Athletes don’t just eat. They eat to fuel, build, recover, and repair. Whether you are training for a particular sport or discipline, taking part in competitions or training for an event, being an athlete is about being the very best version of you!
Regardless of what a person is training for, it’s crucial to look at the overall quality of everything consumed. This includes what you eat, drink and when.
To start with lets look at what a meal should consist of…..
First, remember that carbohydrates are not the enemy, they are a very important energy source for any athlete. The specific carbohydrate needs vary from person to person; an endurance athlete, for example, would need more whole grain carbohydrates to fuel their performance, while someone who’s going to the gym a handful of times each week would not need as much.
We know that protein is crucial. It’s imperative for helping preserve as much muscle as possible during training, it assists with recovery after training, and provides essential nutrients for basic health and performance.
Then there is fat. Like carbohydrates, fat has been considered the enemy for years. There are many different types of fats, some of which are essential to all human kind! Some should be avoided and we will have a look into which ones later.
So simply you need 3 different food types on your plate.
! 1 part lean protein (fish, chicken, turkey, lean red meat, etc)
! 1 part fruit and/or vegetables of different colours
! 1 part whole grain carbohydrate (sweet potato, quinoa, beans, brown rice etc)
Lets take a closer look at…
Carbohydrates play a number of roles in the body. Two of the primary functions of carbohydrates are to provide glucose for the brain and energy for working muscles. Carbohydrates are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. Glycogen allows individuals to perform exercise for a sustained period of time, ride a bike, go for a run, train in the gym, etc.
While there are no essential carbohydrates (meaning the body can make glucose out of any food source in the body if forced too) they play a vital role during exercise. Energy levels will decrease if carbohydrate intake is limited or carbohydrate stores in the body are low. Some individuals need higher levels of carbohydrates than others e.g. endurance athletes vs. purely strength trained athletes.
Limiting or just not having enough can effect mental and physical performance in a massive way. So detrimental for athletes of any kind.
There are also two very important nutrients that cannot be obtained by any other food aside from carbohydrates: fibre and vitamin C.
Quality is the first key for intake. Portion control is the second. The types of carbohydrates athletes need for optimum performance are the wholegrain, whole food, low sugar varieties not just anything that gives you that energy rush!
Remember too that fruit and vegetables are carbohydrates so think about what you are eating, when and to what purpose.
Lets take a closer look at…
Muscle contains about 40% of the protein in the human body, which has led people to believe that eating dietary protein correlates directly to large muscles. The truth is that eating protein does not build muscle; it is the stimulus of exercise (resistance training) that ultimately builds muscles. Yes, dietary protein is crucial in the rebuilding and recovery process, but the protein itself does not build the muscle.
So what are the requirements for athletes?
Like carbohydrates the amount needed differs form athlete to athlete. The exact protein requirements can be debated for days on end. The simplest recommendation is to aim for 1g of protein/lb of body weight. So, using this example, if you weigh 180 lbs, you should aim for 180 grams of protein each day. If one day you only get 150 grams, don’t worry, nothing is going to change to your performance or recovery. The most important thing with protein is when you eat it…it needs to be spread out throughout the day as our bodies can only deal with and break down amounts of around 20-30g at a time otherwise it just gets wasted though our urine or turned into fat stores in our bodies.
Just try to eat some good quality protein with every meal and snack if you can. This will be sufficient for all your growth, recovery, and repair needs.
Lets take a closer look at…
It was thought that fat would be detrimental to performance, health, and cause weight gain when eaten in excess. Contrary to this belief scientists are now realising more and more that fats play a crucial role in the body for performance and health. The key is to focus on the quality of the fat, even more so than the quantity. Aside from protein fat is the only other essential macronutrient; dietary fat provides essential fatty acids (like essential amino acids) that cannot be produced by the body and must be consumed via the diet.
Types of Fat
1. Saturated fat (SFA)
2. Monounsaturated fat (MUFA)
3. Polyunsaturated fat (PUFA)
Trans fats are vegetable fats that have been changed chemically by a process known as hydrogenation. The process of hydrogenation or partial hydrogenation is when food manufacturers artificially add hydrogen to liquid unsaturated fats to provide greater stability and a longer shelf life.
Trans fats should be avoided as much as possible and can be found in so many things that have been made in factories like chocolates, sweets, baked goods and ready meals.
Essential Fatty Acids
The primary dietary sources of essential fats are seafood, flax oil/seeds, and mixed nuts. Omega-3 fats are a family of essential unsaturated fats. They are great for
heart health properties and aid in recovery.
The three omega-3 acids are
alpha-linoleic acid (ALA)
eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
docosahexaeonoic acid (DHA)
ALA is found in the plant sources of omega-3’s, such as flax and mixed nuts, while DHA and EPA are both found in highest concentrations in cold water fish e.g. salmon, mackerel, trout, tuna. The goal with essential fatty acids is to aim for a few grams each day. In addition to making sure to include fish in the diet, omega-3 supplements are recommended for optimal health & performance.
Performance nutrition for pre and post training
Pre workout – Planning and thinking carefully about your carbohydrate intake at breakfast, lunch or snacks before a training session.
You need your body to store these good quality low sugar carbohydrates as glycogen ready to help you perform at your best. Without them you are setting yourself up to fail.
Post work out – Generally, post-workout nutrition has three specific purposes:
• Replenish glycogen
• Decrease protein breakdown
• Increase protein synthesis
In other words, athletes want to:
• replenish their energy stores
• increase muscle size and/or muscle quality
• repair any damage caused by the workout
In doing so, they want to increase performance, improve their appearance, and enable their bodies to remain injury-free. Benefits of good post-workout nutrition include:
• Improved recovery
• Less muscle soreness
• Increased ability to build muscle
• Improved immune function
So… to conclude. Athletes need a balanced diet of good quality carbohydrates, fats and protein with EVERY MEAL for optimum performance in their chosen sports.