Updated: Feb 21, 2019
When I decided to undertake a personal training course in France, we covered several topics as part of the course; biomechanics, techniques for exercising, body notions and nutritional basics, amongst others.
Something I enjoy today, as I did then, is my own personal training, as well as training other people. Since I was a child I played rugby and exercised until it reached the point that I no long even thought about this physical dimension to my life.
When you become a Personal Trainer, however, you start to consider the mental processes behind exercise and the potentially shared mindset that is part of personal or group training.
Training in a gym, you soon realise, is not a straightforward, natural process. To make it appear natural, you need to appreciate some basic exercise principles and knowledge about living a healthy lifestyle. And it is in understanding and communicating these workout foundations that is at the heart of my job.
Or, to put it another way, a successful Personal Trainer is able to make people feel confident about their bodies and what they can achieve, and can also allow people to feel confident when they use their bodies to exercise.
The actual training part of a good workout requires mental effort, as it is important to focus on what the individual in question can achieve (using the right good techniques, good posture and an intelligently structured workout programme).
Which in itself can be a challenge!
Another thing that is vital when preparing to train, or finishing training, is nutrition, and having the right food plan for the exercise programme in question.
As you can imagine, many people ask me about what to eat, how many calories they should consume to lose or gain weight, and what to consume to maintain their energy levels. Because I never have issue with my body fat ratio or my body form in general I tend to eat what I want and when I want. However, when it comes to my professional advice, I do need to break the fundamentals of a healthy and intelligent diet down for people.
It is important at this point to be clear that personal trainers are not dieticians (which is a different area of expertise and requires a depth of knowledge).
I can give fundamental advice, for example, or recommend sources of information that can summarise a key the topic, but I cannot (and should not) dictate or specify a diet for another person. It is for that person, ultimately, to make such decisions on the advice available to them.
There is also, in my opinion, no single best plan to eat well to succeed in the gym. Instead, there is simply the best eating plan that an individual can follow realistically to their specific circumstance (taking into account the time and will available, and the lifestyle of the person concerned).
In general principle most people tend to follow the right diet for them for much of the time. However, and to paraphrase Michael Pollan (author of the excellent Food Rules), these days this is easier said than done, especially when seventeen thousand new products show up in the supermarket each year, all vying for our food spend. Most of these items don't deserve to be called food (they can be more accurately called them edible food-like substances).
Such food-like substances are highly processed concoctions designed by food scientists, consisting mostly of ingredients derived from corn and soy that no normal person keeps in the food cupboard. They also contain chemical additives with which the human body has not been long acquainted.
Today much of the challenge of eating well comes down to choosing ‘real food’ and avoiding these industrial novelties.
Food Rules is a great book and I advise everyone interested in healthy eating to read it!
It is easy to become confused where food is concerned, but this is to take the act of eating out of the context of our daily lives.
So, for example, I aim to structure my typical day around a group of dedicated activities:
Moments of solitude.
It came to me that this would be a productive way to live that way after I read an article a few years ago written by a French philosopher who was asked about the structure of his perfect day.
We are not farm animals. Our mood affects the way we live, and also the way we eat. I call it the ‘Bridget Jones Syndrome': You will feel awful if you eat awful food. People who come to train and choose a Personal Trainer to do so, are also, in my experience, likely to have a negative approach to the food they eat and the training they undertake because the two are out of kilter when they start to training.
Having a productive and full day will also help to influence what we choose to eat. In this light, and to best balance nutrition and training, the guidance of a nutritionist and colleague of mine is to create dependable social and eating habits, and to make a plan that can serve as a guide for such activities.
I found useful advice with regard to the above on NHS Choices, and I share this advice as follows to help you if you are so interested in following a sustainable healthy eating plan to support you in your workouts.
Food for energy:
Starchy and other forms of carbohydrate provide a source of energy for your body to perform at its best, no matter what your sport or activity. In general, the more you exercise, the more carbohydrate you need to include in your daily meals and around exercise.
A demanding exercise regime will use up your stored energy from carbohydrate quickly, so include some carbohydrate in most of your meals.
A diet low in carbohydrate can lead to a lack of energy during exercise, loss of concentration, and delayed recovery.
If you wish to adopt a lower carbohydrate diet for your sport, you should seek specialist advice.
Healthy sources of carbohydrate include:
Wholegrain breakfast cereals (including some cereal bars).
Potatoes (with skins on).
Fruit, including dried and tinned fruit.
Food for muscles:
Eating protein-rich foods alone won't build big muscles.
Muscle is gained through a combination of muscle-strengthening exercise, and a diet that contains protein and sufficient energy from a balance of carbohydrates and fats.
Not all the protein you eat is used to build new muscle. If you overeat protein, the excess will be used mostly for energy once your body has what it needs for muscle repair.
Most fitness enthusiasts can get enough protein from a healthy, varied diet without having to increase their protein intake significantly.
Healthy sources of protein:
Beans, peas and lentils.
Cheese, yoghurt and milk.
Fish, including oily fish like salmon or mackerel.
Tofu, tempeh and other plant-based meat-alternatives.
Lean cuts of meat and mince.
Chicken and other poultry.
A source of protein should be included at most mealtimes to optimise muscle building.
Taking in protein before and after a workout has been shown to help kickstart the muscle repair process.
Training protein snacks:
Milk of all types – but lower-fat types contain less energy.
Unsweetened soy drink.
Natural dairy yoghurt of all types – including Greek yoghurt and kefir.
Soy yoghurt and other plant-based alternatives.
Unsalted mixed nuts and seeds.
Unsweetened dried fruit.
Hummus with carrot and celery sticks.
Food before sport and exercise:
You should allow about three hours before you exercise after having a main meal, such as breakfast or lunch.
An hour before exercising, having a light snack that contains some protein, and is higher in carbohydrate and lower in fat, is a good choice to help you perform during your training and recover afterwards.
Choose a snack that you'll digest quickly, like:
Fruit, such as a banana.
A slice of wholegrain bread spread thinly with a nut butter.
A plain or fruit scone with low-fat cheese.
Yoghurt or non-dairy alternatives.
Cottage cheese and crackers.
A glass of milk or non-dairy alternatives.
Snacks to avoid before exercise:
These types of food may cause stomach discomfort if eaten just before exercising.
Fatty foods, like:
Chips or french fries.
Large amounts of nuts.
High-fibre foods, like:
Raw nuts and seeds.
Food and drink during exercise:
Most exercise lasting less than 60 minutes only requires water.
If you're exercising for longer, have a quick-digesting carbohydrate and some electrolytes (salts and minerals), such as:
An isotonic sports drink.
A glass of milk.
A cereal or sports bar carbohydrate gel.
Make sure you're drinking enough water (or similar) during your effort.
Water and exercise:
Not drinking enough water can have a major effect on your performance. You should start any exercise session well hydrated. This means drinking water regularly throughout the day.
The choice of drink depends on the intensity and duration of the exercise, and your training goals.
Only water is needed for moderate exercise that lasts less than an hour. An isotonic sports drink, milk, or a combination of high-carbohydrate food and water for hard sessions that last longer than an hour.
You can make a homemade sports drink with 200ml of squash (not low calorie), 800ml water and a large pinch of salt.
Learn more from our water and drinks page.
What to eat after exercise:
Food and drink also plays a part in recovering effectively from training.
If you train several times a day, refuelling with a source of carbohydrate and protein – such as a glass of milk and a banana – within 60 minutes of finishing your first session can help you recover faster.
If you're training less than this or have more time to recover, make sure you rehydrate with water and eat as soon as you can afterwards. This might be your next main meal.
Food supplements and exercise:
In general, a balanced diet will provide the nutrients and energy necessary for sport without the need for food supplements.
Athletes wanting to use supplements should seek specialist advice from a registered sports performance nutritionist from the Sport and Exercise Nutrition Register (SENr).
Find out more about bodybuilding and sport supplements.
Exercise to lose weight:
A demanding exercise routine can leave you feeling quite hungry if you're not refuelling correctly in between exercise sessions.If you're trying to lose weight, you'll need to watch what you eat and drink after your workouts.
If you consume more energy than you burned during your exercise, you may find yourself putting on weight rather than losing it.
A punishing exercise routine may not be the best way to lose weight.
In my opinion the above is good, evidence-based advice and I would encourage everyone to take its key points on board (and to visit NHS Choices to find out more!).
In the meantime, trust your gut, as they say and enjoy exercising, as it is a great medicine in itself.