Here's how to get training food right, no matter what fitness goal you're working toward
Figuring out the right food to eat to fuel your workout can feel like trying to crack a super-complicated code. A lot of it depends on the type of exercise you're doing (and exactly what time of day you're doing it). There are even specifics on exactly what kind of carbs to eat before a morning workout. But let's take a step back and talk about big-picture nutrition. What do most people get wrong when it comes to exercise eats? We tapped Adam Kelinson, author of The Athlete's Plate, owner of a nutrition consulting company, a pro chef, and an endurance athlete (so, yup, he knows what he's talking about), to hear about the most common mistakes people make when working toward an exercise goal, whether it's setting a new PR in a 5K or lifting heavier than ever before.
Mistake #1: Training Without Worrying About Your Diet
Maybe you're feeling super motivated by your sleek new workout outfit and ready to take your exercise regimen from zero to 60. High-five for that killer enthusiasm, sister, but slow it down. "You can't exercise without nutrition," says Kelinson. Take a sec to get your diet in order. And then put on those new tights and have at it. You'll be way more prepared as a result.
Mistake #2: Thinking Your Current Diet Is Gonna Cut It
Let's say you don't totally ignore your diet but instead think your current way of eating is perfectly fine. It may be relatively healthy, but when it comes to exercise nutrition and performance, a generic "healthy" diet isn't enough. Most people make that assumption, but that's the biggest pitfall exercisers make, says Kelinson. "Your sports nutrition plan is only as good as your daily nutrition plan," he says. He estimates 90 percent of people aren't getting sufficient levels of at least one key nutrient (more on that later). So rather than stressing over whether you're eating the optimal pre-workout snack, instead focus on cleaning up your eating habits as a whole. (P.S. Besides weight loss or results in the gym, there are many more reasons to consider cleaning up your diet.)
Mistake #3: Loading Up On Sports Nutrition Products
If you look at ads from health stores and sports drinks alone, you'd think that if you want to be a *real* athlete, you need to load up on weird gels, protein bars, and supplements. Often, everyday athletes get confused by what they're supposed to eat to boost their performance, so they lean on these products, thinking they deliver all the nutrients they need. But many of these products are overly processed, so you're better off sticking to whole foods, says Kelinson. "You just need to eat for yourself at a general wellness level, and then add a bit more hydration for your workout," he says. Aim to down 16 ounces of water in the 30-minute window before you start, but otherwise, don't overthink it.
Mistake #4: Overindulging Post-Workout
Everyone has been there: Reaching for two servings at dinner because "did you see how fast I ran today?" or treating ourselves to the extra-large dessert as a reward for making it to the gym at 6 a.m. If it's a cookie you're craving, you shouldn't let anyone stop you, but know this—overdoing it can undo the work you did at the gym. Not to mention, thinking you've "earned" it sets up an unhealthy relationship with food. Here's the hard truth: You probably only spent a fraction of your time at the gym really and truly exercising, and that doesn't warrant a huge recovery meal, says Kelinson. Most post-workout meals go "well above and beyond the amount of calories that you might have burned and the energy that you might have used during that time," he says. Instead, stick to your usual balanced diet. "Your post-recovery intake is basically your preparation for your next exercise," he adds. Is loading up on dessert going to help you run faster or lift heavier? Eh, not so much. (Refuel with these high-protein, satisfying vegan smoothies.)
Mistake #5: Prioritizing Protein—and Nothing Else
Protein can help build muscle and aid in your weight-loss efforts, but the average exerciser eats too much of it and ignores other key nutrients, such as whole grains and fat, says Kelinson. "The low-fat, lean-meat, low-carb diet doesn't support general wellness or a positive diet that's the foundation of exercise," he says. There is such a thing as good-for-you carbs, and people have finally started to agree that fat can be beneficial—namely it'll help you feel satisfied longer. The current recommendation from the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans is that 35 percent of your total daily calories should be from fat—and that includes saturated fats like coconut oil and full-fat dairy. Just steer clear of trans fats (the ones that are common in processed foods), which should be easy if you're making healthy choices on a daily basis anyway.
Mistake #6: Overlooking Minerals
Fats, carbs, and protein are the three big macro nutrients everyone talks about, but by focusing solely on those, many people overlook vitamins and minerals that are also essential to performance. For example, magnesium is involved in oxygen delivery and muscle contraction, and iron aids energy production during long endurance events, according to a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. You don't need to overload your brain trying to calculate how much calcium or potassium you're getting in each meal though (phew!), says Kelinson. Instead, just try to load up on foods like seasonal veggies and whole grains.