The ultimate workout foods and the prime times to eat them

Last autumn, Australian scientists discovered something rather alarming about breakfast:in the active person, it is not the most important meal of the day – not by a long shot, if you exercise regularly (and especially not if you work out later in the day and want to fuel athletic performance and progress). In fact, their 10-week study of 23 active men revealed that, when it comes to fitness, the day’s most essential meals are the ones consumed before and after exercise. “If you have to choose one or the other, focus on the preworkout meal,” says Dr José Antonio, CEO of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN).

The reason is simple. When you exercise, you break down muscle tissue. In order to repair itself and grow stronger, that tissue needs amino acids, which are supplied by your blood. Your muscles also need energy (in the form of glucose), which you get from carbohydrates. “That’s why the preworkout meal is so important – it creates a concentration of nutrients when your muscles need it most,” says Dr Jeffrey Stout, president of the ISSN. The best preworkout meal varies, depending on whether you’re going to lift weights or train aerobically. Here’s what to eat and when to eat it.

Running or cycling

Eat a bowl of All-Bran cereal with skim milk, peaches and apples, and drink a glass of apple juice. Scientists at Loughborough University in England found that runners who ate this low-glycaemic (slow-burning) meal three hours before they ran were able to run eight minutes longer than after eating a meal rich in simple carbohydrates, which digest quickly for fast energy. Limiting simple carbs prior to exercise prompts the body to burn fat as fuel, sparing muscle glycogen (the primary source of energy for muscles). “It also provides a steady release of energy, so you don’t crash before your workout ends,” says Antonio.

Weightlifting

Drink a fruit smoothie with whey protein, a rich source of amino acids. A study at the University of Texas Medical Branch found that lifters who drank shakes with carbs and amino acids 30 minutes before exercising synthesised more protein than lifters who drank the same shakes afterwards. In short, “they gained more muscle in less time,” says Stout. Their shakes contained 35g of carbs and six grams of amino acids. To duplicate it, blend one scoop of whey protein (available at any nutrition store) with one teaspoon of flaxseed oil (a rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds), half a cup of fat-free yoghurt and one cup of apple juice.