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14 Sep, 2022

How and when to refuel with Phoebe Liebling

With the launch of our 10-Day Energiser programme, we are focussing on all things movement this month. A contentious topic is nutrition around movement, making it confusing to know what to eat and when. We sit down with nutritional therapist Phoebe Liebling to understand and unpack this in more detail for you.


Nutrition and physical activity, eating and exercise, moving and munching. However you say it the combination of what you fuel yourself with and how you then utilise that firepower is always a point of conversation as there are many different camps suggesting quite a few different options. So get ready because that head scratching ends now, after reading this you will be 100% certain as to what you, yes you specifically should be turning to.


So this would depend on the time of day and what you are doing.

If you are a morning exerciser and choose a more gentle form of activity such as a shortish walk to work or a restorative yoga session quite soon after waking it might very well be the case that eating before doing these doesn’t sit particularly well with you, in which case I would say water and naturally decaffeinated herbal teas are perfectly sufficient. If you are female and happy to do so I would think about adding a pure collagen powder into the above drinks as this gives a small amount of bioavailable amino acids to the body just so it has a little something in its back pocket to work off. Men can do this too of course but it’s less of a necessity. This is due to the more complex nature of the female body with their monthly tide of hormonal changes. Because of these they will naturally need more support than men when it comes to not perturbing their metabolism in a negative way which can happen when exercising fasted.

If you are exercising more intensely in the morning, something like a HIIT class, CrossFit, a longer walk or a swim, then I would advise either having a more substantial drink or a small snack before going. Again the activity will matter, for an outdoor morning swim I find a blend of ceremonial cacao, dairy free milk, and 2 tablespoons of collagen is the perfect combination that gives me something to fuel myself but doesn’t make me feel sick when swimming, but if I was to go to a gym class I would find that plugged around a bit so I’d opt for rice cakes or a small piece of bread with nut butter and banana or hummus & cucumber.

If you want to have caffeine pre-exercise I would always encourage you to listen to what your body is telling you. Caffeine stimulates stress hormone response, exercise (that raises your heart rate) does this too, and naturally we produce cortisol (part of this response too) in the morning. The thing about more stress hormones circulating is that this also increases circulating insulin, and insulin is a storage hormone that prevents fat metabolism. A really big spike in stress hormones (adrenaline & cortisol) in the morning will often result in a crash later in the day and take your blood sugar down with it which can leave you feeling wiped out in the afternoon, craving sweets and potentially eating in excess of your needs which is not what we want. Conversely some people can use caffeine as a brilliant performance enhancer and not find this is an issue at all. If purely having caffeine (with nothing to eat) and then training however I would also add MCT oil to provide your nervous system with a fuel source. This doesn’t impact glucose metabolism so doesn’t break a fast if you follow such a regime, and it’s a great way to keep your body ‘calm’ & in a balanced metabolic state.

Back to food now though, & the key thing we’re really looking at is the gap in time between eating & exercising as this impacts what you want to prioritise in terms of food combinations and proportions. A short gap means you want some relatively simple carbs + a bit of balancing protein & fat but not too much as you want to get to that relatively quickly liberated energy to burn to fuel your workout. However if we then swing to having a meal an hour or 2 before heading to exercise we want things that are more slow burning & sustained so they’re still ‘active’ in our systems when we go to train.

As an example if you were going to have breakfast at a normal time at the weekend then head to a gym class or head out for a run mid-morning you would want more complex carbs such as a nutrient dense toast + protein rich topping with some nice fibrous non-starchy veg + a little bit of fat, something like scrambled eggs or tofu and a couple of handfuls of rocket/spinach or some mushrooms/tomatoes on rye with avocado. Try our baked eggs or mushrooms and cashew cream on toast for some delicious options. Otherwise you may choose a wholegrain porridge with an added protein source like protein powder, cottage cheese or eggs and cooked fruit, nuts & seeds. Try our favourite porridge recipe here. If going for an oaty option then just make sure you aren’t getting your carb-protein balance wrong - we want equal amounts of these and often recipes will swing much more to the carbs especially when toppings are added in. This is when you might think about including an innocuous veg into your oats e.g. courgette, cauliflower or carrot, to provide bulking fibre for satiety but keep the carb content a touch lower.


Another hugely contentious topic & this again depends on the intensity of exercise, length of time you’ve exerted for & your needs generally. It has previously been touted that you must eat within 30 minutes of exercising to ensure your body has the appropriate nutrients to repair & regenerate muscle tissue, this however has been generally disproven as your body creates an amino acid pool which serves as a mixing pot of building blocks that your system will dip into as it requires. If you are eating a well balanced, protein rich diet there isn’t a screaming need from this angle to be having something as you finish your session.

However I will now revert back to someone’s individual needs & potentially contradict myself a touch. As I mentioned above exercise increases stress hormone levels which, in addition to increasing the presence of the storage hormone insulin, also down regulates digestive function. This can mean that trying to eat and then absorb a protein rich meal after exercising can prove quite difficult as this requires a lot of stomach acid firepower, and if it’s a particularly intense form of exercise such as spinning, this might make someone feel quite distended should they try to sit down to a wonderfully balanced and nourishing meal within an appropriate eating window to support their body’s rejuvenation process. This would be another instance where they might then misconstruct their post workout meal, or leave it too long to eat, and then find there is a resultant blood sugar and energy crash a few hours later. And hey presto, we find ourselves happily segueing into the positive use of high quality protein powders to bypass this issue. I will just confirm here that if someone were doing a more calming form of activity that doesn’t push them into their cardio heart rate bracket (some forms of yoga, restorative walks/swims, mat pilates or a mobility session for example) then these impacts on digestion won’t be seen and you wouldn’t need a supplemental product, a normal meal would suffice.

So yes protein powders, the great, the intermediate and the down right stomach turning! If you can tolerate dairy then choose an organic whey protein with no additives, if you don’t include dairy into your diet then choose a plant based product with a mixed base (a combination of legume, grain & nut/seed forms), avoiding purely grain based options like rice protein. You are always aiming for the key level of 25-30g protein per serving, with no binding gums, sweeteners or flavours. If you will be eating a meal within an hour or so then you can simply blend protein + a handful of greens + a few berries and either water or a milk of your choosing. If you want it to be a little more robust because you’re rushing off somewhere and will eat your next meal 3-4 hours later, then add 1 large handful of steamed and frozen courgette or peas, 1/2 banana or 2 tablespoons oats, and either 1/4 - 1/2 an avocado or a spoon of nut butter. Gain sweetness from additions like cinnamon, cacao or vanilla powders rather than sugars or sweet dried fruits if you can...

In terms of constructing a post workout meal, like I said if it’s a relatively low intensity workout stick to regular plate proportions of 1 cupped handful of complex carbs (wholegrains, root veg, nutrient dense bread) + a palm sized portion of protein + 2 handfuls of non-starchy veg & a tablespoon of a fat rich food (avocado, cold pressed oils, pesto, nuts, seeds, olives). If you have done a higher intensity workout then you will have burned through more of your glucose stores & will likely need to increase your carbohydrate portion by ½ again whilst keeping the remaining elements the same. Try our sesame-crusted tofu rice bowl as a great post-workout refuel meal.


In addition to protein powders there are a huge number of extra bits you could choose to include as part of your activity regime. If going for proper high quality products based on knowing what you need these can be incredibly useful for enhancing athletic performance. If you are unsure however or get fobbed off with well marketed nonsense then you are better off not using these things.

To highlight a couple of bits that I will often recommend my clients use:

Motion Nutrition Brain & Body Creatine - creatine the primary energy carrier for muscle cells but also nervous system tissue/the brain. We naturally get this from animal products so if you are vegan or not a meat eater you might find that you are functionally depleted in creatine to achieve optimal performance level. Additionally if you are pushing your body frequently with a lot of physical exertion this could be a hugely useful inclusion to aid your body to perform. This product is my favourite & contains additional antioxidants as well as creatine.

BCAAs - this stands for branched chain amino acids which have been shown to decrease recovery time, aid in blood sugar sensitivity & I find them incredibly useful for those looking to increase power and load when resistance training (this could be any form from callisthenics/bodyweight training to racking up to heavy weight training in a gym). Again quality is hugely important - avoid the BCAA drinks, powders and other neon glowing options, choose a pure encapsulated product like the Foodspring or Motion Nutrition ones.


Unpopular opinion time I’m sure but my biggest bug bear is poor quality sports supplements/snacks such as energy/BCAA ‘fuel’ drinks, sweetened protein powders and recovery shakes/bars. The main reason being that these are jam packed with sweeteners. Sweeteners of any kind (including ‘natural’ options like stevia and erythritol) promise a lot & give absolutely nothing to your body. A sweet flavour suggests quickly liberated energy is coming but a sweetener as opposed to a sugar is calorie free. So your body thinks it’s getting something to fuel itself and then nothing happens. This plays negatively into metabolic flexibility & over time creates insensitivity to insulin which then causes us to hold/store fat, crave sweets & suffer energy fluctuations.

Sweeteners are also the enemy of our gut bacteria and there is a bounty of clinical evidence to show that keeping these little bugs happy and content is the foundation of long term optimal health so a second hammer blow to knocking these products far into the middle distance!

When it comes to the ready-to-eat snacks, these are often overly high in carbs and fat, as well as protein which makes them pretty unsuitable for daily consumption even if they are marketed as such. Choose a natural protein source such as yoghurt, cottage cheese, boiled eggs or edamame and have these with a bit of fruit instead of an expensive pre-made bar!

Discover all about our 10-Day Energiser programme with Sweaty Betty here.