From the Desk of The Nutty Nutritionist

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Simple ways to improve athletic performance

In sports nutrition on April 23, 2010 at 11:22 AM

Sports nutrition is a true passion of mine—one that I live and breathe every day…or maybe I should say live and “eat” every day?  Ha!  My knowledge and skill in this area has grown over the past decade since I started running speed races (5Ks and 10Ks) and building up my endurance to run half (20Ks)and full marathons (40Ks).   For a variety of different reasons, I have pretty much hung up my racing shoes these days, but I still enjoy coaching other runners in the ways of training, nutrition, and hydration.  Since many of my friends are currently out pounding the pavement, training for a variety of different races, it seems very appropriate to address this topic at this point in time. 

Here are some general rules to live by for optimal athletic performance:

1.  Don’t skip breakfast!  Skipping this very important meal deprives you of energy and nutrients.  If you run or workout first thing in the am, have a sizeable “recovery” breakfast afterwards, containing both protein AND carbs, such as a homemade smoothie made with yogurt or milk, a scoop of protein powder, and fruit; or 2 eggs, toast, and fruit.

2.  Carbs are GOOD for runners!  (This also applies to other endurance athletes such as cyclists and swimmers)  I find most athletes are very focused on their protein intake.  High-protein diets do not provide enough carbohydrate to fuel your muscles and let you exercise hard enough to build to your potential in terms of speed and/or distance.  Carbs (starches and sugars) are stored in the muscles as glycogen, which the muscles then readily convert back to glucose for instant energy upon exertion.  The more carbs you include in your diet, the less likely you will “hit a wall” during training or competition.  So, Melanie, here’s the answer to your question:  protein shakes WILL NOT improve your stamina during long runs.  Eating regularly spaced nutritious meals and staying well hydrated will help you instead.  I’ll address these points in a little bit…

3.  Eat protein for muscle maintenance and repair, not stamina!  The best sports diet contains adequate, but not excess, protein.  This includes both endurance and strength-building sports, but runners, cyclists and swimmers generally need less protein than power athletes (football, wrestling, weight lifting, gymnastics).   Animal products, such as meat, milk, cheese, yogurt, and eggs, provide the highest quality protein.  Soy is the most complete vegetarian source of protein.  I encourage you to try to get the majority of your protein from natural foods rather than processed powders, bars, and shakes.  In my opinion, it’s o.k. to add a scoop of whey protein powder to a smoothie now and then, but overusing formulated protein products can make you come up short nutritionally.  Wholesome, natural foods are always a better choice.

So how much protein should YOU get each day?  In general, our bodies are unable to use protein in excess of 0.9 grams per pound body weight, regardless of how much exercise we get.  Most adult athletes would need between 0.6-0.8 grams of protein per pound body weight for appropriate muscle maintenance, building, and repair.   So, for a 130# runner who also does strength training, that would translate into 78-104 grams protein per day.  A meat portion the size of a deck of cards has about 21 grams of protein; a scoop of protein powder 20 grams; and egg has 6-7 grams depending on size; cup of milk or yogurt has 8 grams, unless it is Greek style, which may have as much as 14 grams; 1/2 cup cottage cheese has 14 grams protein; 1/4 cup of almonds or two Tbsp. peanut butter has 7 grams.  This can add up quickly if you are eating regular meals and snacks throughout the day, and don’t exclude any of the protein-based food groups.  Vegan athletes (no meat, eggs, or dairy products) are the ones who need to pay the most attention to their protein and vitamin intake, as they are more likely to come up short when it comes to the increased physical demand of exercise.

4.  Eat the healthy fats! All athletes should be on a low-to-moderate fat diet, with approximately 25-30% of their total calories coming from fat sources.  Choosing small amounts of nutritious foods high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, such as avocado, nuts, sees, peanut butter, and olive oil will help to make your diet one of a champion 😉  Limit unhealthy high-fat foods such as desserts, processed meats, French fries, and most fast foods.  You want your blood to flow through your arteries smoothly, not get all stopped up with artery-clogging sludge—that is one sure way to stop an athlete in his or her tracks.

5.  Monitor your fluids!  You should drink as much water as you comfortably can before, during, and after exercise.  To help you determine if you are drinking enough fluids, check the color and quantity of your urine.  If it is dark and in small amounts, you need to drink more fluids.  If it is a pale yellow, your body is adequately hydrated.  Do not rely on your thirst to indicate you’ve had enough to drink.  (having to go potty every 3 hours is probably ideal)

The appropriate amount of fluid required during exercise depends on duration and intensity, as well as environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, and altitude.  In hot and humid weather, drink as much as you can, as often as you can.  Muscle cramps, headache, and heatstroke are often associated with dehydration.  Lack of calcium, potassium, and/or sodium may also result in muscle cramping.  To prevent this, make sure you are eating a well-balanced diet with a variety of different foods, to include bananas (potassium), yogurt (calcium),  and cottage cheese or salted nuts (sodium).

Water or Gatorade?  Water is the best fluid source for most recreational athletes who exercise for less than 60-90 minutes.  If you participate in events or training sessions lasting longer than this (hello,12-20 mile training runs!), you will have greater stamina if you drink 8-10 oz of a sports drink that contains a small amount of sugar every 20-30 minutes.  This sugar provides muscle fuel and the added sodium helps the body absorb the water faster.  I suggest “planting” small bottles of fluid along your training route if you don’t want to wear a Camelbak or hydration belt….

6.  Caffeine can make a difference!  Drinking a cup of coffee before your early morning workout, eating a coffee-flavored yogurt before an afternoon run, or taking caffeine-spiked sport gels and drinks along with you, can give you the extra boost you need to perform at your best.  (Red Bull anyone???) Research has shown that caffeine intake up to one hour prior to exercise has been shown to improve overall endurance.  Just one more reason for me to love my coffee!!! 

7.  Post-exercise recovery is essential!  Your top priority after you finish a hard workout should be to replace fluids you lost by sweating.  Weight yourself before and after exercise and drink 20-24 oz. of fluid for every pound of weight lost.  When your urine runs clear, you have adequately rehydrated.

Foods containing both carb and protein are important for muscle recovery and the repletion of glycogen stores for your next workout.  Foods such as milk & cereal, a turkey sandwich, or a little lean meat in spagetti sauce over pasta are great choices.  A 4:1 ratio of carb to protein within 2 hours after your workout will hasten the recovery process. 

I hope I have provided my fellow runner/athletic friends with some useful tips on how to have a successful training season.  If you have any additional questions, please comment below and I promise to address them.  Good luck and have fun!!!  There is no better feeling than crossing that finish line (with energy to spare) after months of hard work!!  I’ll be with you in spirit 😉

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