Nutrition is important for those performing in sports, or carrying out outdoor exercise, for at least five reasons:
- You need to maintain an optimal steady weight to perform at your best.
- You need to maintain your health so that you can continue to practice your sport or exercise routine.
- You will want to fuel your sporting endeavours as you train and compete to avoid running out of energy.
- You will want to adapt to your training quickly so that you improve your standard.
- You will want to avoid dehydration.
Reaching and maintaining an optimal weight.
This vital if you want to perform to your best ability. It is not simply a matter of counting calories. In fact I actively encourage my clients to avoid counting calories as it is normally a waste of time. It is far more effective to change your diet to include the types of foods that don't lead to weight gain such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans. These types of food effect the appetite and metabolism in such as way as to minimise weight gain. In contrast carbohydrates that release sugar into the bloodstream quickly when eaten at times when their energy is not needed will have the opposite effect.
The main hormone associated with weight gain is insulin. This is the hormone that stores fuel up for leaner times. A useful attribute for a caveman who didn't know when or where his next meal was coming from. It stores fat as triglycerides in fat cells, carbohydrates as glycogen in the liver and uses protein in the diet to build proteins for use in the human body.
Eating foods with a low glycaemic index, which don't raise levels of insulin in the blood are unlikely to lead to weight gain. Such foods include meat, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts and vegetables. However foods which lead to surges of insulin such as sweets, cakes and biscuits as well as too much pasta, bread and rice will almost inevitably pile on the pounds unless you exercise regularly enough to burn off the excess energy.
This is key to successful sporting performance. It means that you can be clear of any illness or injury when you compete, but also in full health to allow you to string together consistent periods of training over long periods of time. To do this you need a strong immune system. This is best achieved by ensuring that you make a full recovery from training and competition, by keeping the mind relatively unstressed and by consuming the right kinds of nutrients in your diet. The most effective nutrients to include in your diet to boost your immune system are the antioxidant vitamins, certain minerals, polyunsaturated oils and probiotic and prebiotic foods
If you are deficient in any of the vitamins, or the minerals selenium and zinc, your immune system will suffer. A diet high in fruits (berries are particularly effective) and vegetables, is fundamental to good health. Including the right polyunsaturated oils along with monounsaturated oils also strengthens the immune system. Omega 3 oils found in oily fish and some seeds, especially linseeds, are effective as are the monounsaturated oils found in virgin olive oils which lie at the heart of the healthy mediterranean diet.
Probiotic foods such as bio-active yoghurts contain live bacteria that inhabit the intestines and help prevent bad bacteria taking hold there. Prebiotic foods such as leeks, jerusalem artichokes and asparagus feed the good bacteria that come from the probiotic products helping them to flourish. By consuming a diet containing both you will reduce your chances of suffering illness.
Providing energy for your sport.
This can be done using proprietary products such as gels, bars and mixed powder drinks from sports nutrition companies such as High5, Powerbar, Maxim, Maximuscle, Taut, SIS, Infinit, Torq and many others or by producing your own home made versions. Either way what you require are three things. a) a source of fuel in the form of sugars that can be easily absorbed and utilised to enable your muscles to function; b) a source of water in order to maintain your hydration levels in an optimum range and c) a source of salts to ensure that your body's water balance is maintained and that the levels of salts in the body stay within operating ranges.
Many of the commercial drink powders are based on maltodextrin which breaks down into pure glucose. However some add other ingredients such as fructose, proteins and micronutrients. For more on this select the "Extra ingredients in sports drinks" at the bottom of this page.
Salt levels in sports products can vary wildly as can your needs. For instance the SIS product PSP22 contains no salt while the Powerbar drink pictured above contains about 1% salt. If it is hot and you sweat a lot then it will be important to replace salts and especially sodium and this can be done by a) using a salty commercial drink; b) using an unsalted commercial drink with added salt tablets or c) making your own and adding between 0.2-1.2% salt to the solution.
Adapting to training and recovering from training and competition.
This is best achieved by ensuring that you rehydrate and refuel yourself within 10-60 minutes after completion of training or competition. This is the time when the body is most likely to store nutrients in the best places for optimal recovery. For example. it will store any carbohydrates that you eat mostly as muscle glycogen ensuring that your fuel reserves are maxmised for your next session. Later on there is a tendency for the excess sugars from the carbohydrate intake to be stored as fat.
Although there are many commercial products aimed at post exercise recovery it is probably best to use them when no other palatable forms of nutrition are available. This is because they are not natural foods and often contain unneccessary additives. It is best to eat natural whole foods if you can at these times. Either way the key point is to include sources of protein and carbohydrate in your post exercise meal. The protein will be needed to help in the recovery of damaged muscle fibres, red blood cells and elements of the immune system. As discussed earlier the carbohydrate will top up your muscle glycogen stores.
If training or competition has been particularly arduous then it is of increasing importance to top up levels of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Some people choose to do this with supplements, but for most people it should be sufficient to consume plenty of fruit and vegetables with a post race meal and to continue eating foods high in micronutrients for the next 24 hours.
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