When it comes to athletic performance and body composition goals, there is often more focus on training. Yet, an athlete's nutrition is just as important, since it provides the recovery that allows your body to adapt to higher levels of intensity.
There are three simple nutrition strategies that can seriously improve your performance:
1. Pay Attention to Protein
High-quality sources of protein contain all nine essential amino acids, which help repair and rebuild your muscles. Essential amino acids don't occur naturally within our bodies, so we must consume foods or drinks the contain them in order to build muscle and perform other key functions at an optimal level. Consuming a protein meal post-workout can promote muscle protein synthesis, which is important for building muscle.
Also, protein has a high thermic effect, meaning it is not as easily digested as other macronutrients, hence more energy is expended to digest it. Because it is not easily digested, protein keeps us full for longer periods of time. This is definitely an important factor with respect to fat loss.
Consensus in the sport science field recommends that protein needs are determined by weight, not percentage of calories. As your caloric needs increase, so too, do your carbohydrate needs to provide fuel for the greater physical output. Endurance (Triathletes, long distance runners, cyclists), strength and power, and stop-and-go athletes appear to need between 1.2 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Examples of foods high in protein relative to the carbohydrate and fat content.
• A range of lean meat and meat products (e.g. chicken, ham, ostrich)
• Fish (e.g. tuna, codfish, trout, redfish)
• Low fat dairy products (some may be high in sugar)
• Legumes (baked beans, beans, peas, chick-peas, lentils)
• Quorn or other meat replacement products
• Nuts and seeds
• Sports food may assist with timed protein supply
2. Use Carbs as Fuel
Another macronutrient that has a huge impact on performance is carbohydrates. Stored as glycogen in muscles, they are the body's preferred fuel source.
However, this doesn't mean you can consume all the carbs you want. Choosing the right amount of carbs for the right level of activity is important. If you are only doing a brisk treadmill run for 30 minutes, I suggest putting down that sports drink; you probably don't need the extra carbs. However, if you are participating in a marathon or an intense game or practice spanning several hours, consuming carbs can help improve your performance.
Think of carbs as fuel. The higher the intensity of your activity and the effort you expend, the more carbs you probably need. If you plan to compete or train and want to perform at your highest level, consuming carbs prior to the activity can definitely help.
Carb consumption is also important after you work out. Aim to consume a meal or drink with at least a ratio of 2:1 carbs to protein after intense exercise.
General guidelines for carbohydrate consumption in everyday training:
• Minimal physical activity: 2-3g/kg/day
• Light physical activity consisting of 3-5 hrs / wk: 4-5g/kg/day is needed
• Physical activity 10-19hrs /wk: 5-7g/kg/day is needed
• Physical activity 20+ hrs/wk - 7-12g/kg/day is needed.
• Physical activity more than 4-6+hrs / day: 10-12+g/kg/day is needed.
3. Food First, Supplements Only If Needed
I'm not against the use of supplements. I use them regularly. It’s important to use good quality supplements. Buying the latest hot supplement being advertised on late-night infomercials. A simple pill or powder isn't enough to change your life for the better; in some cases, it might actually harm you.
Relying on supplements over quality food to reach a performance or body composition goal is a big mistake. The power of supplements simply cannot compare to the power of a well-balanced diet.
Instead of thinking about nutrition in terms of what supplement you need to buy next, start thinking of the foods you can eat to help you reach your goals. Once you look at the macronutrients of the foods you're eating, you'll be able to make adjustments and replacements that will help you. If you make a concerted effort to do this and still come up short on certain nutrients, then and only then should you start looking to supplements to fill the gap. That's why they're called supplements; they're meant to supplement a good diet, not replace it.
Some common supplements that athletes use are omega - 3's, creatinine, beta-alanine magnesium and a good quality whey protein (I personally use vegetarian sources from hemp, rice and pea).
Barbara is a qualified nutritionist offering Health, Nutrition & Lifestyle Counseling. She gives Healthy weight loss advice and promotes the Mediterranean diet. She is the author of the Med Life Diet - creating healthy lifestyle habits and attitudes for life !