If you’re just beginning or even if you’re an experienced pro, it’s pretty easy to get lost in the world of sports nutrition. These days, all professionals and top amateurs follow strict diet plans that aim to improve their performance both in training and on the big day. Getting it wrong may lead to under-performance and disappointment. Getting it right can give you the edge you need to succeed.
What is sports nutrition?
So, what does the body need to thrive and perform at its best under stress? Here we take you through the basics in a simple sports nutrition for beginners guide and provide examples of what an athlete’s diet should be for sports and exercise.
MACRONUTRIENTS - The Big players for big performance
I doubt there’s a sports person alive, or any person actually, who hasn’t heard these words before: protein, carbohydrates and fat. These are often referred to as macronutrients and are hugely significant to an athlete’s diet and performance. However, there may be quite a few who don’t actually understand the science behind their importance and how they affect your sports performance. Here we run through them individually.
What is Protein?
When you hear protein, think muscles. Protein is an essential part of every athlete’s diet as it is the muscle creator and repairer. And strong muscle tissue is vital for an athlete for obvious reasons. Not only does protein grow and repair muscles, it also protects them. Taking protein-rich foods before and after a race or competitive event will ensure that your muscles have everything they need to remain strong under stress and recover quickly when resting.
Protein is composed of amino acids. There are two types of amino acids: essential and non-essential. Non-essential amino acids are created naturally by the body and therefore you don’t need to eat anything. However, essential amino acids are only collected from your diet. Together they create protein and thus muscle.
Having a protein-poor diet is going to affect your performance and your recovery in an unwanted fashion.
Protein-rich sources are meat, fish, eggs, milk, and cheese. For vegetarians and vegans there are plenty of plant-based sources such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, grains, and soy.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates or ‘carbs’ are your primary energy source. In other words, carbohydrates are petrol. Much like a car, your body runs on carbs and without them you won’t be getting out the driveway. If you’re planning on doing any sporting event well, you need a full tank.
Carbohydrates are digested and broken down into glucose. Glucose is basically a simple sugar which provides all your energy needs. It is essential also for brain functions which is why when you have low glucose levels you may get ‘hangry’.
But be warned, some sources of carbohydrates are difficult to break down. If consumed at the wrong time they can actually create problems rather than benefits to your performance.
There are simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbs can be broken down and transformed into glucose quickly - ideal for ‘on-the-go’ energy boosts. Complex carbs need longer and shouldn’t be taken during exercise or an event, but rather a good amount of time prior. Taken at the incorrect time may, and probably will, lead to GI (Gastrointestinal) tract issues which are not very comfortable and will limit your performance. The last thing you want during a match or an endurance race is to feel bloated and tired as your body tries to digest as well as perform.
What are some simple carbohydrates?
Bananas, or fruit in general. Fruits are made up of only 1 or 2 sugar molecules and so your body can absorb and transform them into energy quickly. Other sources are honey, yoghurt and white rice or rice-cakes - which aren’t quite as handy as a piece of fruit when you’re mid-race! (Although watching someone trying to eat a yoghurt while negotiating a tricky downhill on their bike would be entertaining).
What are some complex carbohydrates?
Pasta, bread, potatoes. These sources contain long strands of sugar molecules, as opposed to the 1 or 2 found in fruits. They probably also contain fibre - a key player to gut health, regulating blood-sugar and cholesterol levels, as well as regulating toilet breaks.
As a result, complex carbs require a longer period of time to digest and be converted into glucose and/or other vital uses. These should be eaten the day before or a few hours before your event so that they have plenty of time to be digested.
They are equally important as simple carbs and must be included in your diet if you want to get maximum performance. Having a good dietary plan is just as necessary as training when preparing for an event. The body needs both simple and complex carbs.
What is Fat?
Surely fat should be avoided, right? Well, not entirely. We need fat in our body as it is basically our ‘store’ of energy and it is used to drive the body when exercising for longer or more intense periods. If carbs are the body's primary petrol, fats are the reserve fuel tank.
Indeed, according to a study by Colorado State University, up to 75% of energy for endurance events is provided for by fats.
Fats are also essential for joint structure and strength, muscle growth, hormone production, and the absorption of vital vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K.
So it shouldn’t be avoided, but controlled, as too much fat intake has obvious detrimental effects, and too little can limit your performance.
So what fats are good and which ones bad and how much do I need?
Let’s start with the bad.
Firstly, Trans fats are a big no-no for anyone looking to reach peak performance. They can be found in commercially baked and frozen goods or manufactured products with a long shelf-life. Think takeaway pizza, ready-made microwave meals, mass-produced cakes, popcorn and just about anything from the frozen section. There are basically no positives to them nutritionally, and a multitude of negatives.
Secondly, Saturated fats which are found in foods such as bacon, cakes, cured meats, butter, palm and coconut oil are to be limited. This is because saturated fats increase the levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) in the blood which leads to the clogging of arteries. For everyone, but especially athletes, clear and free-flowing blood vessels and arteries are essential to good performance as the blood feeds the various parts of the body with the oxygen it needs to function efficiently. However, saturated fats can help in building muscle tissue if consumed in moderation.
On the other hand, Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good for you and increase levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind) into the body and decrease the LDL cholesterol. This will protect the arteries and blood vessels.
Olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds and fish are all good sources of healthy fats. Omega 3 and Omega 6 (which are found in the above) are also known as essential fats as the body can only get them from your diet. They are essential for efficient brain functions and growth generally.
So, how much?
According to sports nutritionists, you should try and keep your intake of healthy fats at about 10% of your bodyweight in grams. So, if you’re 80kg, you’d try to include about 8 grams of fats daily, and so on.
How do I do that? Read the label. It might seem like an extra chore, but you’ll soon get into a habit and once you’ve made a few dishes it will become second-nature to feed your body what it needs, and not more. You can also go to a sports nutritionist and get their expert opinion on what is right for you and what your objectives are.
So those are the MACRONUTRIENTS, the 3 key elements that all sportspeople need in their diets. Taken in balance they will optimise your performance and recovery. What we need to look at now are examples of dietary strategies for endurance events.
Let’s assume you’ve done the training and have been following a healthy diet. Now the event is here. What should you eat before, during and after a sporting event to boost your performance and increase recovery time?
ENDURANCE EVENTS - marathons, Iron Man, trekking, cycling, day-long events
Day before - COMPLEX CARBS & PROTEIN
At lunch time you want to load up on pasta, veg and some protein, be it meat or a protein-rich food such as quinoa or brown rice. Then at dinner some fish or avocado and nuts. These will be digested slowly and the glucose created will be stored and ready for the following day.
Just before - SIMPLE CARBS/CAFFEINE BOOST/ HYDRATION
Eat a banana, or some other fruits. An alternative can be to take caffeine boost gels which will work much the same way. You also want to give your body some electrolytes - they keep the body in balance and maintain your hydration, thus optimising your performance.
During - CAFFEINE BOOST/GELS/HYDRATION
When you’re on the move you need to add to your depleted glucose levels. A simple and effective way for those short on time is to squeeze down a sports gel. This will quickly add glucose to your system and give you energy. Furthermore, you need to keep sipping away at electrolytes to keep you hydrated and moving efficiently.
If there is a scheduled break in the day’s event, use the time to take on some simple carbs such as a peanut butter sandwich (if portable) and a banana. Again, gels can be the answer as they will stop you feeling full or bloated but provide your body with what it needs to keep going strong - they are also space-saving and less bulky than a packed lunch!
After - CARBS/PROTEIN/HYDRATION
Well done, you made it. It’s tempting to celebrate with a little tipple perhaps, but wait. First make sure your body has got what it needs to repair any damage and recover right. If you’re going again the next day, avoid alcohol altogether.
You should get a good portion of pasta, veggies and some protein to replenish your stocks. Make sure to take on plenty of water too. Then get some well-deserved rest.
There’s no hiding the importance of the right type of nutrition to your overall performance and recovery. If you supply your body with what it needs, at the right time, you’ll feel the benefits both during and after the event.