By improving their nutritional status the elite athlete or amateur sports enthusiast can enhance performance, balance energy levels, adjust body composition, speed up recovery, help prevent injury and improve long term health.
Elite athletes recognise the importance of proper nutrition, but consuming the right balance of food and drink when exercising regularly is important for everyone and can have dramatic affects, not only on performance, but also on the enjoyment you get from your chosen activity. Many amateur sports people still only focus on increasing carbohydrates and protein with no thought to the specific type of protein and carbohydrate they eat and ignoring other important aspects of nutrition.
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel used by working muscles. Adequate intake is essential for preventing muscle fatigue. There are two key forms of carbohydrates – complex and simple, both have a place in the sportsperson’s diet, but care must be given to when and in what quantity they are eaten.
Simple carbohydrates (simple sugars) result in glucose becoming rapidly absorbed into the blood stream, which can be very beneficial during and immediately after exercise. They tend to have a sweet taste and can be found naturally (in fruit and vegetables) or in more processed forms added to foods (sugar, honey and molasses). It is better to get your simple sugars from foods in which they occur naturally as these foods also contain fibre and important nutrients.
Complex carbohydrates, also known as starches, include grains, vegetables and rice. Similarly to simple sugars, there are some complex carbohydrates that are better than others. Processed refined grains such as white rice and white flour are less favourable as the nutrients and fibre are removed and where possible it is better to eat unrefined grains, which are still packed full of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
While you should monitor your fat intake, you should not remove it from your diet completely. Fats provide fatty acids that can be used as a source of energy – especially if your exercise sessions last longer than one hour. Fats also have other crucial roles such as helping to absorb nutrients and providing the building blocks for hormones and the formation of cell walls.
It is important to balance your fat intake as they all play an important role in the human body. Saturated fats (from animal products and dairy) have been much demonised, but they are still beneficial when consumed in small amounts.
Unsaturated fats are found in foods such as avocados, olives, nuts and oily fish. They are considered to be heart healthy and can work to lower your LDL cholesterol levels and raise your HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Particular attention should be paid to the omegas. Omega 6 (found in vegetable oil, margarines and most processed foods) is pro-inflammatory and therefore associated with injury and poor recovery. It still has an important role to play in the human body but the average western diet contains far too much omega 6. Omega 3 (found in oily fish, walnuts and some seeds) is anti-inflammatory. Everyone should aim to eat a ratio of 3:1 omega 6 to omega 3, but the average western diet contains about 30:1 and the resulting inflammation is driving many of the chronic diseases we see today.
Protein can be used as a source of energy and is critical for building new muscle tissue. If you are taking part in resistance training, your body will require additional protein.
Protein is present in every cell of the body and is important for helping to build and repair tissues. It’s also used to make enzymes, hormones and a variety of additional body chemicals as well as forming the building blocks of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. Protein foods include meat, fish, eggs, pulses, nuts, seeds and soya products.
Protein supplements are big business and there are many numerous forms available containing a mixture of different proteins (most commonly whey) combined with energy boosting ingredients (most commonly creatine), multivitamins and minerals. However, not all supplements contain the best ingredients and not everyone is suited to them. Before individuals opt to take any form of supplement they should ensure their diet is healthy, balanced and suits their sport. Before taking a supplement it is wise to consult a sports nutritionist, as taking the wrong supplement can be detrimental to your health.
It’s crucial to stay hydrated when you are taking part in sports. Inadequate fluid intake leads to dehydration. This affects your performance; and can be dangerous for your health too. Although dehydration can happen in any activity, it’s more prevalent when exercising in hot and humid conditions. Water is perfect for rehydration, but if you are engaged in physical activity for longer than one hour, sports drinks that include electrolytes can be helpful.
Some individuals also opt for energy drinks, most of which contain electrolytes such as sodium, which help to stimulate thirst and encourage drinking, as well as enhancing the body’s ability to hold water. In addition, the carbohydrates contained in many energy drinks can provide individuals with extra energy, which may be needed in the latter stages of training. Again caution needs to be taken when choosing an energy drink and it is advisable to seek good advice.
As with all facets of life, eating well during sports activities is crucial. If you are looking to lose weight for sport, strictly reducing your protein, fat or calorie intake can not only have a negative impact on your performance, but it can severely harm your body.
Eating a balanced diet containing vegetables, whole grains, fruit, sources of lean protein and low-fat dairy produce and healthy fats is never more essential as when taking part in strenuous exercise.
How a sports nutrition professional can help
The aim of a sports nutritionist is to create a nutrition plan specifically tailored to an individual’s physiological and training needs. The plan should aim to optimise food, hydration and supplementation (where appropriate) before, during and after physical activity. It doesn’t matter if you’re casually exercising or training for a professional event, sports nutrition can help to enhance performance, balance energy levels, adjust body composition, speed up recover, help prevent injury and improve long term health.
To create the best nutrition strategy, a sports nutrition professional will assess your individual training and diet needs, whilst incorporating your lifestyle beliefs and demands in order to help you achieve your goals.
If you are looking to improve your diet to complement your training plan then I would love to discuss your nutritional requirements.
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