on the market contain excess sodium and stimulants such as large amounts of caffeine, which can cause a post-workout energy crash and day-long jitters. Consider some of the following items instead, and enjoy a workout that leaves you vibrant and energised.
1. Oatmeal – For long-lasting energy, look to oatmeal to keep you going throughout the length of your workout. This whole-grain cereal is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates and is high in protein. The soluble fiber it contains slows down the rate of carbohydrate absorption, keeping your blood sugar at an even level.
William Evans, PhD, director of the Nutrition, Metabolism, and Exercise Laboratory at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences/Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Little Rock, fed one group of volunteers oatmeal and another a different type of high-carbohydrate cereal and then put them all on exercise bikes. He said, "There's no doubt that eating oatmeal allowed both men and women to exercise for a significantly longer time."
Add a spoonful of honey and some slices of banana to your bowl to add an extra energy boost. The fructose/glucose combination that honey naturally contains is superior to straight glucose for boosting energy during endurance activities, and potassium-rich bananas provide quick, long-lasting energy, in addition to helping to keep your muscles from cramping up.
2. Green tea – Studies have demonstrated that caffeine can boost performance, but coffee is not the best source. A cup of green tea will give you the caffeine benefit without making you jittery for the rest of the day. Green tea contains less caffeine than coffee, but it also has another natural stimulant, theophylline, that provides caffeine-like effects. This will give you a boost that’s similar to that of coffee, without the energy-sapping withdrawal. Consider taking a quart of iced green tea with you to the gym as a thirst quencher. However, don’t forget to also drink a sufficient quantity of water along with your tea, as caffeine in any form will dehydrate you.
3. Peanut butter – The combination of high dietary fiber and protein makes for steady energy, so look for a tasty snack like peanut butter on whole grain bread or crackers. Peanut butter is an excellent source of thiamin, niacin, potassium and magnesium and a good source of pantothenic acid, zinc, iron and phosphorus. The heart-healthy monounsaturated fat it contains (60%) is the same as the kind that olive oil provides. Spread some peanut butter on slices of apple or pieces of dark chocolate for a special treat.
4. Capsicum – Try mixing some capsicum into an omelet or salad. Red, yellow, orange or green, capsicums are a stellar source of vitamin C, which plays a key role in helping the body burn fat for energy. The red ones contain the most vitamin C, stimulating the production of carnitine, a molecule that transports stored fat to the part of the cell where it is metabolised, helping to burn more fat overall. It also helps your metabolism to remain high and work as efficiently as possible.
5. Yogurt – A food great for both building muscle and losing weight because of its low fat and high protein content, yogurt contains nutrients such as bone building calcium, protein, magnesium, potassium and vitamin B-2 and B-12. It also contains lots of healthy bacteria of the type that lines the gastrointestinal tract, boosting your immune system. These good bacteria can be compromised by intensive workouts, so be sure to replenish your supply!
Eating just one serving of yogurt a day also helps to maintain bone mass and reduces the risk of osteoporosis, especially if combined with weight training. Be sure to choose yogurt that is low in fat and sugar. Plain yogurt with berries and a little honey added can be a flavourful snack.
6. Watermelon – This refreshing fruit is high in the amino acid citruline, which the body converts into arginine in order to produce nitric oxide, which helps to increase blood flow to your muscles, delivering to them more oxygen, hormones and necessary nutrients.
High in vitamins C and A, watermelon is also an excellent source of the antioxidant lycopene, which helps to defend against cancer. According to the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the regular consumption of watermelon, in combination with drinking green tea, greatly reduces a man’s risk of getting prostate cancer.
Watermelon is rich in the B vitamins necessary for energy production. It’s a very good source of vitamin B6 and vitamin B1, magnesium, and potassium. With only 48 calories in a cup, watermelon delivers more nutrients per calorie than most other fruits. A couple of 12-ounce slices of watermelon provide 50 grams of carbohydrates and over 20 ounces of water to help keep you hydrated.
7. Sunflower seeds – Packed with vitamin E, arginine and glutamine, sunflower seeds help to rebuild your joints, increase muscle, and protect your liver. They are also a good source of magnesium, necessary for healthy bones and energy production. It also helps regulate muscle tone so you don’t experience mid-workout cramping and muscle spasms.
The best time to eat these foods is about an hour before your workout. This ensures that your muscles will have the optimal amount of fuel available to them to sustain you throughout the workout, and that you will burn energy most effectively.
"Ideally, the amino acids from a pre-workout meal that's high in protein will be hitting the muscle cells at the conclusion of your workout, thus providing ample resources for muscle growth and repair," said Aaron Shelley, M.S.S., director of sports performance nutrition at Texas Tech University.