The whole area of sports nutrition has become a highly evolved and scientific area of expertise. Professional athletes have access to sports nutritionist and their nutrition is seen as important as their physical and mental activities. Yet, whether you are a weekend cyclist or training on an on-going basis with a club, there are always a few general tips to remember when it comes to eating well for your performance. Below is my Top 5 (Please remember that this is general advise – the needs of a weight lifter are very different to a 100 metre sprinter so I’m making general points here):
1) Understand the basics of nutrition
Getting your head around the basics of nutrition sound like a lot of information, but generally it involves understanding the big players of nutrition. These are
Protein: Essential for muscle building and repair but also mental attitude and cognitive behaviour. Meats, dairy, fish, beans and lentils and nuts and seeds are the players here. Sports people need on average 1.4-1.6g of protein per kilo of body weight – work your own level out based on the amount of exercise you are doing and your own body weight.
Carbohydrates: Essential for energy and easily forgotten. Carbohydrates generally come from grains such as breads, pastas, rice and oats etc. The less processed the grain, i.e. wholegrain, the longer it takes for the energy to be released into the system. The more processed, white breads, muffins and sugary foods, give you a quick burst. Know which one you need at what stage.
Fats: Essential for energy and keeps your immune system in tact for your on-going training. The plant and fish based fats, such a salmon, avocado and nuts ands seeds are also great for keeping the body in top shape physically and mentally.
The Micro-Nutrients: Antioxidants, Vitamin and Minerals. These guys are so often underrated yet are so important for performance and a good immune system. As athletes concentrate of getting their protein and carbs in daily, they forget that to use these major nutrients most effectively in the body, you also need the all these ‘little’ guys.
2) Get the basics right before supplementation
I get so many sports people asking about supplementation: which protein powder to take and which specialised product to consume. And when I ask them to do a food diary, I realise that they are eating highly processed foods in a non-balanced way. One of the best thing you can do for performance is to clean up your diet by reducing the amounts of take out and processed foods and eating a range of fresh whole foods everyday.
Balance is the most important element of any diet, so making sure you are having a range of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and micro nutrients with EVERY meal and snack!
3) Pre exercise eating
If you are exercising after work or first thing in the morning, training with nothing in your system is not always a good idea. The general rule is that you want an empty stomach and a full intestine for training, meaning that the last meal/snack you had is about 2-3 hours beforehand.
For those who train after work, having a snack 2-3 hours before training is a great idea, preferably with a whole grain carbohydrate and some protein.
For those training first thing in the morning, assess how much you can eat without feeling nauseous. Even if it’s a banana, it’s a start.
4) Recovery from exercise
Post exercise eating can be difficult, depending on where events or training are located from your home. However, if you can bring along some post events snacks to do you till you get home then great. The most important thing the body needs after exercise is hydration (see below). After this, a blend of quick release sugars and protein is a great mix. For example, a homemade smoothie with banana, berries and yogurt will provide you with a nice mix of sugars and proteins.
5) Maintaining fluid levels
Good hydration is the cornerstone for good performance! On average, the recommended amount of fluids to intake daily is about 1.5 litres or 8 glasses of water.
However, sports people can need 50 mls of fluid by their body weight in kilos to stay hydrated. For example, a 60 kg player needs 3 litres of water. Adding a little cordial to your water can be a great way of replenishing fluids and sugars after a session.