Sports Nutrition: planning all year round to ensure optimal sports performance
The difference between every day nutrition and training/recovery nutrition
The task of framing the perfect nutrition plan can be a daunting task even for experienced athletes. However, as Amanda Carlson explains, if you break it down into different pieces and understand those individual parts that make the whole, you will discover that creating the perfect nutrition plan to meet your needs is just a series of simple steps. The perfect nutrition plan will keep you fuelled, keep you at the weight you need to be at to perform optimally and keep you feeling great at all phases of your training.
The traditional theory of training harder while eating less to get yourself at the perfect competition weight has been shown to hinder performance and decrease training adaptation. Therefore, the theory of training periodisation should be the guiding force that outlines your nutrition strategy (see figure 1).
The thought of matching nutrition to your own training makes complete sense, but how should do you go about doing that? I explain to athletes that three major elements are required for building a ‘personal nutrition pyramid’ and periodising perfectly. These are (see figure 2):
- Foundation nutrition
- Recovery and training nutrition
- Event-day nutrition
This article focuses on foundation nutrition and recovery and training nutrition. By making sure that your nutrition meets the needs of these areas, you’ll be well on your way to feeling great for the day of your event.
In my work with athletes, I break down foundation nutrition into ‘10 rules to live by’. If you can ensure that you are following these rules day in, day out, you will build a solid nutrition foundation. Without that foundation, any nutritional fine-tuning simply won’t make that much of a difference. These rules are as follows:
1. Come back to earth. This simply means choosing the least processed forms of foods (specifically carbohydrates) when building the majority of your meals. Typically, the less processed the foods and the closer the food that you are eating is to its natural state, the better it will be for your body.
2. Eat a rainbow often. The vitamins and minerals that our bodies need come naturally from the foods that we eat, and especially from fruits and vegetables. Eating a variety of fruit and veg in a multitude of colours will help to ensure that you are getting the variety of nutrients that you need, resulting in enhanced recovery, improved energy production and immunity. The following fruits rank in the ‘top 20 list’ of the American Cancer Society: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, Granny Smith apples, sweet cherries and black plums. In terms of vegetables, the Harvard School of Public Health is a bit more general in its guidelines, recommending: stewed tomatoes, dark leafy greens, and any veg that is rich in yellow, orange and red colours.
3. The fewer legs the better. Protein is a critical part of the diet for athletes, specifically the type and the amount. When focusing in on the type of protein, typically the fewer legs the animal has before you actually consume the protein it produces, the better the source. Fish, turkey, and chicken rank high. You need to be more selective with dairy, red meat and pork products. Low-fat dairy, lean cuts of pork and beef, and grass-fed four-legged animals are best!
4. Eat fats that give something back. It is recommended that 20-30% of the total calories come from fat. The best types of fats to include are raw nuts, seeds, olive oil, nut butters, and fatty fish. The forgotten fats are the essential fatty acids. These fats decrease inflammation but, due to their essential nature, must come from the diet. The American Heart Association recommends supplementing with 1-3g of EPA/DHA per day and to consume fish high in omega-3 (eg salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, herrings, pilchards, etc) two to three times per week.
5. Three for three. Eating consistently maintains energy levels (blood glucose), keeps the body in a fed state, and prevents mood swings and bingeing. Combining the three main nutrients (carbs, protein, fat) every three hours (hence the ‘three for three’) will prevent extreme hunger, which will make healthier food selection easier.
6. Eat breakfast every day. Eating breakfast every day is critical, yet it’s an absent habit for many. ‘There isn’t enough time’, ‘I’m not hungry in the morning’, ‘It’s too complicated’ are all phrases that I often hear come out of the mouths of athletes. But breakfast doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. Eating breakfast gives the body the fuel it needs and sets your metabolism up to function correctly throughout the day.
7. Hydrate. Dehydration equals decreased performance. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), in its 2007 position on exercise and fluid replacement, states that the goal of drinking while exercising is to prevent a 2% loss in fluid and an extreme disruption of electrolyte balance. However, you need to ensure that you’re hydrated before you even start activity! You need to think of hydration in terms of all day and during training. We recommend drinking ½oz to 1oz of fluid per pound of body weight (30-60mls per kilo) per day. Fluids should consist primarily of water and other naturally low- or non-caloric beverages, followed by 100% fruit juices, depending upon calorie requirements. This is a good range that helps people reach the American Dietetic Association’s baseline recommended fluid intake of 2.7 litres per day for women and 3.7 litres per day for men.
8. Don’t waste your workout. Even with the abundance of research on the importance of post-workout nutrition, I still see athletes skipping the recovery meal or snack. Unfortunately, many are still reluctant to consume calories after just burning them. However, in order to optimise the benefits of a training session and jump-start recovery for maximal gains, it is critical to consume a post-workout recovery meal that blends both carbohydrate and protein, within 45 minutes after training.
9. Supplement wisely. There are so many supplements on the market that it becomes difficult to work out which ones (if any) are needed. Supplements should ‘complement’ the diet and a mentality of ‘food first, supplement second’ should be employed.
However, there are a number of situations that warrant a basic supplementation protocol. Those of us who are not eating the fruits and vegetables we need on a regular basis and are restricting calories should consider taking a multi-vitamin. Those who do not get the recommended two to three servings of fatty fish per week should consider supplementing with an essential fatty acid supplement. Those who do not get the calcium they need, especially female athletes, should consider a calcium supplement.
Supplements reaching beyond that scope can be taken, but should be chosen only after an evaluation with a doctor and dietitian. When choosing any supplement, make sure that it is banned-substance free and has accuracy in labelling, by checking websites such as World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA – wada-ama.org), consumerlab.com, nsf.org and informed-choice.org.
10. Get back in the kitchen. In a world of convenience, travel and life on the go, we often turn to restaurants, fast food, and ‘quick’ food for our nourishment. Restaurants, regardless of type, do not take into consideration your calorie needs or your health when deciding upon their menu. At the end of the day, if you really want to optimise your body composition, hit your nutrient and calorie goals, and just eat cleaner, you are your best ally. The more you can prepare your own food, the more control you will have in the nourishment of your body.
Training and recovery nutrition
Once the 10 rules have become second nature, you can begin to ensure that the way you eat is focused to support your training demands – specifically, to ensure you are getting enough carbohydrate, protein, fat and fluids. We can break the nutrition progressions into three phases (1):
- Foundation (7-14 h/week of low to moderate intensity training)
- Preparation (14-28h/week of moderate to high intensity training)
- Peak training (more than 28 h/week of moderate to high intensity exercise).
Common to these three phases are five steps:
Step 1: Calculate your daily fuel needsKnowing your carbohydrate needs and consuming an adequate number of grams of carbohydrate allows you to maintain adequate muscle glycogen stores, which translates into better capacity during your training. Training at moderate and high intensities can quickly lead to muscle glycogen depletion, so following a structured nutrition plan with just the right amount of carbs should be seen as a vital part of your workout schedule rather than just something optimal to supplement your training programme. Typically this will range from anywhere between 3-10g of carbs per kg body weight per day, with the lower end representing the light training recreational athlete and the top end an endurance athlete in a heavy training phase.
In reality, if you feel fully energised, are recovering fully and are at a healthy performance weight, you are probably already eating the right amount of carbohydrate. Sometimes you see recommendations in % of calories and sometimes you see them in grams of the actual nutrients. I prefer to recommend building programmes in grams based on your own body weight. For the three phases above, this translates as follows: (1)
- Foundation: 5-7g/kg/day
- Preparation: 7-10 g/kg/day
- Peak training: 10-12 g/kg/day.
Step 2: Personalise your protein
Protein metabolism is vital for muscle growth and repair, performance and adaptation. Endurance athletes need more protein than their sedentary counterparts, and just as much as strength and power sportsmen and sportswomen. Research suggests that protein intakes of 1.2 to 1.7grams/kg per day are optimal for both strength training and endurance athletes (2). However, levels upwards of 2.2g/k per day are considered safe and acceptable(3). Protein can help to increase the satiety of meals and should also be included as part of your recovery meal or snack. Splitting the total protein intake over the course of the day by including some in each meal will help to optimise its absorption and utilisation. In terms of the three phases, the following recommendations are appropriate:
- Foundation: 1.2-1.4g/kg/day
- Preparation: 1.4-1.7 g/kg/day
- Peak training: 1.7-2.2 g/kg/day.
Step 3: Finding your fats
Good (essential) fats are critical for helping to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, aiding in cellular repair, helping to stabilise energy levels, creating a sensation of satiety, decreasing inflammation and even aiding cognitive ability. A good general rule of thumb is to ensure that your fat intake does not drop below 20% of your total daily calories. As your training increases (and your calorie needs increase), essential fats are an easy and healthy way to bump up your overall energy intake:
- Foundation: 0.8-1g/kg/day
- Preparation: 0.8-1g/kg/day
- Peak training: 1-2 g/kg/day.
Step 4: Training nutrition
The ACSM recommends that to prevent dehydration during exercise, you should create an individual approach to minimising fluid loss during training by weighing before and after sessions and tracking how much fluid is consumed. A general guideline is to drink 17-20 fl oz prior to exercise, 7-10 fl oz every 15-20 minutes during exercise, and 17-24 fl oz for each pound of weight lost during exercise. During times of intense activity, extreme temperature and long duration, a carbohydrate electrolyte beverage is optimal in addition to water.
Fluid replacement is especially critical for those training twice a day or more in order to maintain performance at subsequent training bouts.
When is it time to add in carbohydrate during your training and how much should you add? Your body can’t absorb and use any more than around 60g of carbohydrate per hour, regardless of type (solid, drink or gel), and you should add increments of carbs for the duration of your activity. As a rule of thumb, if you’re doing less than 60 minutes of training, you don’t need to consume anything during training; over 60 minutes of training, consume 30-60g of carbohydrate for every hour of activity.
Step 5: Ramp up your recovery
suggests that a repletion factor of 1.2-1.5g per kilo of body weight, which combines both carbohydrate (1.0-1.2g/kg body weight) and a blend of whey and casein protein (0.3-0.4g/kg body weight), in a ratio that ranges from 2:1 to 4:1 (depending upon the intensity and duration of the training), is the optimum for recovery. By consuming this as a snack, meal, shake or bar that meets your protein and carbohydrate requirements as quickly as possible after training, glycogen repletion, lean body mass gains, performance on a subsequent training bout and immune function will be optimised (4-7). This recovery meal is a part of your total daily intake, so be sure to subtract it from your total protein and carbohydrate recommendations.
- Foundation: 0.3g/kg = protein needs; 0.9 g/kg = carbs
- Preparation: 0.3g/kg = protein needs; 1.1 g/kg = carbs
- Peak training: 0.3g/kg = protein needs; 1.2 g/kg = carbs.
These recommendations are evidence-based from the lab. However, a laboratory is not normal life. We do not live in a controlled environment, so use the recommendations as a starting point and not as gospel. By implementing these simple strategies into your everyday life until they become second nature, I guarantee that you’ll improve your energy levels, training, and your health!
Amanda Carlson MS RD is the director of the US-based Performance Nutrition and Research Athletes’ Performance, and directs a team of performance nutritionists who develop year-long systems of success for a wide range of
1. Eur J Sports Sci Mar: 5(1): 3-14 (2005)
2. J Am Diet Assoc 12: 1543-1556 (2000)
3. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 31: 647-654 (2006)
4. J Appl Physiol 64, 1480-1485 (1988)
5. J Sport Sci 9 (suppl.) Spec No: 29-51; discussion 51-2 (1991)
6. Am J Clin Nutr 72: 96-105 (2000)
7. Med Sci Sports Exerc 38(6):1106-13
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