I think that it’s fair to say that as active individuals, most of us have a basic understanding of sport, nutrition and the link between the two. However, we are only taught the very basics about nutrition in school, and therefore, often believe what we read without much convincing. This can lead to confusion and misconceptions about our food. Furthermore, it seems that despite this, anyone and everyone is happy to offer nutrition advice at the moment. From the meathead in the locker room with the cut off tee, to the Instagram celebrities promising magic weight loss formulas. This ‘information’ usually packs major claims, is rarely in depth, and is even less likely to be evidence-based. Sometimes it can be hard to know WHO to trust, right!? When was the last time someone advised you on the quality of your food? Or about micro nutrients? BOTH of these factors can have a significant impact on your progress in the weight room, on the track, and on the field.
Carbohydrate is the body’s primary fuel and is, therefore, is recommended before and after exercise as part of the fuelling and replenishment cycle. However, a high carbohydrate diet is not only associated with energy. High carbohydrate intake, especially during periods of intensified training, can mitigate energy deficit, fatigue, and associated injuries, maintain immune function and prevent ‘overtraining’ (throwing away all your hard work in the gym by not eating and resting sufficiently). Timing your carbohydrate correctly to meet your energy demands, and choosing the correct carbohydrate sources can be hugely beneficial to adaptations.
Protein (everybody’s favorite macro nutrient) is also hugely important for both health and performance. Optimal dietary protein intake (1.6 - 2.0g/kg/bw for resistance training) facilitates muscle repair, muscle remodeling, and immune function. High-quality protein sources that are rich in essential amino acids, most importantly leucine, are able to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis, meaning that the muscle can repair and remodel itself at a much faster rate. A dose of between 20-25g of high-quality protein has been shown to be sufficient post-exercise, with evidence to support an intake of up to 40g (any more than 40g in one go is unlikely to provide any further adaptation). The ACSM recommends a dose of this kind every 3-5 hours throughout the day, this keeps the intramuscular pool of amino acids full and prevents catabolism.
Unfortunately, fat gets a lot of bad press, and therefore many people are unaware of the benefits of fat. However, fats are an ESSENTIAL part of our diet. Fat is the body’s secondary energy source and is used primarily when performing low-intensity exercise e.g. walking, slow jog. Furthermore, vitamins A, D, E and K (these vitamins aid cell division, gene expression, bone health, cardiovascular health, and muscle function) are all fat-soluble, which means that they rely on fat to be transported around the body. So inadequate fat intake means potential vitamin deficiencies! Great sources of fat include oily fish, nuts and avocados.
When you hear micro nutrients what do you think of? Illness? Supplements? Old people? Well... Vitamins and minerals play a pivotal role in health and performance. There is a reason why your parents always told you to eat your greens and to stick your 5-a-day. But alongside benefits to hair, skin, health, and well-being, research into performance benefits is becoming more and more common.
N-3 PUFA or Omega 3 can be found primarily in cold water fatty fish e.g. tuna and salmon, as well as in fish and krill oils. Research suggests that 3g/day of n-3 PUFA can reduce inflammation, support immune function, support muscle repair and remodeling when protein intake is insufficient. Therefore, incorporating oily fish and/or fish oil supplements into your routine may yield some positive benefits for recovery and adaptations.
Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium and therefore supports bone health and growth, it also aids immunity and cardiovascular function. But the ‘sunshine vitamin’ is becoming popular in sports science for another reason, it has received attention for its role in muscle recovery and repair. Vitamin D can be absorbed via sunlight, but is also present in fatty fish, egg yolks and fortified foods.
Like the previously mentioned micro nutrients, Vitamins A, C, and E (also known as the antioxidants) have been proven to be beneficial in supporting performance. They can be found in whole fruits and vegetables as well as in 100% juices. The way that antioxidants work is that they fight inflammation and oxidative cell stress, protecting the cells in the body from free radicals and leading to accelerated recovery in sport. Given the fact that intense exercise exhibits significant stress on the body, the use of antioxidants in sports seems very logical. Recent research into antioxidants has used tart cherry juice as a mode for reducing muscle soreness post-exercise.
When looking at sports performance of any kind, it is absolutely imperative that overall energy intake and macro nutrient content are adequate e.g. you are eating enough calories from the right sources to match your energy expenditure. Without meeting these requirements, the performance benefits of micro nutrients are almost obsolete. Therefore, it is recommended that a healthy balanced diet is employed before any supplement or dietary intervention is employed. Calories should come from nutrient rich foods, where carbohydrate and protein is highly bioavailable. Meals should be packed full of color, and made from the freshest produce. These simple rules will allow you to get the most out of your food, and will help to support your health, performance and adaptation!