Making the time to workout and fit in a gym class or run into your hectic day can be quite the challenge. So when you do make the effort and exercise, you want to be sure your body is reaping all the benefits of the training. This means properly fueling and re-fueling pre and post workout. 

We spoke to Dublin-based nutritionist Caroline O'Donovan about what foods you should be eating before and after a workout and when you should be eating them, to get the optimal results. 

Pre workout

Caroline, who works with the National Dairy Council, explains that before a strenuous session, the primary aim should be to fuel up with some carbohyrdrate-based foods. This meal should be eaten 2-4 hours before exercise, ideally, to avoid discomfort during your workout. 

'Rice or pasta dishes with a tomato-based sauce and a serving of lean meat/poultry/tofu; baked beans on toast, a baked potato or cereal/porridge with milk and fruit are examples of meals you might have pre-workout,' she says. 

'If you find it difficult to train on a fuller stomach, or if you are exercising early in the morning, aim to have a carbohydrate-based meal the evening before and try to consume a small snack before your session. 

'Snacks like a fruit yogurt, a small milk and fruit smoothie, banana or cereal bar would be suitable.' 

Caroline advises it is best to avoid spicy or greasy foods before a workout as they aren't as easy to digest.

Post workout 

Eating the right foods after your workout ensures that your body recovers from the exercise properly and is ready for the next training session. 

Caroline explains that after exercise, there are three main priorities to consider. They are commonly referred to as the three R's of recovery -- refuel energy stores, repair muscles and rehydrate.

'Carbohydrate and protein are the main nutrients to consider post-exercise. Carbohydrate assists with the refueling of energy stores as well as aiding the uptake of protein into muscles, while protein plays an important role in muscle growth and maintenance,' she says. 

'Because the body replenishes carbohydrate stores (glycogen) at a faster rate immediately after exercise, you should aim to eat carbohydrate-based foods with some protein within 30-60 minutes after exercise to begin refueling process and assisting muscle repair.'

Caroline recommends a balanced meal after exercise that contains bread, pasta, rice or potatoes paired with lean protein sources such as meat, fish or poultry and includes vegetables to contribute to vitamin and mineral intakes. If you aren't ready for a big meal too soon after exercise, a snack that provides both protein and carbs is advised like milk with banana, yogurt with granola or a small baked potato with beans and cheese.

Fluid replacement after exercise is also key post workout. Water or skimmed milk are good options, Caroline explains: 

'As we lose electrolytes (sodium, potassium and chloride) as ‘body salts’ when we sweat, these need to be replaced by consuming foods or fluids containing electrolytes. For example include a pinch of table salt (sodium chloride) to season your recovery meal; or choose milk which naturally contains potassium,' she says. 

Caroline points out that milk actually contains nutrients that help address all three R's of post-exercise recovery. Milk contains lactose which can help the refueling process and potassium to help the rehydrating process. In terms of repair, milk contains protein (whey and casein) that assists in muscle growth and maintenance. 

The Department of Health’s guidelines for healthy eating recommend 3 servings from the ‘milk, yogurt and cheese’ food group; with 5 servings recommended for those aged 9-18 years. Examples of a single serving include: 200 ml of milk; 125 g of yogurt; or 25 g of cheddar cheese.

For more fitness and nutrition content, check out We Run the World, a brand new documentary series exclusive to RTE Player featuring five amazing Irish female athletes, also sponsored by The Complete Natural.