With the Six Nations kicking off this weekend (let’s not talk about the Ireland score!), I thought it would be a great opportunity to focus on how to fuel for exercise. Whether you’re training for the London Marathon, an elite athlete or a wannabe like me, there are many things you can do to help boost your performance and aid recovery.
In summary, the following areas are where I centre my plans when it comes to sports performance and nutrition:
- Energy and power/stamina
- Build and maintain strength
- Immunity and injury prevention
- Lifestyle and psychology
The first thing to identify is what kind of training you are doing. If you are an endurance athlete; running, cycling, swimming (all three!), boxing or dancing, then you will have different energy requirements to that of a sprinter, jumper or a power lifter. From there, we can start to focus on what type of fuel your cells are going to need in order to perform your best.
Macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat) are traditionally used as the focus for exercise fuel. As a nutritional therapist, I ensure that these nutrients are balanced for each client I work with; it’s important to remember that everybody is different, with differing genetics, metabolic rates and therefore energy requirements. If you are training for an event, such as a marathon, I would highly recommend booking a couple of sessions with a health professional to check that you are fuelling for YOU and your unique requirements.
Whilst macronutrient requirements vary from athlete to athlete, I’ve listed a basic overview below as a gentle introduction:
- Carbohydrates – The primary source of energy. Glucose, the body’s first stop for fuel, is obtained from carbohydrates to feed not only the body’s muscle and red blood cells but also the brain. Carbohydrates can be quick releasing (i.e fruit or simple sugars such as white bread/pasta/rice) or slower releasing (i.e whole grains or starchy vegetables such as sweet potato) and should be tailored to the type, intensity and duration of exercise. For example, a long distance runner will generally fuel on slower releasing carbohydrates 2-4 hours prior to a long run, and top up with quick releasing energy immediately before, during and immediately after a session. It’s important to ensure that your blood glucose levels remain balanced both on and off the track to prevent any risk of hyper/hypoglycaemia and Type II Diabetes (yes, athletes can suffer from this too).
- Fats – Do not fear the power of fats! Fats can also provide long lasting energy, particularly in endurance events. When carbohydrate (glycogen) stores are depleted, the body switches to using fats (and later protein) for energy. In recent years, a large number of endurance athletes have switched to a more ketogenic diet (low carb, high fat) with great success, however I caveat this with the fact that it is not suitable for everyone. Genetic testing (more details below) is one way to find out which type of fuel will work best for your body.
- Protein – Build, replace and repair. Protein requirements vary greatly depending on the type, intensity and duration of exercise undertaken. A very general guide for athletes is anywhere between 1.2g and 3.0g of protein per kilo of body weight. Strength and power athletes will experience the highest level of tissue breakdown from training, therefore their protein requirements will be higher than that of an endurance athlete, where muscle cell breakdown is generally less. Protein intake should generally be divided consistently throughout the day, with a mixture of animal and plant sources, to maximise muscle protein synthesis.
When we delve deeper, beyond the macronutrients, we start to focus on micronutrients; specific properties of foods which can enhance certain functions within the body and potentially boost performance. This is where eating a rainbow comes into play and the exciting direction in which sports nutrition is heading! Here are just a few of the key nutrients which are important for athletes:
- Antioxidants – Exercise naturally produces free radicals, which in small quantities play an essential role in energy production, however in high amounts can become damaging to cell membranes. Antioxidants play a key part in ‘mopping up’ these free radicals and regenerating damaged tissues. The best sources of antioxidants are typically from plant based foods (except preformed Vitamin A which is generally derived from meat products); berries, green leafy vegetables and anything brightly coloured (carrots, peppers, the list goes on!) will keep you on the right track.
- B Vitamins – This group of eight, water soluble vitamins are incredibly important for a range of functions including red blood cell formation (B6, B9, B12), converting nutrients into energy (B1, B2, B5, B6, B9) and neurological function (B6, B12) to name a few. Vitamin B12 (aka Cobalamin) is particularly influential in sports performance due to its role in energy production, nervous system regulation and red blood cell formation. Most B vitamins can be obtained from plant sources such as nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables and legumes, however B12 is mostly obtained from meat, fish and eggs. It is therefore recommended that vegetarians and vegans supplement with B12 to reduce the risk of deficiency, symptoms of which include fatigue, weakness, constipation and struggles with memory/concentration.
- Omega 3s – Essential fatty acids are an anti-inflammation powerhouse and Omega 3 plays an important role in delivering oxygen and nutrients to cells as well as assisting in recovery. Intense exercise naturally increases oxidative stress and inflammation within the body (think fight or flight mode) therefore Omega 3s are important for keeping cells both fuelled and functioning optimally. Oily fish, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds and flaxseeds are all excellent sources.
- Zinc – Not only is zinc a powerful antioxidant, it is also a key player in immune system health. Strenuous exercise typically results in a short-term reduction in immune system function, therefore ensuring that an athlete’s zinc levels are optimal is highly important in achieving a training and performance programme with minimal setbacks. Food sources of zinc include meat, fish, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
- Iron – An essential mineral for the transportation of oxygen to the body’s cells, iron is not only a transporter but it also plays a key role in red blood cell production. The body is unable to make iron itself so it is essential that we obtain it from the diet; a lack of iron can reduce the amount of oxygen available to cells, which will inevitably impact performance. Iron can be found in two forms; haem iron (red meat, poultry and fish) and non-haem iron (vegetables, legumes and nuts). Absorption of non-haem iron can be enhanced by combining it with foods rich in Vitamin C (think fresh fruits and vegetables). Iron is particularly important for female athletes who may experience greater losses due to menstruation.
- Magnesium – Required for the relaxation of muscle and nerve fibres, magnesium is a powerful vasodilator and a key cofactor in energy production reactions. Magnesium is lost in sweat, therefore insufficiency in athletes can be common; symptoms of magnesium insufficiency include muscle cramps, anxiety, fatigue and weakness. It is also important that magnesium and calcium levels (mentioned below) remain balanced as they have a Ying-Yang effect on each other. Good sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and even good quality dark chocolate!
- Calcium – The body’s contraction mineral, calcium is required for nerve transmission and muscle contraction. Calcium also plays a significant role in bone and dental health (a lack of calcium increases the risk of osteoporosis and fractures). Symptoms of calcium insufficiency include muscle cramps, numbness, fractures and weak/brittle nails. Rich sources of calcium include oily fish, soy products such as tofu and soy milk, green leafy vegetables, dairy products and nuts and seeds.
- Electrolytes – Potassium, sodium, magnesium and calcium are all important examples of electrolytes; their main function is to stimulate nerves and muscle contraction. Sweating during exercise causes a loss of these electrolytes, therefore is is important that athletes maintain and replace these minerals both during (for endurance athletes) and immediately after training. Foods rich in electrolytes include beetroot, spinach, bananas and sweet potatoes, however many athletes choose to consume pre-made sports drinks during exercise which are more easily digested and absorbed than food.
- Caffeine – YES! Research has shown that caffeine may enhance performance during both high volume and high intensity exercise. Disclaimer alert: this is highly individual and dose dependent. If you are genetically susceptible to caffeine and find yourself jittery after one cup of coffee, this probably isn’t for you. It is also important to note that caffeine is dehydrating to the body, therefore it MUST be piggybacked with enough water to actually prove beneficial. Proceed with caution and trial it enough times before race day to prevent any upset tummies – you all know what I mean!
A Note on Supplements
Protein powders, creatine, turmeric extract, multivitamins, BCAAs – the list goes on. It goes without saying that there are some powerful supplements out there to help support your body during a period of intense training and competition, however each individual will require something different based on their genetics, type of training and of course diet. In light of this, I wont be recommending any supplements on here, however if you would like advice on where to start, please contact me directly for a chat.
Lifestyle, Recovery and the Power of the Mind
Of course, there is so much more to sports performance than food alone. Sleep, rest, hydration, massage, and mobility/flexibility are all paramount to a successful training programme. The power of the mind in sport is arguably as important as the physical demands which athletes face; I would highly recommend speaking to a sports psychologist for more support if you are serious about taking your sporting prowess to the next level. The importance of mental health in sport is thankfully becoming more of a topic of discussion thanks to some brave athletes who are willing to spread the word.
As mentioned above, if you are interested in delving deeper into how your genes may play a part in your performance, here are some links to testing websites:
- DNA Fit – https://www.dnafit.com/
- 23andMe – https://www.23andme.com/en-gb/
- Sports Medicine Genomics – https://www.smgenomics.com/en/
If you made it to the end of this marathon (pun absolutely intended!) post, I hope you have found it an interesting and beneficial read! If you are interested in learning more about how nutrition and lifestyle changes can help you achieve your goals this year, I would absolutely love to hear from you.
As always, please like and share this post with friends, family and anyone who you think may enjoy this! Have a wonderful week and thank you for all of your support to date – I am LOVING this double life!