Fuel Your Fitness Journey: The Ultimate Nutrition in Fitness Guide for Exercise Enthusiasts

Ray, personal trainer and nutritionist in Manchester, high 5's a client.

Contents

Importance of nutrition in fitness

The importance of nutrition in fitness has become a rising topic in recent times as more and more people realise how much our results in the gym or our sport are affected by our choices in the kitchen. After all, we primarily use food as a source of energy, and so it follows that if we’re not fuelling our bodies properly, our performance will suffer. 

As well as using food for energy, our bodies require us to consume all the right elements for optimal health. This is a big reason why people go to the gym, play a sport or do other forms of exercise. For good health, proper nutrition combined with movement that both challenges our heart and lungs, but also our joints and muscles, is a winning combination. One without the other can be hazardous and it’s often nutrition that falls behind.

If you’re exercising hard but your body doesn’t have what it needs to properly repair and recover between sessions, your risk of injury around your joint structures and surrounding muscle increases, as the body is less able to handle the stress you’re putting it under. 

Another big reason that people tend to exercise is to improve their body composition and by doing so feel better about themselves and their appearance. Good nutrition is key for success here as well, to actually make sure that you develop that defined, toned look, but also for healthy skin, hair and nails. Depending on your age, it takes around a month for your skin cells to regenerate with new cells and these will be heavily influenced by what you eat. You literally are what you eat, so your appearance will be affected by this, even in the short-term.

Understanding macronutrients and micronutrients

Macronutrients

These are the nutrients that have an energy value, and the most common unit we use to measure this is kilocalories (calories for short). There are four macronutrients: Carbohydrates, Fat, Protein and Alcohol. These can all be used to provide the body with energy, however, they all also have different nutritional values, and for the most part, other functions in the body. The reason I say, for the most part, is that while alcohol contains energy, it provides no nutritional value. Therefore, along with its toxic properties, it’s very much a bottom-tier ‘nutrient’.

Other than being our primary source of instant energy during exercise, many carbohydrates (especially wholegrain/less processed/more natural sources) contain fibre which aids digestion and helps to keep us fuller for longer. 

Fats are our main source of stored energy in the body. This is what your body will use if you’re using more energy than you consume (i.e. you’re in a calorie deficit). They’re also essential for healthy cell membranes, insulation and also the transportation of vital vitamins around the body. 

Protein is used for repairing tissues in the body including muscle, and they’re an essential part of structures like hair, skin and nails, as well as hormones and enzymes which have many vital roles around the body. 

So when people go on diets that aim to cut out one of these key macronutrients, with the aim of consuming less energy (less calories), they will consequently be missing out on key benefits from that macronutrient other than its energy value. Which is why I never recommend this approach to those looking to reduce body fat.

A wide range of different fruits and vegetables in different sizes and colours.

Micronutrients

These nutrients (vitamins and minerals) don’t have an energy value, however the body relies on them for various internal processes. They are used in growth and development, energy release from food, defence against diseases, in the functioning of the nervous, circulatory, digestive, immune and reproductive systems…you get the gist – they’re needed for basically every bodily function. So deficiency in these is no joke. For nutition in fitness specifically though, their roles in energy systems, antioxidants and repair should be motivation enough to be eating a minimum of 5 fruit and veg per day, of a variety of colours. Generally, similar-coloured fruit and veg contain similar nutrients, so to consume enough of all the different vitamins and minerals, you should try to eat that rainbow 🙂

Pre-workout nutrition in fitness

Prior to working out, we’re looking to make sure we have our carbohydrate stores (the main source of energy used during exercise) in our muscles topped up. We also need a good level of blood sugar, so that we have constant access to readily available energy when exercising. An ideal amount of carbohydrate to consume is 2.5g of carbohydrate per kg of your body weight prior to exercise – either in a meal 3-4 hours beforehand or a snack 1-2 hours before. Your choice of carbs should be something slow-release like whole grain bread, pasta, rice or oats. 

A few pre-workout meal ideas:

  • Jacket potato with beans/chicken/tuna/plant-based alternative 
  • Wholewheat pasta with a source of protein in a tomato based sauce
  • Wholegrain sandwich with chicken/turkey/plant-based alternative/eggs/fish and salad

A few pre-workout snack ideas:

  • Cereal
  • Slice of toast/bagel with avocado
  • Oatcakes/rice cakes with jam/peanut butter/cottage cheese
  • Cereal/energy bar
  • Low fat yogurt with dried fruit

Post-workout nutrition in fitness

The main aim of post-workout consumption is recovery. Refuelling and repairing, so we are ready to go again next session. Two key elements are therefore important, replenishing carbohydrate stores in our muscles and providing our muscles and joint structures with protein to repair and grow.

Ideally, you should consume 1g per kg of your bodyweight of carbohydrate within the first 2 hours post-exercise, or as soon as you can. It doesn’t matter too much the type of carbohydrate at this point (for more detail visit my blog – What, When and How Much? Eating and Exercise).

You should then make sure to consume a good portion of protein, anywhere in the 30-40g mark is a good place to start. This will depend on your bodyweight and also your overall protein target. The main thing to focus on with protein is to split it up during the day and NOT to focus it all in one massive portion just after exercise (like 50g+) as you won’t be able to absorb it all and it’ll literally end up in the toilet.

Hydration and its impact on performance

Dehydration occurs in the body when the amount of water leaving the body, for example by sweating, exceeds the amount of water being taken in. In terms of your performance, hydration is important in regulating your body temperature as well as transporting nutrients to your muscles and removing waste products. If you become dehydrated during exercise, you increase the strain on the heart as the blood thickens and it has to beat harder to make sure enough blood is reaching your muscles. This extra strain will impact your performance if you’re dehydrated by even 2%. Your aerobic capacity (how well you can use oxygen to produce energy) can drop by a massive 30% when dehydration reaches 5%. So make sure you are sip sip sipping throughout high intensity exercise.

A man stops for a drink of water on a sunny day. He is standing on an outdoor racetrack

Meal planning for exercise enthusiasts

Ok so, considering everything above i.e. wanting to get alllll your macro and micronutrients into your diet, let’s have a look at how this can work in practice. If done right, meal planning can really help to boost your nutrition in fitness.

For your main meals, think 50% veggies, 25% wholegrain carbs, and 25% protein (30-40g per meal is good to aim for). What I would advise is to choose your protein first, as this can be the most difficult macro to eat enough of (see my other post – What, when and how much? Eating and exercise to calculate your ideal intake), then decide what veggies you’ll have with it. Finally, choose your carbs, as these are usually pretty easy to fit with your other choices. If you want to make life easier for yourself and make a few days’ worth of meals, you’ll want to make sure it’s something that will keep. Personally, I meal prep for the whole week!

Going for plant-based options is a good idea in terms of how long your food lasts but also in terms of health too. Keeping in good health both physically and mentally is key to your exercise performance. Choosing healthier options, such as less processed, plant-based foods can be really beneficial to your nutrition in fitness and overall well being.

My last tip is to make sure your meals are things you can enjoy. If you dislike the foods you’re eating, then you’re going to end up resenting the process, which again can impact your performance. If planning meals is something you’re struggling with and you would like some help from a nutritionist in Manchester, drop me a message and we can work on this together.

The role of supplements for nutrition in fitness

I’ll cover a few of the most popular supplements here and whether they’re worth the hype 

Caffeine

You’d think that caffeine might be beneficial in terms of getting started in a workout and getting psyched up, but it’s actually great for endurance. Just 3-6mg can improve your endurance while exercising. Additionally, in most studies, participants felt that they could do the same amount of work but with less effort, and so ultimately, they ended up performing better.

So caffeine = worth the hype! Just tread carefully if you’re prone to anxiety, headaches or sleep issues – you can still exercise just fine without it!

Protein supplements

Usually in the form of powder for shakes, or as snacks, like bars and yoghurts. There’s no issue with supplementing with these. As long as you’re eating nutritious meals that contain protein from whole food sources as well, topping up with supplements is an effective way of hitting your protein target. For powders, choosing one that contains all 9 essential amino acids (all are needed for building muscle) is key. Whey, casein or a vegan alternative (many vegan powders now contain all 9, so just double-check before buying) are great options. Protein shakes are a really efficient way of getting more protein in without many calories as well – about 20g of protein for around 100 kcal!

So protein supplements = worth the hype.

BCAAs

3 of the 9 essential amino acids are known as branched chain amino acids and these are Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. These 3 have particularly important roles in building muscle. Now although these are important, all 9 amino acids are needed for this process and there is no proven benefit of taking BCAAs. They may even have the opposite effect in fact, as taking these could compromise the absorption of other amino acids. This is because many amino acids compete for the same transporter cells in the small intestine where they are absorbed, and so if one type of amino acids is ‘using’ all of those cells, other amino acids may simply be wasted in urine as they can’t be absorbed.

So BCAAs = not worth the hype.

Creatine

Creatine is used by the muscles during short duration, high intensity exercise, so things like sprinting, throwing and strength or power training. It can improve performance by 5-10% by helping the muscles to produce short bursts of max effort. It can also help you sustain max effort for longer and allows for faster recovery between sets. This often means better results, as you have been able to place your muscles under higher levels of stress, and so you’re likely to see increases in power, strength and size (depending on your exercise modality).

There are no side effects of creatine, however, if you have any pre-existing liver or kidney issues, make sure to consult a medical professional before taking this one, as it does require these organs to work a little harder! Additionally, creatine causes water retention, which you may notice short term but it should level out after a while. When you start taking creatine, it’s a good idea to limit your caffeine intake several days before and during your first couple of weeks of supplementation, as the caffeine can completely counteract the effects of creatine during this time.

But creatine = well worth the hype.

Personally, as a nutritionist in Manchester, I take a variety of protein powders, bars, and yoghurts each day, alongside nutritious meals containing whole foods, as natural and unprocessed as possible. I then also take creatine once per day. I won’t go into how to take various supplements in this blog, but if you’re interested in learning more about nutrition in fitness, pop me a message on Instagram or in the comments below and I can give you some pointers from my experience as a nutritionist in Manchester

Common nutrition mistakes to avoid

One of the biggest (and most easy to make) mistakes is assuming that certain foods are ‘health foods’ or ‘diet friendly’. When in fact, often the opposite is true. Many foods have become popular in these ways due to influencer advertisements or packets having the words ‘healthy’, ‘diet’, ‘low fat’, ‘natural’ or ‘lean’ on them which can be misleading. Legally, they need to be able to back these claims but often there are less healthy aspects to these products. I’ll pop a few examples below.

  • Vegetable crisps – often very high in fat like potato alternatives
  • Fruit smoothies – very high in free sugars (bad sugar – actual fruit itself is a much better choice)
  • Granola and granola bars – often high in sugar and calories. You can make your own instead so you have more control of the sugar content!
  • Fruit yogurts – again high in free sugars (opt for natural/lower sugar yogurt and add fresh/dried fruit)
  • Gluten-free snacks – often higher in sugar and more processed that gluten-containing alternatives. If you have a choice, often gluten-containing products are the healthier choice in terms of being less processed.
Sliced oranges and a pitcher of orange juice on a table with a pile of dried nuts/grains

Now I’m not saying you should avoid these foods, they still have nutritional value and there really is no such thing as ‘bad foods’. There are simply foods with higher nutritional value and foods with less nutritional value. The foods with less value however, might add more value in terms of taste, texture and overall enjoyment and so these still have a place in your diet, perhaps just in moderation, instead of every day. I’d encourage you to have a think about the food/drink you most commonly eat and consider whether you are aware of what they contain, what benefits/drawbacks they have on your body and go from there.

Set realistic goals for your eating habits

Another thing to watch out for is getting so caught up in hitting a calorie goal, carbs or protein and to forget your veggies! I’ve seen this many times as a nutritionist in Manchester and it’s super easy to do when you’re thinking about so many other things. My advice would be, try not to set really ambitious nutrition goals straight off the bat that are drastically different from your current eating habits. If you are currently consuming 50g of protein per day and you set a target of 130g per day, you would need to completely change your eating habits and this can mean your overall nutrition suffers as you simply forget to eat anything else!

Instead I would recommend that each week you take a step back, review the previous week and then set smaller, achievable targets that get you a little step closer to your goals. If you’re serious about exercise, your nutrition needs to line up too and so this means it needs to become part of your lifestyle, not just drastically changing your diet for a period and then ‘falling off the wagon’ as you’ve not given yourself time to adapt.

Tracking and monitoring your nutrition in fitness

Apps like myfitnesspal are really useful tools to increase your awareness of the calorie and macro content of foods. These are apps where you input the foods and drinks that you consume on a daily basis and it provides a breakdown. You could alternatively keep a written food diary, simply to have more visibility over your intake. Sometimes we can eat without thinking during the day and not have much awareness of the whole day.

For micronutrients, without using sophisticated software, the easiest way is to spend a bit of time online or using nutrition books to educate yourself on where you’re getting the different vitamins and minerals you require. Apps like MFP can give you some insights here, but it’s not super accurate and it’s harder to see how you’re getting on over a longer period of time than just one day. It isn’t necessary to consume all micronutrients every single day as some can be stored in the body and MFP doesn’t account for that.

Healthline has a great resource that gives you the main sources of all the key micronutrients needed. If you would like a full analysis of your current diet by a nutritionist in Manchester, feel free to get in contact and we can discuss what you’d like to work on.

Taking notes at a table with a coffee.

Still have questions about nutrition in fitness?

It’s impossible to fit everything into one blog, so feel free to check out my other content for more useful tips on nutrition in fitness and overall well-being. If you have any questions, you can pop me a message on Instagram. And if you’re interested in working with a nutritionist in Manchester, please fill out an interest form and I’ll get back to you!

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Picture of Ray Hickford

Ray Hickford

Hi, I’m Ray, a health and wellbeing professional in Manchester working with clients through training and nutrition programmes to help them feel more confident, strong and happy both in and outside of the gym.
As a Qualified Personal Trainer and Level 4 RSPH Nutrition Advisor, I am constantly learning myself - from my clients, from other industry experts and sometimes myself! And sometimes I write some of this down for ya.

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