There’s no mistake about it: You’re dedicated. You work out five times a week and subsist on lots of skinless chicken breasts and broccoli (plus an occasional rendezvous with Ben & Jerry). Yet your punch still has all the power of a wet noodle behind it. What’s wrong?
According to nutritionist Eric Sternlicht, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, you’re undercutting your best efforts by failing to give your body the fuel it needs to recover from bouts of exercise. “The biggest mistakes women make when they’re training,” he says, “are not eating enough and not resupplying their carbohydrates and proteins.” To keep your program on track, suggests Sternlicht, who’s the founder of the Orange, California, nutrition-and-exercise consulting firm Simply Fit Inc., follow this simple checklist:
1. Combine protein and carbs before exercise.
For optimal performance, you should eat a mixture of complex carbohydrates and protein (nonfat yogurt with fruit or oats, for instance) at least 90 minutes before a workout. If you don’t have a chance to do that, a sports drink during the workout will help maintain the glycogen stores in your muscles so that you have the energy to train longer and harder.
2. Feed your muscles after exercising.
Woman cannot live by bread alone; she needs protein, too. During exercise, the body breaks down muscle and will remain in that catabolic state until it gets a new infusion of protein to restore the amount of amino acids in the blood to preworkout levels.
The recommended daily allowance for a sedentary person is 0.8 gram per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight. Depending on the type of training she’s doing, an athlete should get anywhere from one to two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Most nutritionists agree that the middle road one and a half grams should give an active woman enough protein to repair muscle. For a 140-pound woman, this adds up to 95 grams of protein on active days, or a good serving of protein at every meal, plus protein-rich snacks. High-protein foods include low-fat milk or yogurt (eight grams per eight ounces); cooked legumes (12 grams per eight ounces); and lean meat, fish, poultry and cheese (seven grams per ounce).
This is one instance, by the way, in which more may mean less: Taking in more protein than the body can use results in a higher rate of calcium excretion by way of the urine, which in turn can predispose a woman to osteoporosis. For insurance against this, Sternlicht advises, supplement your diet with calcium to make sure you get the 1,000-milligram RDA.
3. Choose the right carbs for refueling.
Not eating after a workout is the best way to set yourself up for a binge. Exercise depletes liver glycogen, and that’s what can lead to an appetite swing later on. The solution: Eat some kind of fruit with protein as a postworkout snack. A berry smoothie with protein powder or some nonfat milk and a banana, for instance. Fructose, the sugar in fruit, goes to the liver before it hits the bloodstream, thus replenishing your liver’s glycogen stores as well as your muscles’. “There’s a two-hour window after exercise when optimal glycogen resynthesis is taking place in the muscles,” Sternlicht explains. “This is when we see the greatest rate of repair and recovery. So if you eat after working out, most of the fuel will go directly into your muscles.”
Incidentally, the hormonal changes preceding menstruation also deplete liver glycogen. Although sweets like cake, chocolate and ice cream will satisfy you temporarily, they don’t supply fructose and only set the stage for another pig-out.
4. Stay Hydrated.
When you’re dehydrated your muscles don’t function optimally, which means you don’t get as beneficial a workout as you would otherwise. The standard recommendation is 64 to 80 ounces (eight to 10 cups) of water a day, but that isn’t enough if you play hard. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 16 ounces of fluid for every pound lost during a hard exercise session. To arrive at an accurate estimate of how much that is, weigh yourself naked before and after exercising (the naked part is key, since a lot of water ends up in your clothes).
Bear in mind that more sweat doesn’t always mean a better workout. “If you’re getting evaporative cooling, sweating is okay,” says Sternlicht. “But if you’re in a hot gym with no fan and you’re not replacing the fluids you lose, you’re getting dehydrated.”
Water is all you really need for rehydration, but sports drinks do provide the carbohydrates that help replace depleted glycogen reserves in the muscle and liver. For each hour of exercise, a 120-pound woman needs 600 to 700 milligrams of liquid (about two-thirds of a liter bottle) with a 4 to 8 percent carbohydrate content. Diluted fruit juice costs less than many of the prebottled drinks and works just as well.
Even if you could manage to eat a balanced diet, you still might need more nutritional support. Exercise is a process that involves tearing down and building up, so an antioxidant supplement containing vitamins C, E and beta-carotene can enhance recovery and help decrease cellular breakdown. Calcium, magnesium and zinc speed repairs to the connective tissues. And if you train hard during your menstrual cycle or don’t eat meat, especially red meat, an iron supplement may be in order. Be careful, though, not to take iron in combination with dairy or with other supplements; calcium blocks its absorption. The ideal arrangement is to wash it down with a big glass of orange juice, since iron’s bioavailability is increased by vitamin C.
Samantha Dunn is a Los Angeles-based writer with an interest in health, horses and fiction.