Sports Nutrition for Optimal Performance
You can’t out-train a poor diet.
Nutrition and exercise go hand-in-hand. If your nutrition is in check, you’ll be able to perform at your best. If not, your fitness will be limited.
Many athletes use training as an excuse to eat junk food, or to gorge themselves on ice cream, candy, and other junk after a big practice or race. Or they load up on Gatorade and bagels to “carb-load” for practice.
If you’re a gym-goer or an elite athlete, your nutrition is important to how you perform, recover, and progress in your exercise as choice.
If you need proof, try it out. Eat your favorite junk food, then go work-out a few hours later. Notice how you feel and perform. Next time, eat a balanced meal with nutrient-dense carbs, protein, and some fat, work-out, and compare how you feel and perform. I guarantee, 99% of the time, you will feel and perform better on a balanced meal.
You need nutrients to fuel your muscles.
If you want to boost your fitness, first clean up your overall diet. Eat balanced meals, stay hydrated with water, and get your digestion in check. Skip the processed foods, and eat nutrient-dense foods to fill your body with all the vitamins and minerals it needs to function well.
A lot of athletes follow a very high-carb diet and rely on bagels, Gatorade, and pasta to fuel their workouts and replenish their glycogen. Yes, carbs are important for active people, but your diet doesn’t need to be 70% carbs. A very high-carb diet leaves little room for protein and fat, which are just as important. Oftentimes, athletes rely on highly processed and refined carbs void of nutrients, such as energy bars and protein shakes. Sorry to burst your bubble, but bagels are just blood sugar spikers with zero nutrition. Refined carbs are not only void of nutrition, but they’re often filled with sugar.
Sugar is an athlete’s worst enemy. When you workout, you breakdown your body and then re-build it to be stronger. Sugar is very inflammatory, and it’s hard for your body to recover if sugar is causing a state of inflammation in your body. Drinking Gatorade is not the best idea for recovery.
Here’s a little secret: your body doesn’t want to run exclusively on carbs. Glycogen (stored carbohydrate) is important fuel, but you can only run on glycogen for a few hours before you “hit the wall.” You can run on your body’s fat stores for weeks. What do you think is the most sustainable fuel?
When you feed your body enough but not too many carbohydrates (40-50% based on your activity level) but boost your protein and fat intake, you’re helping your body run optimally. You’ll have carbs to replenish glycogen, protein to re-build your body, and fat for fuel and to keep inflammation down (when you choose good fats).
If you can start by eating 3 balanced meals per day and 1-2 snacks as needed (based on hunger that day), you’ll boost your performance. Once you clean up your diet, you can start thinking about optimizing your workout-specific nutrition.
Recovery is essential to re-building your body and getting it ready for the next workout. Refueling correctly will prevent feeling sore or sluggish when you hit the gym the next day. However, most workouts do not need a protein shake within 15 minutes of finishing.
An easy to moderate workout of about an hour or less probably doesn’t require special refueling. If that’s the case, stay hydrated with water afterwards, and consume a small carbohydrate-rich snack, such as a piece of fruit, if you’re in between meals. Or, eat a regular balanced meal within a few hours of the workout.
Intense or longer workouts will require recovery nutrition. If you’re doing heart-rate spiking intense workouts like intervals, metabolic conditioning, intense strength/weight training, or long endurance workouts, choose nutrient-dense carbohydrates and some protein.
Chocolate milk gets lots of attention for being the perfect recovery food. Yes, it has carbs and some protein, but the studies were made up of 9 or 13 athletes (very small) and funded by the dairy industry. In other words, not very good evidence for chocolate milk, but marketing sells and makes it seem great. In my opinion, low fat chocolate milk is not an optimal recovery food.
Choose nutrient-dense carbs with some protein. A few options to try include:
- Sweet potato with almond butter
- Banana, dates, other fresh or dried fruit
- Yogurt or kefir, preferably grass-fed, with berries
- Trail mix with dried fruit and raw nuts
- Coconut water – full of electrolytes!
After a workout, your muscles are primed for carbs. Your cells are insulin-sensitive, and they will gladly take in glucose (fuel) to replenish glycogen or use for energy. Fruits & starchy veggies are great dense sources of carbs, and you get a bonus dose of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Believe me, you don’t need Gatorade or bagels for workouts. Just ask my sister – she cut them out, and she’s a rowing machine.
Take the time to relax after your workout before eating. Working out uses your sympathetic system. Digestion requires your parasympathetic nervous system. Taking a few minutes to cool down, relax, and do some deep breathing gets you ready to “rest and digest.” When you eat when you’re all worked up, your digestion isn’t working properly. This is exactly what happens when you’re nervous before a race. It’s also called the “runner’s trots.” Not very pleasant. Avoid this by relaxing instead of chugging a shake down seconds after finishing a workout.
Prioritize nutrition for performance.
Your workouts change each day. Adjust your nutrition based on your activity level. On heavy or intense workout days, you’ll need a recovery meal. On lighter or recovery workout days, balanced meals and a few snacks as necessary will probably be enough. As always, listen to your body. If you’re hungry, give your body nutrient-filled food.
Plan ahead, so you don’t grab the refined or processed foods available. Carry a water bottle with you. Pack fresh or dried fruit as snacks. Meal plan, so you eat balanced meals full of vitamins and minerals during your day.
Set nutrition goals. Most athletes are very goal oriented and motivated to achieve their goals. I know I am. Set nutrition goals too. Set a goal to stay hydrated with water (not Vitamin Water) during the day, or eat high-quality protein with every meal. These goals are just as important than your performance goals. In fact, your performance in the gym depends on your nutrition goals.
If you truly want to improve your performance and PR in whatever exercise or sport you love, you have to optimize your nutrition!
What sports nutrition questions do you have? I’ll cover it in another post!
What’s your favorite post-workout recovery food?