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Personal Training & Nutrition

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By Sarah O'Neill, Jul 6 2017 02:01PM

Article from Vitality Magazine:

Personal trainer and nutritionist Sarah O’Neill gives her advice on the best foods to fuel your workout and when to eat them

Knowing which foods to eat before you exercise is vital for a winning workout. Hitting the gym on an empty stomach can lead to a listless, lack-lustre effort, while eating the wrong foods pre-exercise can cause unpleasant gastro symptoms such as cramps and nausea.

PT and nutritionist Sarah O’Neill tells us how picking certain foods at the right time will ensure you’re maximising your workout and getting the best results – whether it’s your morning cardio or lunchbreak weight-training session.

Should I eat before my workout?

If you’re exercising at low-ish intensity for up to an hour, you can do so on an empty stomach. One study by the Belgium National Institute of Health found increased fat burn when exercising after an overnight fast, but you’re more likely to tire sooner, meaning you’ll burn fewer calories (and body fat) overall. You’re also more likely to burn protein for fuel when muscle glycogen (the stored carbohydrate that your body uses as fuel during exercise) and blood sugar levels are low, sabotaging that lean tissue growth you’re working so hard for.

If you’ve already eaten two to three hours before your session, there’s no need to overdo the snacks, but it’s all down to the individual and if you’re running out of steam you might want to fuel up to ensure you can go the distance.

What should I eat before my morning workout?

Generally, it’s worth waiting around 30-60 minutes between food and exercise but, if you’re pounding the pavements at the crack of dawn, this can be harder to manage. Keep it light, such as a small handful of nuts or a piece of fruit around 15-30 minutes pre-workout. Bananas are a perfect, easily digested source of carbohydrate, plus they’re rich in potassium, which we lose when we sweat.

Another good choice is a smoothie. As it’s a liquid, the sugars are absorbed more quickly – handy if you struggle to digest whole foods without feeling queasy early in the morning. Blitz up your favourite milk or yogurt, plus half a banana and/or a handful of frozen berries. But beware – packing tons of fruit into a smoothie can deliver sky-high levels of sugar and calories, off-setting your hard work before you’ve even started. Try adding veg such as spinach, beetroot or kale to balance it out.

What should I eat before a lunchtime session?

If you’re working out in your lunch break you’ll have enough time to factor in a snack late morning, ideally 30-60 minutes before training. Respond to how your body is feeling – a snack-sized yogurt (try Greek yogurt, or one without added sugar) or a small handful of dried fruit like apricots may suffice.

If you’re very hungry, opt for a small bowl of low-fibre cereal or porridge, ideally eaten around 60-90 minutes before you exercise. The emphasis is on a carb/protein mix, with the carbs providing your fuel and the protein assisting muscle recovery and growth. If you’re looking for something quick and easy, an oat or fruit-based bar makes a great snack. Just remember to check those labels – don’t eat a 350kcal bar ahead of a 150kcal workout.

What should I eat if I’m exercising after work?

You’ll need to carefully plan your snack for post-work exercise as you’ve already been on the go all day. Avoid fatty foods such as chocolate or pastries (which you’ll spend your whole workout trying to burn off) and instead have a small snack around 60-90 minutes before you exercise of houmous and crudités or pitta, fruit loaf or raisin bread, half a bagel with nut butter, a toasted muffin topped with honey, or something more protein-rich such as leftover cooked turkey or chicken.

Any pre-workout snacks I should be avoiding?

As a rule, avoid anything high in fat or fibre. Fatty foods can take up to four to five hours to fully digest, and fibre is both slow to digest and increases gas production – making you the least popular person at the gym.

Energy drinks before or during your session are not necessary unless you’re exercising at intensity for 90 minutes or more, plus a lot of them have added unnecessary sugar.

How much water should I be drinking before my workout?

For every hour of exercise you’ll need an extra litre of water to replenish what’s lost in sweat. Dehydration can lead to impaired performance and muscle cramps, so get ahead by sipping water in the hour before your workout.

Will a dose of caffeine help?

Seasoned coffee drinkers will be pleased to know caffeine can have performance-enhancing effects, according to the British Coffee Assocation. Caffeine can decrease glycogen use earlier in the session by up to 50%, saving glycogen for later in the session (increasing endurance), and increasing fat burn. However, caffeine is also a diuretic so you’ll need to up your fluids.

By Sarah O'Neill, Feb 24 2017 03:16PM

I recently contributed to a piece in Women's Health on iron-deficiency anaemia (Something weighing down your workout? WH March 2017 issue p.67-70), a condition that affects as many as 12-15% women aged 15-50 according to the WHO (World Health Organisation) and is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. However in many cases it goes undiagnosed, and, as I told Women's Health, is particularly prevalent amongst women frequently training at intensity. This is because training increases red blood cell production (increasing your iron needs) plus you lose iron both in your sweet and through something beautifully termed 'foot strike haemolysis' whereby blood cells and capillaries in the feet are damaged by running and jumping, creating a higher turnover of red blood cells. Running puts a force of 2.5 times your body weight on the soles of your feet (why I'm also always banging on about refreshing your trainers regularly...)

Unfortunately many of us put those feelings of depletion down to a hard session and busy lifestyle, but for as many as 22% of both elite and recreational athletes there's something more serious going on. Moreover, data suggests 50% of women with heavy periods are likely to be iron-deficient, so if you're both a heavy exerciser with heavy periods it's definitely worth getting checked out.

So what should you look out for?

- fatigue

- headaches, dizziness

- pale skin

- shortness of breath

- irritability

- racing heart

- cold hands and feet

- poor concentration

- restlessness including restless legs (or 'eebjabs' as my mother calls them...not a scientifically validated term...)

- sore tongue, cracks around the mouth

- hair loss

- frequent infections (iron plays a MASSIVE role in the immune system)

If a number of these symptoms resonate with you it might be time to pop to see your GP for a blood test. Recreational athletes need 1.3 - 1.7 times more iron than the general population, and living with iron-deficiency anaemia can mean you're failing to progress in your training, or hit new PBs. It can also mean you're struck with every bug going around, and struggling to shift these infections, leaving you yet more run down.

Treatment for iron-deficiency anaemia is often with something called ferrous sulphate, a form of iron we can readily use. However around 1/3 people don't tolerate these tablets well and can develop gastrointestinal symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea or stomach pains. There's a lot we can do with diet, however, and it's always worth modifying your plate before your pills, unless your levels call for immediate medical intervention.

Due to Popeye we all mistakenly believe spinach to be our mightiest source of iron, however iron is much more readily accessible in its haem format, which comes from all meat and fish, with seafood such as oysters and clams also an amazing source. Venison is in fact richer in iron than beef and lower in fat, if you're a game fan, although liver is the still our best source (ick).

Vegetarians need 1.8 times more iron than meat-eaters as non-haem iron from plants is less bioavailable (readily absorbed and accessed by the body). However you can increase absorption by coupling your iron source with vitamin-C rich foods. For our veggies the best sources are legumes (particularly kidney beans), grains, nuts, seeds (especially pumpkin) and green leafy veg. Kale, brussel sprouts and broccoli all contain good levels of iron AND vitamin C so you're getting the ideal combo there. Otherwise adding in red or green peppers or consuming them with a glass of OJ (or better still a fresh orange, strawberries, grapefruit, kiwi of guava) will assist non-haem iron absorption.

It's also worth noting that inflammation in the body post-workout blocks the iron absorption pathway for several hours afterwards. So before chowing down on a humungous steak it's worth hopping in an ice bath (or use cooling pads). Spend maximum 10 minutes in there, but anything from around 6 minutes will do the trick. Also avoid drinking tea or coffee with your meals which can impair iron absorption - best to wait at least an hour after eating.


It's essential when you start an exercise programme to think about your diet, and this is why all our clients get the opportunity to undergo a nutrition review from the outset. Over nutrition can scupper the effects of your training by not allowing you to change your body shape in the way you desire. However under-nutrition in any area (and most specifically iron) can also mean that exercise pushes the body into a deficiency state, which can have detrimental effects on your health.

By Sarah O'Neill, Jan 29 2017 05:37PM

I was busy reflecting on the psychology of food choice, and came across an interesting review* that analysed the most prevalent barriers and enablers of healthy eating across 34 research papers. The authors concluded the barriers to be:

- male apathy towards diet; unhealthy diet of friends and family; expected consumption of unhealthy foods in certain situations; relative low cost of unhealthy foods; lack of time to plan, shop, prepare and cook healthy foods; lack of facilities to prepare, cook and store healthy foods; widespread presence of unhealthy foods; lack of knowledge and skills to plan, shop, prepare and cook healthy foods; lack of motivation to eat healthily (including risk-taking behaviour).

Personally I can relate to a number of these triggers. For me there is a strong psycho-social element to my periods of (self confessed) over eating. For example, I would say I'm a 'feeder' and so if I'm entertaining I struggle to release my guests in anything other than a calorie coma. When eating out, I adopt a 'less than three courses is cheating' mentality. With a toddler to care for (who still doesn't buy into all-night sleeping) my motivation to eat healthily has been replaced by an overwhelming desire to eat cake or chocolate at least thrice daily. I have the knowledge and skills to identify which foods are best for my body and the ability to create healthy balanced meals, and yet the desire not to do so often wins out through those inner voices telling me it's a treat not to do so, plus a lack of perceived self efficacy to change this behaviour amidst the tired fog that is motherhood...

I am sure we can all look at the list and identify our own triggers. And perhaps this is the first step on the road to change. But the second stage is also critical - discovering the enablers of success, which the authors identified as:

- female interest in a healthy diet (hurrah, girls!); healthy diet of friends and family; support/encouragement of friends and family to eat healthy; desire for improved health; desire for weight management; desire for improved self-esteem; desire for attractiveness to potential partners and others; possessing autonomous motivation to eat healthy and existence and use of self-regulatory skills.

I think critically we have to really desire to change. It's essential to identity why you want to change and what's stopping you before you embark on a weight loss journey. You may still 'fall off the wagon' but you'll be far more likely to ride the blip and return to those positive lifestyle changes, which is absolutely fundamental to achieving your goals longer term.

Ask yourself (and perhaps write down)...

- WHY you want to change your diet (weight loss? well being? fitness? self image?);

- HOW it looks to eat healthily (taking into account your current knowledge and the advice of your PT or nutritionist); and therefore

- WHAT you're going to change to make positive nutritional choices (e.g. no alcohol, more veggies, less refined carbs, cutting back on sugar...) and

- HOW you will support this with self-regulatory skills (positive mindset, saying 'no', rigorous planning etc).

But if you are currently in a place where you feel your barriers outweigh your motivation to change, then I would suggest doing some work on your mindset in the first instance, ensuring you have a sufficiently positive perception of your ability to achieve your goals, and therefore greater likelihood of long-term success.

* Barriers and enablers of healthy eating among young adults: a missing piece of the obesity puzzle: A scoping review, A. E. Munt, S. R. Partridge and M Allman-Farinelli et al. (2016)

By Sarah O'Neill, Oct 21 2016 12:21PM

9 ways to make your hen do healthier

Published on 4th Oct 2016

On a pre-wedding fitness kick? Stay on track during your hen with these simple points from personal trainer, Sarah O'Neill

Sticking to a wedding fitness regime takes time, energy and sheer willpower: it’s the one element of wedding planning where you can’t cut corners. During this quest for glowing skin and wedding day body confidence, no personal trainer in their right mind would recommend a weekend of late nights, junk food and excessive drinking.

How then, should the health conscious bride navigate the rowdy rituals of the hen do? Personal trainer Sarah O’Neill, has helped many brides achieve their perfect bridal body through her bride training programmes. We asked for her survival tips and tactics for a hen do that won’t wreck your fitness regime.

1. Be alcohol-savvy

First, face the facts about alcohol which will be the prime diet saboteur on your hen do. It is hugely calorific, containing 7 kcals/g, almost double the amount found in proteins and carbohydrates. Adding to this, alcohol actively encourages fat storage around the mid-section, because as a toxin it is oxidised first and becomes your body’s prime source of energy, causing all other foods to be stored as fat. In other words the cake, chocolate and chunky fries are going straight on your waist.

Get smart by switching from wine, beer and cocktails to white spirits and low calorie mixers, such as vodka with soda and fresh lime, or gin and Slimline Tonic. A shot of either spirit comes in at 50 kcals and the mixers can be calorie free, so by switching you’ll be consuming around 1/3 of the calories found in wine (170 kcals), or 1/5 of that within a pint of lager (approx. 250 kcals) or a cocktail (upwards of 250 kcals).

If you’re drinking wine or fizz avoid giant glass sizes - serving your drinks in smaller glasses should mean you're less likely to overindulge.

2. Pimp your drinks

We all know that we should be alternating alcoholic drinks with water, but few of us actually manage it. Make your soft drinks into more of a feature by filling large jugs with sparkling water, ice and some squeezed lime or fresh mint.

Another idea is to add a selection of fresh fruit – raspberries, strawberries and orange wedges – to water to create a refreshing pick-me-up. Serve in wine glasses so it feels more like a ‘treat drink’ rather than a sensible one.

3. Ditch the drinking games

Drinking games will not only give you a terrible hangover, but as with any binge drinking can have lasting consequences for your health. The good news is there are plenty of brilliant and hilarious hen party games; the old favourite Mr & Mrs never fails to disappoint. If you’re having your hen do away, download party apps, such as the ‘cards against humanity’ inspired Evil Apple or Heads Up, which is a digital version of the dinner party game ‘Who am I’.

Having these games to hand will reduce the chances of the onslaught of a major drinking session during travel waiting time, but still break the ice between hens.

4. Off-set alcohol before bed

After an evening of drinking, it's better to rehydrate before bed, so encourage all the hens to drink at least one pint of water each, as well as taking a glass to your bedside. To soak up a little of the alcohol, prepare a light snack for hens of some oat cakes topped with mashed avocado or light cream cheese and chives...and avoid the chippy at all costs!

5. Replenish nutrients in the morning

Alcohol inhibits the body from properly absorbing, digesting and utilising a range of nutrients, meaning your body may be depleted in several vitamins and minerals, namely all the B vitamins, folic acid, vitamins C and K, zinc, potassium and magnesium.

Boosting your intake of vitamins and minerals the next day is the kindest thing you can do for your body, so avoid shoving more junk in and opt instead make a Super Smoothie by blending together one orange, one banana, 150ml milk (whole milk/almond/soy according to preference), 150g natural yoghurt, 25g walnuts and 3 tsp honey.

Magnesium is found in the walnuts in this smoothie, as well as in the dairy. The orange and banana will also give you a welcome boost of vitamin C. Magnesium and vitamin C support the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme that helps to break down the alcohol and eliminate it from the body. Magnesium also helps relax muscles, which will ease that hangover headache.

Breakfast of champions: Sourdough toast with poached eggs and mashed avocado is not only delicious, but the avocado will give you a huge hit of both magnesium and potassium (double win). Plus the eggs contain cysteine to breakdown the acetaldehyde, a key culprit of a hangover. Top it all off with a mug of fresh ginger tea - the anti-emetic (nausea reducing) properties of the ginger will soothe any tummy discomfort.

It’s best to go drug-free and nourish naturally, but if the hangover is raging and you're hitting the medicine cabinet, avoid aspirin or ibuprofen which could irritate the stomach further, opt instead for paracetamol.

6. Dining dos and don’ts

Do go self-catered for a healthier hen do. Studies suggest we consume around 200 more calories when we choose to eat out instead of cooking in. Extra butter, creamy sauces and the little extras you can avoid when preparing at home are the culprits.

Why not whip up a yummy brunch of Swiss bircher muesli, fruit platters, yoghurt, homemade smoothies and eggs. A delicious dinner idea would be something like baked fish or a salmon parcel, served with steamed veggies and jasmine rice.

Don’t worry if you don’t feel like cooking. Hire a personal chef to cater at home, you’ll be able to explain your dietary requirements and request a healthy meal option.

If you do prefer to eat out, many restaurants now cater for health-conscious customers with transparent menus, sometimes including calorie counts or lighter choices. Do call ahead and ask the restaurant to prepare a leaner set menu or a 'lighter' version of your favourite meal. Sushi is also a great choice, whilst Italian, Indian, Chinese and 'picky' meals like tapas, will have a higher fat and calorie content.

7. Get creative with snacks

Avoid massive bags of crisps, nuts or chocolate, and opt for some yummy snacks that will also add a touch of class to the hen do. Try smoked salmon blinis, but instead of using the traditional blini base make these even healthier by serving a twist of smoked salmon on a slice of cucumber with a dollop of crème fraiche and a pinch of dill.

Fill up on colourful crudités, such as red and yellow pepper slices, carrots, cucumber, celery and baby tomatoes. If you lay them out in rows on trays they will also look more attractive than a bowl of crisps. Make your own healthy dips such as homemade guacamole and tzatziki.

8. Get active!

Hen party activities have moved on from the days of laser quest and pole dancing. Hen companies, such as Maximise hen weekends, offer everything from hip hop dancing to wet and wild weekends spent rafting or canyoning. To burn calories and have a good giggle at the same time, go for something wacky like the Mega Mix Triple Combo, where you will have a hilarious time trying the madcap activities of Disco Dodgeball, Bubble Football and various nostalgic old school sports day games.

Checking into a spa for the day is another healthy option that will leave you and the girls feeling gorgeous inside and out. Cowshed have developed the wonderful Pretty Parties – a day of pampering massages, nail and foot treatments, at their luxuriously rustic spas across London. Dinner is included and healthy requests catered for.

If craft or culture is more your thing, why not embark on a creative workshop or tick off a city on your travel bucket list. Anytime spent engrossed in sightseeing or an activity is better for you (and more memorable) than sitting in a bar drinking.

9. Blitz fit

If the energetic hen activities are not going to work for your group, avoid letting your fitness slip on the weekend with a couple of short video workouts. With just 10 minutes of exercise you can burn a ton of calories, boost the metabolism, lift your mood and start the day with a bang!

Find out more about Sarah O'Neill and her personal training services here.

By Sarah O'Neill, Jan 19 2015 09:30AM

The pinky-red jewel-like seeds of the pomegranate can add sparkle to any dish - sprinkle onto porridge, stir into couscous, toss into salads or use to top your favourite tagine or stir fry.

The pomegranate has long been celebrated as a traditional remedy, with the ancient Ayurvedic system of Indian medicine utilising the fruit and bark as a remedy for diarrhoea and dysentery, and the seeds and juice as a tonic for the heart and throat. More unusual uses of the seeds or rind are as a contraceptive (with the rind as a suppository), but enough on that....

Modern nutritional analysis shows that a 100g serving of pomegranate seeds provides 12% RDA of vitamin C, 16% vitamin K plus polyphenols such as ellagitannins and flavonoids. These free radical scavengers can reduce heart disease risk, by maintaining the health of arteries. Some studies have shown that pomegranate juice consumption can reduce blood pressure, inhibit viral infections and the extract has antibacterial effects against dental plaque. The seeds are also a great source of fibre, which has benefits in reducing the risk of colon cancer.

'POM' juice was all the rage back in 2010, but interestingly the FDA issued a warning letter to one manufacturer for using scientific literature to make illegal, unproven anti-disease claims. There are strict rules on the level of evidence required before claims can be made unequivocally about certain products and whether they can be used as a preventative or curative remedy. Pomegranate remains the subject of ongoing clinical trials, with 58 trials registered in 2014 in areas such as diabetes, prostate cancer and heart disease.

In spite of the lack of conclusive data to support the use of pomegranate in disease-risk, adding this fruit into dishes certainly boosts the nutritional value, as well making your dish look and taste great! Here's two of my favourite recipes to brighten up your January.

Follow the link to read my recipes:

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