Derval O'Rourke: How best to fuel our bodies for exercise

It's a bit of a tongue-twister but I’m not kidding you: it’s easier to make this recipe than it is to pronounce the title
Derval O'Rourke: How best to fuel our bodies for exercise

Grilled Salmon with Celeriac Spinach Mash

The column I shared last week really resonated with people, so I decided to share another brilliant topic from nutrition and lifestyle coach, Cathy Dunleavy. The topic is eating for exercise. And, this week's recipe is Grilled Salmon with Celeriac Spinach Mash.

While we are all aware of the benefits of exercise, we may not be as aware of how best to fuel our bodies for that exercise in order to be able to make the most of our efforts, minimise any inflammatory damage caused by our training, and also help the body recover effectively in between times so it’s ready to tackle the next session fully primed for giving it welly and feeling great!!

Let’s break down the food groups to take a closer look:

Carbohydrates: These are your body’s main fuel source for energy. If you don’t have sufficient fuel to train, you might still complete a workout but not get the benefits that you could have. A certain amount of carbohydrate (glucose) is circulating around in your blood at any given time. It is perfectly OK to train without eating beforehand, but if you do this, your post-exercise meal becomes much more important.

In the main (80% of the time), aim to get your carbohydrates from whole food sources. Fruits, Vegetables (roots veggies like carrots, parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash) and wholegrains such as brown basmati rice, oats, quinoa, barley, buckwheat or whatever whole grain takes your fancy.

Protein: We have all heard how vital protein is in the building of muscle. We hear less about how vital it is in the metabolic processes that fuel our body, carry oxygen in our blood, and make antibodies to fight off infections. Basically, its functions are far-reaching and as the body cannot store protein, we need it to consume it regularly on a daily basis. For sedentary people who are not doing any training, the recommended amount is 0.8g/kg of bodyweight. If you take part in regular workouts I would advise increasing that to 1.2-1.4g/kg of body weight. Aim to spread your protein intake fairly evenly throughout the day and consider bringing in some plant-based protein sources as well.

Fats: When we exercise, we create an inflammatory response in the body as we break down muscle fibres and the body naturally goes to protect itself via an immune response. So while the benefits of moderate exercise are far-reaching, it is important to allow the body to recover and provide it with the substances it needs to settle that inflammatory response back down. One of the main players in this are omega 3 fatty acids. This includes fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna or sardines, and all nuts and seeds. Chia, flax and walnuts would be particularly high in omega 3s as are avocados. By eating a well-balanced diet based on colourful whole foods 80% of the time and particularly on the days you are training, you will very likely be covering all bases.

Meal timing around exercise: It is OK to train on empty but in this case prioritise your post-workout meal. Find out what works for you. It is also OK to eat both before AND after you exercise if that feels good to you as long as you are aware of your calorie intake throughout the whole day.

In any case, make sure that you get a good balance of whole food carbs, omega 3 fats, and good quality protein (at least 20g either in the hour before or the hour after your workout) in your pre and/or post-workout grub. You can do both or either as long as you are feeling good and taking the time to see what works for you.  Keep it simple but significant.

Fitness Tip: Aim to prioritise your pre/post workout meals this week. Consider the above information when choosing what to consume. I love to have a plain chicken sandwich and glass of milk after a workout.

Wellness Tip: Consider your energy levels, sleep quality, mood and think about whether you could be lacking in any vitamins/minerals which you could focus on in order to improve your mood.

Grilled Salmon with Celeriac Spinach Mash

This recipe title is a bit of a tongue-twister but I’m not kidding you: it’s easier to make this recipe than it is to pronounce the title. We are so spoiled in Ireland to have such good-quality salmon available. It’s delicious but it’s also a brilliant protein source.

Serves 2


  • 1 celeriac, peeled and cubed
  • 100g baby spinach
  • 2 x 100g salmon fillets, skinned and pinboned
  • 2 tsp wholegrain mustard
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • a pinch of pepper
  • a pinch of salt
  • a pinch of sugar


Preheat the grill to medium and line a baking tin with foil.

Boil the celeriac in salted water for 15 minutes or until tender. Drain, then mash well in the saucepan. Once the mash is smooth, return the pan to a low heat. Stir in the spinach and cook, uncovered, for five minutes or until the spinach has wilted.

Meanwhile, place the salmon fillets on the prepared tin. Mix the mustard, olive oil, lemon juice, pepper, salt, and sugar in a small bowl. Lightly coat the salmon fillets with the mustard dressing, keeping some aside for later. Cook the salmon fillets under the grill for five minutes on each side, until golden and cooked through.

A few minutes before serving, add one tablespoon of the mustard dressing to the celeriac and spinach mash. Stir well and season to taste. Divide the mash between warmed serving plates and arrange the salmon fillets on top. Drizzle the remaining mustard dressing over it and serve.

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