Nutrition & The Athlete
Exercise and sports are usually classified as two different things, however, they require the same thing from every body: performance. Even for the most gentle of athletes, or for the rest of us “weekend warriors”, understanding how food affects and fuels our bodies in relation to exercise and sports is an absolute must. Your body relies on you for the quality of fuel it gets so whether you’re running a marathon or planting a vegetable garden over the weekend, the way you eat affects how your body performs.
In order for your body to function at peak performance levels, you need to understand how your body makes use of the chemical components of the foods you choose. For instance, once you know that magnesium is a catalyst in enzyme activity, especially enzymes involved in energy production, you can choose to eat foods like apples, bananas and green leafy vegetables before you work out, whether that’s in the gym or the back yard.
Knowing how to eat the right foods in the right balance is almost as important as making top-notch nutritional choices. Sports and exercise places demands on your body. By ensuring the proportions of food on your plate are balanced, your body will give you what you need when you need it. Keeping meals light before an athletic endeavor means your body has finished digesting your meal and can get on with the task at hand; namely, energy production and delivery. Heavier, more protein and carb-laden meals, mean longer digestion times.
Read on to find out more about how the different types of foods affect your athletic performance and about the ten essential nutrients necessary for the amateur athlete (or seasoned gardener!).
Eating unbalanced proportions of protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fluids can have a negative effect on your athletic endeavors. This imbalance can hinder performance, decrease the ability to build muscle, and diminish overall endurance.
As an athlete, a carbohydrate-based sports diet is needed to fuel your muscles because carbs are stored in muscles as glycogen, which is converted to energy when you need it.
As one who exercises for personal reasons, and that can be in the garden, walking the dog, or swimming at your local gym, you can balance out the excess protein with proper carbs, such as whole grains, which will leave you feeling satiated longer, assisting with weight loss. Restrict your proteins to lean proteins such as fish, skinless chicken, or lean beef.
Some studies have said that a good rule of thumb is the 30/30/30 rule; 30% carbs, 30% protein, 30% healthy fat on your plate. The best advice is to consult with a nutrition specialist because everyone’s needs are different (based on your age, weight, height, sex, etc.) and a professional can tailor a plan based on your body’s specific requirements.
Luckily, calories are an athlete’s best friend so long as the athlete knows the best sources to get their calories from. Processed foods and refined sugar offer very poor sources of calories. Fresh fruits and whole grains will provide a better quality of calorie.
Calories contain the energy your body needs to make performance possible. Making sure your diet contains enough calories is essential. Eating either too many calories in a day or two few can make an athlete feel sluggish. The number of calories you consume is dependent on a number of things including your age, height, sex, weight, if you have a weight loss goal, and the number of calories you burn off in a workout, either at the gym or doing yard work.
On training days, your energy consumption will be higher, and more calories should be consumed. Continuing to eat as many calories on lesser activity days could just encourage unnecessary weight gain. Therefore, it is not accurate to assign an all-encompassing caloric-intake plan as each athlete’s needs will change.
Eat Your Breakfast
How many times do we have to hear this, but it is so important to fuel your body with the right type of nutrients after a long seven to eight hour fast. After all, you wouldn’t expect your car to move like the wind with no gas in the tank. Small amounts of protein (an egg), carbs (whole wheat toast), fats (butter on your toast), and vitamins, fluids and fibre (a fresh orange) are all necessary to kick start your body’s engine first thing in the morning. If you have to drink coffee, why not try one of the newer coffees with reishi in them.
The Right Stuff
As important as getting enough, athletes need to consume the right kind of calories. If you are eating the wrong food, you will never get enough of the right calories and you will always be hungry.
Make sure the majority of your calories are coming from natural sources such as the sugar in fruits and vegetables. Nutritious foods can be higher in calories, but they’re the right kind of calories. Good choices for between-meal grazing can include milk, organic/all natural peanut butter and whole grain products.
Calories from fats are necessary too, but too many, especially of the wrong kind, can lead to unwanted results and actually defeat your purpose. Keep the calories that come purely from fat to a minimum.
Again, if you are less physically active on certain days, eat fewer calories to avoid unwanted weight gain.
The main source of an athlete’s fuel during intense exercise comes from carbohydrates. Preventing you from fading fast through the production of glycogen, this is where your endurance and stamina comes from. On training days, half to three quarters of your caloric intake should be from carbs. But just because carbs can be a great source of fuel does not mean you should overload on them. Getting too many carbs and not enough fat can cause a decrease in your “good” (HDL) cholesterol.
Some of the best sources of carbs are from potatoes, fruits, corn, and whole grains. These foods also contribute fibre, vitamins, and minerals, which must appear in your diet to aid in the metabolization of carbs. Carbs from the wrong sources, namely processed and sugary foods can lead to sluggishness and a decrease in performance.
Consumption of proteins in endurance athletes tends to be on the low side. Protein is necessary to build and repair muscles and for the normal synthesis of cells, tissues, and structures in the body. Your body relies on proteins during times of stress and for quick bursts of energy.
It is safe to say that eating more protein than not enough is the better way to go. But remember, everything in moderation! If you eat too much protein and are not using it during your workouts, your body will store it as fat.
Your source of protein can make a difference. Some of the best sources of protein are from lean meats, fish, chicken, turkey, and dairy products. The body absorbs proteins from these sources more quickly.
Fats Get A Bad Rap
In order to live, we need fat. (I tell myself this late on a Saturday evening when the leftover donuts and pizza are calling me!) Fats are as essential as a source of fuel as carbs are, especially if you are an endurance athlete (60 to 85 minutes of high-intensity activity).
Experts tell us that approximately thirty percent of your calories should come from fat. The best sources of fats come from oils, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish such as salmon. Animal products and coconut fat should be monitored. Flax seeds and flax seed oil is also a great source (keep the oil in the fridge as it goes rancid very quickly). Incorporate some of these seeds into muffins and breads.
Most people don’t think of it as a nutritional requirement, but water is as essential to bodily functions as is air. Water re-hydrates your body as you ask more and more of it during exercise. Make sure there’s always a water bottle handy, but if you play team sports, try to always have one of your own. This cuts down on sharing germs with others around you.
|Eating a wide variety of foods can go a long way towards keeping your body healthy and your energy available when you need it. Be mindful of your activity levels and eat accordingly. If you are unsure about how to tailor your diet around your athletic endeavors, consult a professional and have a plan drawn up for your specific needs.|
THE TEN ESSENTIAL NUTRIENTS FOR ATHLETES
So far, we’ve looked at calories, carbs, protein, fats and fluids. Now we’ll take a closer look at which vitamins and minerals are helpful to the athlete.
Vitamins are essential to your body’s day-to-day processes. We see them in two types: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Vitamins such as A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble and are absorbed and used along with the fats you eat. Vitamins such as B-complex and C are water-soluble and the excesses your body doesn’t need are flushed out of your system in your urine. This is why when you take in more vitamin B than your body needs, your urine can turn yellowish.
In general, your B vitamins help release energy and are involved in the metabolism of proteins, carbs and fats. Specifically, each B vitamin also does the following:
- Vitamin B1 (thiamine hydrochloride) enhances circulation and helps with muscle tone.
- Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) helps build body tissue.
- Vitamin B9 (folic acid) aids in red blood cell production.
- Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) aids in the functioning of the nervous system and helps with the utilization of iron.
Vitamin C helps with the absorption of iron, is needed for the metabolism of folic acid, protects against abnormal bruising, and is good for reducing muscle soreness after a workout.
Vitamin E works synergistically with vitamin C for an effect greater than the sum of their individual effects.
Monitoring vitamin intake is important because your body cannot make the vitamins it needs; they must come from an outside source. Vitamin tablets are a great supplement but should be considered in partnership with a balanced diet.
MINERALS are workhorses and are a bit like actors; each has a role to play. Often, a combination is needed for either individual mineral to be effective, as is the case with calcium and magnesium. The right proportions of one to the other enable both to do their respective jobs.
Iron is essential in the oxygenation of red blood cells and is required for energy production.
Magnesium is important in metabolism of carbs and other minerals. It can help improve strength by increasing protein synthesis.
Calcium help build strong bones to support the rest of our body. It also assists in strengthening muscle tissue. Calcium regulates heartbeat, muscle action and nervous function.
Boron is necessary to muscle growth as it assists in the production of natural steroid compounds within the body. It is needed to help metabolize calcium and magnesium.
Carol Roy is a Natural Health Practitioner who received her diploma from the Alternative Medicine College of Canada in Montreal, Quebec. With 12 years experience in her area of expertise, natural health and wellness, Carol has also trained to become a fully qualified Reiki Master, Quantum Touch Practitioner, and Reflexologist.
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